“It is time again for the present generation of thinkers to innovate our way out of the dilemmas of the day and build this nation’s tools of national power that help us with these ideological threats where information is used as a weapon.”—Lt. Gen. Kwast, Air University Commander (November 22, 2014).

In keeping with the commander’s vision, Air University has continued its search for and development of innovative learning models conducive to integrated learning environments (ILEs).

In a previous article, we highlighted our journey from Flash-based vignettes to multi-player educational role-playing games (MPERPGs) in 3-D virtual environments to support professional military education at Air University (Arenas & Stricker, 2013). The Squadron Officer College (SOC) has expanded their search for relevant learning models to include an array of the learning tools now available in various cloud-computing platforms.

Before we describe our introduction to cloud computing, it is imperative that we understand the relevance of continually addressing the learner’s needs in the overall education process.

“Staying the course”

Why must educational leaders constantly seek other means of student engagement? Kapp and O’Driscoll (2010) suggest that the “enterprise learning function” develops the skills that inevitably direct the competitive advantage for an organization. Further, they assert that developing education within a traditional classroom setting as the primary learning modality may inhibit the abilities of an enterprise to meet the dynamic needs at a time when the ability to learn and adapt is becoming a core capability for organizations. Additionally, they describe the typical learning organization’s main challenge today as the need to “think outside of the classroom.” Moreover, instead of educational leaders arbitrarily incorporating immersive Internet environments in classroom-based learning models, they should be considering what kind of learning these new virtual environments may provide.

Although SOC has utilized MPERPGs within the Second Life platform to support leadership and team-building learning, they have continued their search for future virtual-world environments. This research has led to migrating prototype MPERPGs and SPERPGs (single-player educational role-playing games) within the OpenSim platform utilizing a cloud-based environment. Over the last seven years, SOC’s quest to find other interactive methodologies that engage their students at higher levels of learning have led to more interactive educational experiences. “It is incumbent upon all educational institutions to seek creative solutions to meet student-learning challenges” (Arenas, 2015).

Expanding immersive learning models within other venues not only offers flexibility for the learning institution, but provides a sense of security in an unpredictable economy. There are several reasons for educators to explore virtual environments for learning, but probably the most cited justification is that they “are engaging, fun, and novel platforms for learning…” (Lindgren, Moshell, and Hughes, 2015).

Research shows that students consistently rate learning experiences in virtual worlds as more enjoyable compared with other educational settings with similar content. Educators should exploit this attribute, given the difficulties of keeping students engaged amid competing entertainment technologies. Further, an added bonus of virtual-learning environments is the ability to simulate experiences that may be difficult to access in real-world situations.

Vassar College, for instance, has replicated the Sistine Chapel within their Second Life campus enabling students and visitors to study Michelangelo’s famous ceiling frescos using camera controls or by flying upward with your avatar for better viewing (Foster, 2007). In an Air Force setting, hazardous or high-stress scenarios may be replicated in a risk-free setting that is conducive to active learning. Figure 1 depicts a virtual air operations center where Airmen may learn the basic concepts of a complex operational setting in a relaxed environment.

Figure 1: Virtual Air Operations Center in OpenSim

Theory relevance

Constructivist learning theory supports Dewey’s (1966) notion that experience drives one’s education; Piaget (1997) described this concept using a cognitive focus to describe how a child’s knowledge is constructed through exploratory interactions with the world.

Moreover, the influence of constructivism has received considerable attention in the last several decades resulting in inclusion in more educational designs. The use of virtual learning environments enables educators to create opportunities for learners to become participants in “goal-driven, authentic activities.” This fosters their interaction with objects, systems, and other people and allows them to construct new knowledge during these learning experiences.

Situated learning theory and cognitive apprenticeship allows students to engage in expert practices through authentic activity and social interaction. Incorporating virtual-learning environments supports situated-learning activities by simulating not only physical but social contexts as well.

According to Annetta and Holmes (2006), research has shown that utilizing embodied avatars can lead to high degrees of social presence within virtual learning environments and that people interact socially as they would in real-world situations. Further, researchers suggest that the relationship between video games and learning utilizes situated learning theory by requiring context-relevant action while immediately incorporating new knowledge (p.1047).

