Developing a high degree of problem-solving skill appropriate to each career stage is an important function of military training from the recruit level onward. The ultimate goal of this training is agile, adaptive military professionals, particularly the leaders. This is more critical now than ever before.

The US Air Force Air University’s Squadron Officer College (SOC) develops company-grade officers (CGO) into effective leaders (CGOs are second lieutenants through captains). “The Air University uses technology innovations to transform learning environments in an effort to keep them efficient, effective, relevant, and adaptable to tomorrow’s challenges,” according to Lt. Gen David S. Fadok, commander and president of Air University.

In keeping with the commander’s vision, SOC must continually search for available technology conducive to the learning management system now in use. After exploring several virtual world platforms (Second Life, OpenSim, and Unity), it became evident to SOC staff that Second Life was the right one for our needs. Working with outside resources, and using Second Life as the primary virtual-world platform, SOC has designed several multi-player educational role playing games (MPERPGs) that support their basic curriculum. In this article, we will describe how these MPERPGs evolved, their relevancy to the SOC curriculum, and their importance to future development.

While people define the term virtual world differently in various settings in the professional literature, for our purposes virtual world refers to a learning platform in a computer-based environment. In these platforms, a third-person avatar represents the individual learner. (Nelson & Erlandson, in the References at the end of this article, provide additional discussion of the virtual world as learning platform.)

The virtual trek

In today’s lean times of dwindling resources, all Air Force organizations must seek creative solutions to meet mission requirements. Over the last few years, the Squadron Officer College has been exploring alternatives to costly state-of-the-art technology to support their curricula.

SOC embarked on a quest to acquire affordable multimedia in 2008. Initial efforts used Flash-based avatar vignettes (scenarios) developed by Carley Corporation to support professional military education (PME) requirements.

Those first avatar vignettes were comprised of short scenes depicting typical situations in an Air Force environment (flight line, hangar, clinic, administrative, etc.). The scenes highlighted various subjects within SOC’s PME lessons. The vignettes (Figure 1) typically run two to five minutes and culminate with a multiple-choice slide to elicit student responses at the comprehension level. For self-directed distant learners, the vignettes also provide short textual feedback.

Figure 1: Early avatar vignette (2009)

Later vignettes are longer, with more content, and their design makes them useful for distance learning as well as for resident environments. Beginning in early 2009, the primary use of the avatar vignettes was in a self-directed distant learning course; nearly 14,000 students to date have used this material. In 2011, SOC delivered these Flash-based vignettes via Blackboard Learn.

Although the overall responses to the avatar vignettes were positive, global students complained of issues with connectivity; many students were deployed in locations with limited Internet access. After producing more than 30 vignettes, staff felt that SOC was ready to engage their learners in a more immersive learning experience. What was the next level?

Second Life

Under the guidance of analysts from the Air University Innovations and Integrations Division (A4/6I), our research revealed that as the learning environment becomes more complex, educators face many choices of medium delivery. One of these choices was the use of virtual worlds (VWs), sometimes referred to as 3-D immersive learning environments. Activeworlds, OLIVE, Teleplace, Second Life, and Opensim are examples of the most popular immersive platforms available to educators today (see References, Cheney & Sanders). Most VWs began their evolution in the early 2000s and continue to develop their technological infrastructures. There were over 200 million registered avatars across nine VW platforms in June of 2008. (Wankley and Kingsley, 2009).

Moving into the virtual world setting would allow SOC to provide more student engagement and interaction while reducing or eliminating connectivity and access limitations. It was clear that going beyond the depiction of vignettes in 2-D media by providing an immersive learning environment and making use of avatars within a 3-D world would advance the effectiveness of SOC’s curriculum.

After the A4/6I analysts introduced us to the Second Life virtual world platform, SOC purchased a region for use as a virtual campus. The A4/6I Division was instrumental in developing a prototype campus (Figure 2) to foster learning for 3-D possibilities and promote future research and development opportunities that could enhance curricula.

Figure 2: The SOC virtual campus

Why Second Life?

Although there are dozens of virtual world platforms to choose from, Second Life offers organizations flexibility and a fairly low investment. For a one-time fee of $1,000 per region and monthly maintenance fees of $295, an organization can purchase private regions of approximately 16 virtual acres. Comparisons to massive multi-user online games (MMOGs) or massive multi-player online role-playing games (MMORPGs), such as World of Warcraft and Eve Online, describe common social attributes such as community building, storylines, and codes of conduct (Kelly & Rhind, 2007).

