Virtual learning gets second wind from Second Life

Virtual-world technology is giving the idea of online training a second life in the federal government.

A handful of agencies are turning to virtual worlds to create programs that bring together the best aspects of Internet-based training and the traditional classroom.

Like standard online training, virtual-world software makes it possible for employees to take classes without leaving their desks, which saves on the time and costs associated with travel.

And the new technology more closely replicates a classroom experience by creating a 3-D world in which students can interact with one another, the instructor and even objects in the environment.

The key conceit of virtual-world technology is the avatar, a participant's online representation. In a virtual classroom setting, for example, a student would see the avatars of the instructor and the other students.

Virtual training is part of the move toward the immersive Internet, which is a collection of emerging technologies combined with a social culture that has roots in the gaming and virtual worlds, said Sam Driver, a principal at analyst firm ThinkBalm.

The military, in particular, “is really good at identifying the fact that not every soldier learns by listening, but by doing,” Driver said. “Avatars make a difference. People attach their identity to an avatar.” Eventually, as people move into a virtual space, their avatars become their brands, he said.

Interest in virtual learning is broad and not limited to the younger generation, said Maj. Gen. Erwin Lessel, director of plans, programs, requirements and assessments at the Air Education and Training Command. The command recently launched a virtual-world known as MyBase.

In a study conducted last summer at Keesler Air Force Base, 97 percent of the respondents said it was important to integrate new technologies to enhance training and performance, and 95 percent said it was important to develop innovative approaches for education and training technology. “This tells us that there is a need and desire to introduce this” technology regardless of age, Lessel said.

Here is an overview of three virtual-training programs under way or in development.

Air Force MyBase: Room to grow

The Air Force's training command entered the world of virtual learning in December 2008 with the launch of MyBase, a 3-D virtual and interactive learning environment in Second Life, a popular virtual world platform.

The idea is to enhance Air Force recruiting, training, education and operations and meet the education and training needs of future members of the Air Force, Lessel said.

“This includes the digital natives that are coming into our Air Force today,” Lessel said. “They have grown up with computers, cell phones, and text messaging. We need to leverage their skills, and we need to use these technologies to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of training.”

In its current incarnation, MyBase is open to the public. After users sign up on Second Life, they can enter MyBase and take a virtual tour of the base, learn about the Air Force, take a virtual flight in a P-51 Mustang, sign up for upcoming online conferences, see what jobs are available, and interact with other visitors.

But there is more to come, Lessel said. In the second phase, the Air Force will establish a secure site to provide virtual education and training, such as certification and degree programs.

In the third phase, the service will build a second secure site to re-create operational environments. For example, it could re-create an air base in Iraq where service members could go to train and also meet others with whom they would deploy, Lessel said.

National Guard: Training on a large scale

Lt. Col. Gregory Pickell, chief of the Joint Advanced Concepts Division's Training Technology Branch at the National Guard Bureau, has seen firsthand the interest in virtual learning. Pickell is in charge of U.S. Nexus, a virtual world designed to support training, education and collaboration across government.

The Guard started the program from scratch two-and-a-half years ago as a training and preparedness program for service members and civilian emergency managers. However, Pickell soon realized that the program has a broader government application.

“We found that the virtual word has the ability to bring people together in ways that are not possible in the real world,” he said. “If you have distance-based education, training or collaboration requirements, Nexus gives you more value for every mile between you and your audience.”

Engineering and Computer Simulations developed U.S. Nexus for the National Guard. U.S. Nexus will enter its beta test phase in June, with an initial operational capability slated for November.

One of the objectives of U.S. Nexus is to redefine access to traditional distance learning applications, making it easier to locate the appropriate course without Google searches or text links. Approximately 80 percent of online courses are unknown to the user community because they are located at a university or behind a military firewall, Pickell said.

“Our job is to find those applications and bring them into the [U.S. Nexus] parallel world architecture,” he said. Users would access applications in ways that make sense to them, such as a firefighter taking a recertification course at a virtual firehouse.

U.S. Nexus supports simultaneous training of geographically dispersed people at a lower cost than bringing them all together in a single place, Pickell said. The architecture also supports distance learning training and avatar-delivered instruction, and it includes numerous classrooms, offices, conference rooms, auditoriums and operations centers.

U.S. Nexus supports collaboration too, Pickell said. For example, DOD and the Veterans Affairs Department have discussed using U.S. Nexus to coordinate care for injured Iraq war veterans. The Defense Acquisition University, with more than 320,000 students worldwide, plans to use Nexus for a variety of requirements, including avatar-to-avatar synchronous classroom delivery.

Nexus is particularly relevant for government in two ways, Pickell said. It provides an enormous cost savings for distributed organizations like the Homeland Security Department. Also, it offers flexibility to bring in a variety of software applications that provide interactive, quality training “instead of death by PowerPoint,” he said.

When fully fielded, Nexus will allow simultaneous collaboration by large numbers of military and civilian organizations involved in large-scale virtual training exercises or other activities. “How to scale it appropriately — that’s the challenge,” Pickell said.

Navy: R&D goes virtual

The Navy has given the nod to virtual worlds as a place to learn, design and collaborate.

The Naval Undersea Warfare Center set up shop in Second Life about a year ago. “We have a responsibility…that we look globally for new technology,” said Paul Lefebvre, technical director and senior civilian at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division Newport. “This is technology that has potential for a lot of applications.”

As the Navy’s undersea research and development lab, NUWC Division Newport is tasked with delivering better products to the fleet, Lefebvre said. “So we’re looking how to apply things like Second Life to the fleet,” he said. This includes how to use virtual worlds for operational testing, training, collaboration, product development and design work.

This summer, NUWC Newport is planning an experiment that will create a virtual submarine attack center. Some fleet participants will take part in the exercise virtually, where they will access simulated scenarios and perform their mission in a virtual world. Others will take part traditionally, without the immersive experience. They will compare the results of the test to see how participants fare in each.

Eventually, NUWC will likely “end up with a focused adoption of several virtual world” technologies, said Steven Aguiar, NUWC Newport Division’s project lead. In addition to Second Life, they’ve tested OpenSimulator, Sun Wonderland, Forterra’s Olive and Qwaq Forums.

Altough NUWC is still looking at how best to apply virtual worlds to research and development, “we feel even better about it as time goes on than we did a year ago,” Lefebvre said.

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