Virtual learning activities may leverage perceptual and embodied learning by centering the properties of participants as physically embodied with a perceptual system that closely resembles their capacities for thinking and learning. Gibson and Gibson (1955) demonstrated that a participant’s ability to make visual distinctions between stimuli improved with practice. This realization is of particular importance when utilizing a virtual environment, whereby such stimuli and augmented presentation are controlled and simulated. The applications described have limitless boundaries for learners. These range from embodied avatars to virtual-reality environments where participants may interact in immersive spaces while using head-mounted displays to interact with digital simulation elements, all while moving around in a physical world.

The evolution of our immersive 3-D learning simulations has introduced us to the art-of-the-possible in our designs for creating high impact learning experiences. For instance, we wanted:

  • To make use of performance data obtained from the 3-D learning simulations and to support just-in-time pre-simulation while advancing organizers with follow-up learning-simulation performance reviews that use rubrics
  • To support interoperability and data exchange between learning management systems, mobile applications, and learning simulations
  • To expand our early efforts by applying constructivist learning theory in our simulation designs to further extend learner control by letting them select learning pathways through content and exercises

We turned to cloud computing for help with going beyond our local IT capabilities to implement the art-of-the-possible by creating high-impact learning experiences that use our immersive 3-D learning simulations within the larger context of an ILE. Figure 2 highlights one of our popular 3-D learning simulations, “Compound,” in an OpenSim platform.

Figure 2: “Compound” MPERPG in OpenSim 

Integrated Learning Environment architecture on the Cloud

Our integrated learning environment architecture relies on cloud computing. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) defines cloud computing as:

Cloud computing is a model for enabling ubiquitous, convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications, and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service-provider interaction (NIST, 2011).

The United States Air Force recognizes the importance of training and educating the Airman warfighter on-demand, anywhere, at any time. Cloud computing offers versatility for on-demand and integrated computing resources across operating systems, databases, mobile applications, learning and content management systems, support services, and 2-D and 3-D educational technology applications.

Figure 3 illustrates the ILE architecture we employed on the cloud for prototyping high-impact learning experiences that use our SPERPG and MPERPG learning simulations. The integrated learning environment architecture makes use of a standard cloud-stack model for employing interoperable capabilities that make integrative use of infrastructure as a service (IaaS), platform as a service (PaaS), and software as a service (SaaS).

Figure 3: Integrated learning environment architecture on the cloud

As depicted in the above ILE architecture diagram, we provide access to our learning services and simulations using a web portal, immersive locomotion virtuspheres, head-mounted displays, and client-based software 3-D viewers. The web portal, operating on the cloud, offers access to front-end services such as learning management systems along with access to our 2-D and 3-D learning technology applications and simulations.

Cloud versatility features, at the level of courseware and instructional design, include support for integrative application of live, virtual, constructive simulations as core enablers for the realistic scenario-based learning necessary for developing successful war-fighting skills and outcomes (Remily, 2014). Versatility features, at curricular-program levels, include the means to support modular courseware offering blended and connected mixtures of self-paced and facilitated learning pathways across content using persistent access to shared services (Air University, 2010). We support reporting of interoperability and learning analytics across applications with a dedicated learning record store (LRS) service making use of xAPI calls across the ILE.

We support self-paced pathways via personalized use of SPERPGs connected to instructor-facilitated pathways offering cohort MPERPGs. Altogether, SPERPGs and MPERPGs are connected in the course design to support episode-based learning activities for tailored conceptual elaboration in authentic and situated contexts (Reigeluth, et. al., 1999; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989). We employ spiral instructional design for supporting conceptual elaboration across a variety of instructional modules. This involves the application of real-world contexts in the use of knowledge and skills, delivered in the form of episode- or project-based authentic learning activities and scenarios sequenced with cascaded complexity and range suitable for each individual (Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1989; Schank & Jona, 1991).

SPERPGs and MPERPGs are specifically employed to support the integration, inter-relatedness, and synthesis of ideas or concepts offered thus far in the course. Further, they stimulate two key areas of learning using the learning models of collaboration and role-playing.

