Virtual Training With Real Results

By Sarah Fister Gale

Dec. 7, 2008

A young woman walks into a trendy restaurant on a busy city corner. She sets down a purse and leaves. Moments later a bomb explodes. The restaurant in engulfed in flames, people are screaming and hurt.

Fire trucks and police cars quickly arrive, and working together the emergency responders rescue patrons, perform triage on the injured and put out the flames.

This isn’t news footage. It’s just one of many emergency-response training scenarios developed by the team atPlay2Train, a virtual training environment that operates in the online world called Second Life. The training scenarios support emergency response training initiatives as part of the Idaho Bioterrorism Awareness and Preparedness Program.

In the virtual world, which includes a town and two hospitals, trainees meet in 3-D interactive virtual environments and participate in educational projects relevant to health care and emergency preparedness. They participate virtually and remotely in scenarios that may include terrorist attacks, flu pandemics or other disasters in which they are expected to jump in, in character, and respond as the event takes place.

Participants may be located all over the country or they may be sitting at separate computers in the same facility. Regardless of their location, they all interact in real time and are expected to work together as a team responding without scripts. If they don’t react to what’s going on in the simulation, characters die and other team members are directly affected by their choices.

“This training is all about collaboration and decision making. It allows trainers to see how people establish teams, develop systems, and how they will react in different environments,” says Ramesh Ramloll, director of Play2Train. “It’s not just what they’d do ‘in theory.’ They are responding to actual situations.”

This kind of collaborative real-time virtual training is gaining popularity for many different learning applications, particularly those in which the trainee is making on-the-job decisions that can have serious, and even life-threatening, consequences. In addition to teaching critical knowledge in a classroom or online training modules, these engaging collaborative environments force employees to apply their knowledge in real-world, team-based simulations.

“We find the level of participation is much higher in a collaborative environment where trainees can see the impact of their decisions,” Ramloll says. “In a classroom it’s easy to opt out, but if you don’t stay engaged in this type of training, you fail.”

Jessica Trybus, CEO of Etcetera Edutainment, a virtual learning development company in Pittsburgh, agrees. “When you really need someone to retain information, they need to participate in role playing where they can make choices and see the consequences of their actions,” she says.

More than flash
Building collaboration and interactivity into virtual training is the ultimate goal of most online learning, but too often trainers settle for minimal click-and-read engagement with the content. Power Point-based training modules may include Flash elements and quizzes with feedback, but it’s hardly an engaging learning scenario, Trybus says.

“That format may be good for some training needs, but it’s still passive learning in a vacuum,” she says. “You need something to bridge that gap.”

Trybus points to a virtual learning environment called Safe Dock, which her company built to train forklift operators at Alcoa, the Pittsburgh-based global producer of fabricated aluminum. In the virtual training environment, employees must check their equipment prior to use and operate the forklift to perform common tasks, such as moving loads from one end of the loading area to the other. A wrong move may result in a forklift driving off the end of the dock or crashing into another employee.

“It’s never the same scenario twice,” says Jamie Mackay, environmental health and safety talent manager for Alcoa. “To successfully complete the course, the trainees have to engage with what is happening in the simulation or it will stop. It forces them to get involved.”

And that, she says, is a critical component of safety training. “You don’t get that kind of participation in a classroom,” Mackay says. “The simulation is a way to immerse them in a workplace environment without having to schedule time on the dock for training. They can make mistakes in the simulation and not hurt anyone.”

Exposing employees to hazards before they perform them on the job reduces risks in the workplace, because they’ve had a chance to practice before taking control of dangerous equipment, she notes. “This is the best of both worlds—it’s hands-on training in a safe environment.”

Alcoa has had the training module for a year, and it’s been a success with younger workers, although Mackay admits it’s a tougher sell for older ones. “The older generation is intimidated by simulation and that’s a hurdle,” she says. “We have to teach them first how to use the computer and get them comfortable with it.”

Despite that hurdle, Mackay is confident this format for virtual hands-on safety training will become the norm for future generations of Alcoa employees, who will have grown up using virtual gaming environments.

“The incoming workforce is likely to change jobs five to 10 times over their careers. That level of turnover creates high demand for training,” she says. “If we are going to be able to train the workforce of the future, we need to start developing more of these kinds of meaningful simulations that can be available on demand.”

Raise your hand
While complex 3-D environments have their place in some training contexts, virtual training doesn’t have to involve computer-generated real-life scenarios to be effective. Many trainers are finding benefits from bringing dispersed employees together in online environments where they can easily interact with one another to discuss everyday training topics and best practices such as sales skills. The environments also have academic applications.

The key, however, is making the virtual environment feel real, says Remy Malan, vice president of Qwaq, a creator of virtual environments for business applications. The company is based in Palo Alto, California.

Unlike videoconferencing or electronic white boards, Qwaq builds environments in which participants interact with one another. Using avatars to represent themselves, they can move about in the virtual space, gesture, point to objects in the room, and talk to one another using visual and verbal cues. When users click on objects using their mouse, for example, the item will light up, indicating to others in the room what they are looking at.

“This enables people to speak more naturally because the context is evident,” notes Malan. “They can say, ‘What do you think of this?’ and everyone will know what ‘this’ is referring to.”

Part of the success of this type of training environment is the fact that everyone who is participating can see what others are doing. If a trainee sits motionless on the side of the “room,” others will see that he has checked out. “It’s much clearer how engaged people are. You can’t just click on a mute button and do something else,” Malan says.

Dick Riedl, chairman of the Department of Leadership and Educational Studies at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, has been using the Qwaq environment for 18 months to teach distance courses, and he finds that it helps his students connect with one another despite their remote locations.

“Our program stresses collaboration and working together, even though a large part of the course is conducted online,” he says. “The Qwaq environment lends itself to a more collaborative experience.”

However, Riedl is quick to point out that these learning environments are only as good as the training that is conducted within them. “No learning has value until it’s put into a social or work context,” he says. “The training activity can’t just pass information along; you have to use the information and engage others to create experiences that are relevant to the user.”

Enabling students to interact while perusing course content makes the courses more engaging and sparks network building, Riedl says, noting that his students take advantage of a course “common room” where they can access materials, meet with peers and share best practices. The space is open to current and former students, so that experiences can be shared beyond the boundaries of the class-time experience.

“In the workplace, employees in the same office continue to communicate with each other, even after a classroom course is over,” Riedl points out. “If you provide that kind of environment online where people can go back anytime, you can have that same kind of interactivity even with employees who are located remotely.”

And that leads to an ongoing, richer learning experience. “It’s not just what happens in class that matters; it’s about continuous growth,” Riedl says. “If a chance interaction gets workers talking about a problem, you develop a continuous spread of knowledge among employees, and that benefits the entire organization.”

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer in Chicago.

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