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Virtual learning: More than a Second Life


virtual trainingDespite reports of corporate ghost towns across Second Life, virtual training is moving on apace, with the UK helping to lead the way in its shift to the mainstream. Technology correspondent Jon Wilcox looks at some current applications, and gazes into the virtual future.

When thinking about virtual training, the first perception for a lot of people is of seminars and presentations given in private areas across Linden Labs’ Second Life. Despite garnering the support of governments and multi-nationals a few years ago however, the virtual world has increasingly received negative coverage, with reports that ghost-towns litter the former media and corporate darling. But while Second Life seems to have entered something of a mainstream lull in recent months, the application of virtual training continues to grow. In fact, the UK, along with Germany and the United States, is leading the way in maturing virtual learning.

Blue chip companies, governments, and universities, are keen to investigate and integrate virtual training into their learning programmes; some continue to turn towards Second Life, whilst others are taking alternate paths. The economic benefits of virtual training are improved cost-effectiveness compared to travel, video and teleconferencing, and traditional seminars taking place in meeting and conference rooms. The scope of virtual training is considerable, bespoke solutions designed for a single company, or a raft of scenarios that encompass a broader audience of businesses.

Photo of Marco Tippmer"A corporation putting information into a general app like Second Life doesn’t have control on where that information is being held." Marco Tippmer, CapGemini
Forterra Systems’ OLIVE (On-Line Interactive Virtual Environment) technology for instance, has been courted by two branches of the US Military, defence contractors Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, and two UK universities. OLIVE was used during a collaborative experiment with US think-tank The Masie Center and Accenture explored how virtual space can be used to replicate instructor-led training.

Forterra and The Masie Center developed a conference room for Accenture that replicated the style of the company’s real-world counterpart, featuring Accenture’s branding, it included avatars of key project testers. The experiment included an Accenture seminar converted for OLIVE use, and judged its ability to deliver ‘collaborative tools’, ‘a mix of online/virtual delivery (CBT and virtual discussion/activities)’, and ‘an overall immersive and engaging experience.’

Following the demonstration, Forterra identified key points for how to make the most from virtual learning; despite recommendations for good preparation and equipment testing, there’s only one that’s imperative: the need to define a user case. The development of a virtual world for learning has to have clear definitions of when, why, and how such environments should be integrated into training.

Looking at providing a solution for a broad audience of users, computing giant IBM recently launched the second version of its INNOV8 virtual learning environment. Branded INNOV8 v.2, the product offers users the ability to problem solve simulated real-world challenges and observe the effects of business processes within a safe environment.

During the launch of the updated system in February, Sandy Carter, IBM vice president of SOA, BPM and WebSphere, spoke about how virtual training tools like INNOV8 contribute to employee development: "Business simulations allow companies to optimize costs, mitigate risks and remain agile in a rapidly changing environment...The new features in INNOV8 v.2 provide a powerful tool for businesses to simulate challenges and explore the range of solutions before committing resources." The idea of reducing risk and improving cost-efficiency is certain a key mantra repeated across virtual learning. Version 2 of INNOV8 expands beyond the educational remit of its predecessor, and is available to both education and business institutions.

TruSim, a division of UK-based Blitz Games Studios, has produced two serious game projects with a greater sense of peril than INNOV8 v.2’s call centre environment. Developed in conjunction with partners including the universities of Birmingham and Coventry, Triage Trainer, helps train doctors on the scene of an explosion in a town centre street. A second application, Interactive Trauma Trainer, focuses on medical help in a conflict zone.

Mary Matthews, strategy and business development director at TruSim, believes specialist learning environments should be developed with experts in the field: “For both projects, we worked extremely closely with subject matter experts in medicine, human factors integration and pedagogy – what we brought was expertise in game design and engagement, as well as the technology to make the game.”

In Matthews' opinion, several objectives and requirements have to be reached to ensure specialist virtual learning environments are successful:

  • Draw people in and motivate them to keep playing and learning.

  • The environment has to have valid learning objectives.

  • Instructional design must blend seamlessly with game design.

  • Must include mechanisms to track, assess and validate progress.

  • Input from human factors integration experts to ensure usability for the target audience.

  • The level of fidelity is appropriate for the tasks represented or tested.
  • The final point in list is arguably the most important, and it is certainly acknowledged by Matthews as one of the more complex: “It takes longer than you think to get the right levels of fidelity or realism appropriate for the topic being tackled – not every training subject needs highly realistic characters or environments. Our view at the moment is that it’s important to feel ‘as if you are there’ and you should care about the outcome.”

    Educational institutions are also exploring the application of virtual training. The University of Durham recently hit headlines in the mainstream media with the launch of a fire escape simulator, based on the layout of the university campus, and built as a modification of Valve Software’s Half-Life 2 videogame. Simulating several fires across one wing of the campus, the scenario was developed as part of a wider investigation into how game development tools can be used to prototype virtual learning exercises.

    "Not every training subject needs highly realistic characters or environments. Our view at the moment is that it’s important to feel ‘as if you are there’ and you should care about the outcome." Mary Matthews, TruSim

    While the downturn may see some corporations taking a more cautious approach to virtual learning, the use of such environments in the education sector is continuing to flourish. At one US College in Boston, Massachusetts, virtual worlds are being used to present 50% of classes in one subject as both a technological test, and as an experiment to reach out to a global audience.

    As for the application of Second Life and other general purpose virtual environments in the corporate world, Marco Tippmer of CapGemini is sceptical, due mainly to its security implications: “A corporation putting information into a general app like Second Life doesn’t have control on where that information is being held.” For the CapGemini analyst, the future use of virtual environments at a corporate level may include the evolution of technologies from companies such as Cisco Systems. The business currently provides WebEx, a web-based conferencing for presentations that allows communication between viewers over Instant Messenger. Amalgamating such applications into a virtual world could enhance the user experience, thanks to increased levels of immersion.

    TruSim’s Mary Matthews feels the future of virtual training will break down into two extremes as it matures: “I would expect the market to further polarise into ‘built’ solutions, where learning objectives are embedded into the design, and the training is quite specialised and/or specific to one organisation. [Its] outcomes can be tracked, verified and reported. [Then there’ll be] open solutions like virtual worlds or adapting entertainment ‘COTS’ (Commercial Off-The-Shelf) games for training use.”

    Jon Wilcox is Technology correspondent for the Sift Media portfolio, which includes You can follow Jon and Sift Media’s Technology editor, John Stokdyk, on Twitter.


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