Collaboration and teamwork offer many benefits to simulated-learning while placing apprehensive members at ease, lowering stress levels, and fostering coalescence or bonding in a strange new learning environment. While interacting in this setting, members often begin to rely on each other for support and mutual commiseration, leading to stronger teams and creating a “shared experience” factor; a powerful learning tool (Vaughn, 2006). These situations are sometimes referred to as “CVEs” or collaborative virtual environments, providing similar characteristics for a constructivist environment in the form of a virtual setting (Cheney & Sanders, 2011). Students’ ability to practice real-world scenarios in a risk-free environment is a potent learning modality.

Role-plays are well-known as a genre of simulation and highly regarded by formal learning professionals (Aldrich, 2009). Moreover, concepts are chunked for instruction to help illustrate connected ideas. Chunked concepts are put in the form of instructional units and then sequenced as learning pathways. Initially, we offer shorter pathways with each successive path becoming more complex. The goal is to facilitate greater interaction, deeper understanding, meaningfulness, and opportunity to apply new knowledge and skills. In essence, the SPERPGs and MPERPGs serve as cognitive-strategy activators to build upon present knowledge and skills.

The elaboration design structure also places emphasis on the development of self-regulation and reflection for professional-identity development of each learner as a reflective practitioner through the freedom to control the selection and use of cognitive strategies. The spiral elaboration of concepts, via learning pathways offering SPERPGs and MPERPGs, assists the learner in developing contextualized reasoning and skills to flexibly reframe a perspective to the demands of a situation requiring critical thinking (Schon, 1987; Putnum 1991).

Overall, a key design goal for the use of learning pathways is to provide personalized and elaborated instruction to help each learner create a meaningful context for new concepts, expand on them, assimilate them, blend them with personal experiences, and then reflectively apply the concepts to other (or novel) situations.

Although our ILE on the cloud supports use of the Canvas and Moodle learning platforms, we have employed the elaboration design structure using Open edX to help support the modularity of chunked epitomes sequenced and spiraled via learning pathways. Open edX, founded by Harvard and MIT, was launched to support open and massive online courseware.

The courseware design tool for edX, named Studio, provides a course design structure suited for chunking and layering concepts for elaboration. Using edX Studio, you can structure a course to offer epitomes starting with simple and moving to complex sequencing. edX Studio uses a three-tiered courseware organization structure:

  • Sections are suitable for desired simple-to-complex layers
  • Subsections work well for overviews and advance organizers
  • Units containing components are applicable for offering activities that support knowledge acquisition, discussion, application, interaction, syntheses of concepts, and assessment

SPERPGs and MPERPGs are ideally suited as component problem exercise activity within a unit. You can use subsections to help discern the presence of necessary knowledge followed with learner control in the self-selection of follow-on unit-learning pathways. Each edX section can also provide for completion certificates used in tracking progress, via dashboards and learning analytic tools, regardless of the unit-learning pathway taken to complete a section. We employ spiral design as a macro strategy in the integrative sequencing of sections to support elaboration across the entire course experience for learners. Figure 4 highlights an edX course-design structure for chunking and layering concepts for elaboration.

Figure 4: edX course design

The vision for creating learning pathways using integrative units provides for learning content and skills in a meaningful, discrete experience. Each learning pathway offers a context for knowledge application by completing the component activities. Upon completing activities across all subsections, the learner is able to demonstrate competency at the level of elaboration the section addresses. Figure 5 displays a shared-component web-video conference meeting.

Figure 5: Web-video conference

We recognize there is considerable variety in possible configurations for how you can structure a course using modular units and components. Our design configuration for achieving high-impact learning experiences is based on:

  • Sequencing of units from simple to complex elaboration of concepts
  • Learner control via learning pathways and increasing interaction
  • Utilizing SPERPGs and MPERPGs and other immersive 3-D simulations (allowing learners to apply and reflect on new levels of understanding and skills through the use of innovative learning tools)


Traditional classroom learning models are not enough to engage, nor sustain active learning approaches for today’s fervent learners. How institutions of higher learning embrace these challenges may directly affect their effectiveness and overall future. It is imperative that all educational leaders advocate for the active investigation and incorporation of integrated learning environments to supplement their curricula. Changing technology dynamics has resulted in affordable cloud-based educational opportunities, making it possible for learning enterprises to access multiple virtual-learning tools they normally couldn’t afford. It is time for educational leaders to seize such opportunities for the next level of student engagement; immersive learning.


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