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Virtual reality: A new method of learning, collaboration for DoD

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The growing popularity of Web 2.0 technologies such as social networking, instant messaging and virtual environments is undoubtedly the wave of the future, and there are compelling reasons why these tools should continue to be promoted by the Department of Defense. These Web-based systems can directly enhance the armed forces' efforts to provide education and collaboration for service members and families by offering innovative and stimulating virtual worlds to educate and foster relationships.

Information sharing at its core

The adoption of these technologies stems from the concern that young military service members and their families who are new to the system are unfamiliar with the services available to them, or they are geographically separated from loved ones. They therefore require a better method for staying connected in a meaningful manner. The advent, and now widespread adoption, of social media and game-based computing can offer service members an interactive way to learn while maintaining contact with leadership, peers, teams, family and friends.

Virtual worlds, especially if developed to target specific audiences, provide engaging environments for service members to promote information sharing, tactical team training, recruiting, public education and outreach as well as incident management exercises and cultural training.

By offering an alternative medium for such knowledge exchange to occur and community building to expand, agencies would be able to reach a broader audience and encourage a grassroots method for feedback and suggestions in real time. Not only would this encourage repeat visits by end-users to obtain more information and connectivity to their services, but these virtual worlds would spread virally as end-users endorse these new learning and communication tools to their family, friends and colleagues.

Service members would also be able to collaborate with others who share similar interests and common experiences in stimulating interactive environments that encompass a feature-rich design.

Improve training, reduce costs

Virtualization can have a significant impact on the way defense agencies approach their instructional goals and objectives. One-dimensional, Web-based training courses have already evolved into multi-faceted interactive sessions that encourage learning and assist end-users in retaining knowledge and information.

Through educational game-based courses, agencies will be able to provide individuals with an immersive and highly motivating mode of learning that will encourage them to investigate various subjects, explore choice and consequence scenarios, play with complex variables, stimulate real world processes and create peer-to-peer teaching opportunities. End-users will be more likely to take away knowledge by interacting with a product associated with quest-based objectives that are a result of end-user decisions and actions rather than reading from a text. These environments are designed specifically to allow users to train, plan, interact and collaborate in an environment that's parallel to the real world.

The majority of training and education costs stem from transportation and related travel costs, which can be minimized by the use of emerging technologies. The evolution of virtual worlds as a means for delivering training courses and knowledge sharing can reduce spending tremendously while allowing users to learn as efficiently as they would in a classroom. They can also establish and maintain collaborative discussions with others participating with the same learning objectives. Because of this, Defense agencies can alleviate time, space and financial challenges. Over time, this can add up to significant savings to training budgets.

Bridging the gap

The key point to remember is that while virtual environments may be foreign or unfamiliar to senior military leaders, they are widely used and enjoyed by younger generations.

Defense agencies should plan implementations of these technologies in such a way as to balance the benefits of virtual environments with the requirements for safeguarding service members and operational security (OPSEC) concerns.

It would benefit the DoD to further explore the capabilities of the medium as an effective way to engage their service members and, at the same time, empower them to communicate and stay in touch with loved ones. Doing both will have significant and positive impacts to readiness states.

Bowers is the vice president of Military Family Programs at DefenseWeb Technologies Inc., a custom software developer and systems integrator serving Department of Defense and federal government organizations.

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