Online educational tools prepare specialists for deployment

An arsenal of online educational tools are preparing personnel for deployment

The Defense Department has been a proponent of electronic learning for more than a decade, and it now relies heavily on its capabilities.

Today’s training arsenal includes online educational tools for building and honing a vast, growing range of skill sets and occupational niches. Modalities exist for pure research, study and analysis; enabling virtual-reality game-style exercises; or running modeling and simulation applications.

Employable service-wide and shared across branches and time zones, these tools enable personnel to quickly prepare for operational exigencies. This is only one example, since 2002 all individuals deployed—soldiers, defense contractors and their families—have been required to take annual online anti-terrorism classes.

Virtual Worlds

Among the most innovative e-learning programs are those developed and managed by the Army’s Program Executive Office-Simulation, Training and Instrumentation (PEO-STRI).

One of these programs is the wearable, “fully immersive” Dismounted Soldier Training System (DSTS) made by Intelligent Decisions. The project’s director, John Matthews, said that a menu of combat-derived scenarios can be adjusted for degrees of difficulty and complexity.

The interactive tool, well received by students and instructors, is pegged to a traditional nine-member Army squad. DSTS incorporates nine “virtual soldier manned modules,” and various workstations—typically a multifunction type, one for command, and another for after-action assessment.

Embedded sensors track body positions and map them precisely to different virtual mission environments. Each student-user is assigned a simulated 10-foot by 10-foot training area to stand, operate and interact in, said Matthews.

Computer monitors enable visitors to share participants’ experiences in real-time.

Soldiers’ movements are transferred to their avatars within the game engine, a cutting-edge 3D processor. The ensemble they wear includes a helmet-mounted display (HMD) with head tracker, stereo speaker and boom mic for voice and radio comms. Lightweight backpacks with CPUs process displays of 3D virtual environments within the HMD.

Users can pivot 360 degrees, lean under obstacles and communicate with team members—all in a remarkably realistic setting.

PC Gamer magazine dubs DSTS “the greatest game you’ll never play.”

Alion Science and Technology also is involved in defense modeling and simulation training. Michael White is program manager of the firm’s virtual Damage Control Trainer (DCT), which incorporates an open-source Delta 3D gaming engine. Since its introduction two years ago, 100,000-plus sailors have taken the mandatory one-hour course.

“We developed this so that recruits [can] practice basic seamanship, communications, situational awareness, decision-making [and virtual-navigation] skills,” White said. And using the trainer results in an error rate 50 percent lower than tradition schooling.

The Office of Naval Research helped fund the multimillion-dollar training scheme, developed with Raytheon BBN Technologies. Involved is a fairly standard workstation with flat-screen CRT screen and joystick. The simplest of several applications is “getting to know your ship.” It lets students “practice how to read the bull’s-eyes that let them know [their positions] and help them transit from one space to another,” White said. The trainer, although “rudimentary,” uses humanlike avatars to navigate throughout the ship.

DCT is scalable for vessels of different sizes and adaptable to “a wide variety of [other] training audiences,” Scenarios include how to assess and report damage; assess, report and treat minor injuries during mass casualty events; make basic repairs such as patching pipe leaks; and communicate effectively with instructors and colleagues.

DCT can be used shipboard, shoreside or at overseas bases. Eventually, the tool will likely migrate from stand-alone to network mode for multiple-user training. The trainer isn’t perfect, White acknowledges. Problems arise integrating it with real-world systems, often because some components operate in a classified multi-level security environment.

Rudderless Vessel?

The “electronic schoolhouse,” with its lesser costs, globally distributed lesson plans, course-and-student customization and other advantages, appears overall to keep scoring high. But nothing as large and as relatively new can avoid the occasional stumble. For example, Air Force e-enterprises was criticized this past July in the Government Accountability Office (GAO) report titled “Air Force Training – Actions Needed to Better Manage and Determine Costs of Virtual Training Efforts.”

GAO analysts said leadership was lacking to ensure cooperation among the various offices involved in online training: “None of these [training offices]…have the authority necessary to ensure integration of …[their] training efforts.”

Further, no framework exists to guide training or obtain the additional funding the service wants for expansion. Perhaps worst, the Air Force barely manages its existing systems; delays have led to cost increases and patched-together workarounds to compensate for “the lack of interoperability for its simulators and trainers and networks.”

To avert snowballing problems, the GAO urged decision-makers to:

  • Understand the cost of online training or an online-live mix
  • Create a methodology “to consistently collect and track virtual training costs and a management framework to coordinate its efforts….”
  • Recommend the Secretary of Defense to create “a single entity responsible and accountable for integrating…all virtual training efforts and enforcement of interoperability standards across virtual training systems” for the major Air Force commands.

In a published addendum to the report, the Air Force largely agreed.

Additional Online Resources

PC Gamer

GAO Air Force Online Training

Tricare Online:

Navy online learning (nol):


About the Author

David Walsh is a special contributor to Defense Systems.

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