However, unlike World of Warcraft, Second Life is not a game, but an open society without gaming rules or levels of achievement. Moreover, unlike Forterra’s Olive platform, anyone can enter Second Life for free, and spending real money for virtual goods is totally optional for users (residents), making it a cost-effective virtual world platform (Wankel & Kingsley, 2009).

By the end of 2010, SOC had nearly eight months of participation in bi-monthly A4/6I-sponsored “Lunch and Learn” educational technology sessions, semi-annual Global Learning Forums, and periodic VW workshops. Second Life was the chosen platform for two main reasons: It was inexpensive, and it was server-supported by Linden Labs.

SOC’s learner-engagement goal

Traditional teaching and learning methods focus on teachers who communicate new knowledge in a classroom setting, where students listen and take notes as required. In such a setting, students are typically in a passive learning state and often have minimal participation in the learning process as a whole.

By contrast, a constructivist learning approach places emphasis on student involvement, requiring learners to become more self-directed, to be engaged in their learning process, and to find their own solutions to problems based on their prior knowledge and experiences (Cheney and Sanders, 2011). The foundations of the constructivist learning approach originate from the cognitive approach to the psychology of learning (Jonassen et al., 1999); these theories were derived from Piaget (1952), Dewey (1966), Vygotsky (1978), Papert (1980), and Bruner (1985).

SOC’s goal was to explore methodologies to engage learners, while providing more interactive opportunities that would further enhance their educational experiences. Through technology, opportunities to apply the constructivist approach to the teaching and learning process provide endless possibilities. Allowing company-grade officers to share their military knowledge and experiences with other students while attending SOC courses has proven invaluable.

The relevancy challenge

2011 brought a new virtual worlds activities project to SOC, using outside developers from H2 IT Solutions Inc., based in Orlando, Florida. Their task was to help create single and multi-player educational role playing games (S/MPERPGs), incorporating Squadron Officer School (SOS) lesson materials. Research revealed that gaming and simulation environments support a learner-centered education, whereby learners may actively work through problems while gaining knowledge through participation (Annetta et al, 2006). The combination of gaming and simulation offers compelling learning benefits while supporting immersive experiential learning.

The integrated learning environment (ILE): Learning in 3-D

Learning in 3-D offers an advantage over 2-D learning environments by providing means for learners to experience a sense of immersion in the learning activity itself. The immersion of the learner, through an embodied avatar, makes it possible to engage with others (in support of peer-to-peer informal learning), while also participating in facilitator-guided experiential learning activities. This promotes comprehension and application of formal learning objectives (Kapp & Driscoll, 2010). The technology behind learning in 3-D helps to create the spatial and temporal conditions for immersion and interactivity with others and with content in the performance of tasks requiring the application of new knowledge and skills.

A team of subject matter experts and media specialists collaboratively used instructional systems design (ISD) and rapid prototyping to develop eight immersive 3-D learning activities. These interactive team-building challenges engage SOC students in experiential problem solving learning. The challenge design also promotes cognitive strategies for problem identification, analyzing options, and self-regulation of performance for successful outcomes. With the use of imagery and sound effects, the activity provides a challenge scenario that mimics and converts live-action problems, ensuring a sense of stress and urgency. Figure 3 depicts one of the challenges that requires a team of SOC students (using avatars) to effectively problem-solve together and rescue a set of team members from a simulated prison compound within a limited time.

Figure 3: Prison compound activity


Evaluation of the learning activities offered in an ILE for learning in 3-D suggests that SOC students value the immersive features of the environment and the opportunity to apply new knowledge and skills in collaborative, context-based problem-solving challenges. The eight interactive team-building challenges allowed SOC students to experience operational adaptability involving cognitive strategies associated with critical thinking, prudent risk acceptance, and rapid adjustments informed by continuous assessment of unfolding events.

Overall, offering learning activities in immersive 3-D ILE environments provides the military learner with valuable experience to process information into knowledge, then share that knowledge and act on it to solve challenges to develop agile and adaptive leaders with the skills necessary for the profession of arms in the 21st century.


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