Virtual training has risks

Learning curve, security concerns might hold some back from adopting it

Here’s one of the basic downsides to virtual training: Some users might need a crash course in the software before they get around to learning anything else.

That is what researchers at the University of Florida found when they developed Second China, a virtual 3-D environment that delivers the feeling of immersion. The environment lets users find information, take part in guided learning scenarios, communicate and collaborate, and participate in role-playing activities.

While testing Second China, researchers are finding that people often have trouble navigating through the virtual world, said Julie Henderson, one of the project leaders. Before organizations can use virtual training effectively, they need to first train people on getting around the online environment, she said. Good developers can make that easier by designing the virtual world in a way that newbies can make sense of it.

“For someone who's new to Second Life, just moving your avatar through an in-world setting can be challenging,” said Roy Haythorn, vice president of operations at Meridian. “It takes a period of training to learn how to train.”

Henderson said she’s seen people of all ages have trouble navigating Second Life. Mary Miller, a vice president for professional services at Achieve Global has run into resistance from older users.

“While we feel that learning styles across generation have not changed and that virtual media can be conducive to any generation, we’ve seen the ability and willingness to learn the technology to be more challenging for baby boomers and beyond,” Miler said.

Haythorn suggested that organizations using virtual training should provide new users with a tour guide to help them learn the mechanics of the system. For example, an agency's training organization could create an avatar who can greet trainees on the Second Life orientation island once they create an account.

“Picture it like the buddy system that scuba divers use,” he said.

Agencies should also be wary of the security risks virtual worlds pose, especially those that are publicly accessible, said Benjamin Duranske, an attorney at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman’s Virtual Worlds and Video Games Practice.

“These are social spaces designed to be both accessible and interactive; they attract users who often enjoy making mischief," said Duranske. "Spying is very common and can even be done through applications available at stores within virtual worlds themselves.”

In general, the more user-generated content a virtual world allows, the greater the potential for users to craft methods to capture information, he said. The ability to capture information is an important consideration even for virtual worlds closed to the public but still accessible to large numbers of agency or contractor employees, he said.

Haythorn said any sensitive training that's being conducted outside an organization’s firewall could potentially be breached. The best way to mitigate the risks is for agencies to pay strict attention to the type of training allowed in a virtual world.

Security for virtual training should be treated just like any other Web-based communication, such as e-mail or chat, said Robin Winter, a Second Life expert at the Imperial College of London’s department of biosurgery and surgical technology.

“In a crowded room, one would not want to discuss sensitive information unless they were in a private chat,” he said.

Being immersed in another culture is one of the best ways to learn a new language and customs. Virtual worlds such as Second Life offer an easier and less expensive way to get that kind of immersion.

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Federal Computer Week.


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