In this promising technology, course designers set the stage much like a theatrical production. Learning events become the story that unfolds and avatar-actors carry out tasks in support of a goal.

Virtual worlds are increasingly heralded as a low-cost, simulated environment that can be used for a variety of purposes, including training. In his paper on virtual reality as an educational tool presented at the American Society for Engineering Education 1995 Annual Conference, John T. Bell defines a virtual world as “a synchronous, persistent network of people, represented as avatars, facilitated by networked computers.”

Many companies and organizations have emerged over the past few years to support this ubiquitous technology for training, including the Federal Virtual World Consortium at the government level and multiple companies offering platforms and tools to build virtual worlds. In fact, a 2011 GigaOM survey of more than 550 uses of virtual worlds estimates that training is expected to constitute 42 percent of the virtual activities conducted “in world,” within the virtual environment.

Almost two years ago, we began to examine the use of virtual worlds as a possible delivery system to address the training challenges confronted by the Veteran Health Administration’s (VHA) Disaster Emergency Medical Personnel System (DEMPS). These training challenges include how to train geographically dispersed individuals who must ultimately function as a team, how to minimize the time away from job duties yet accomplish the training needed for performance, and how to prepare and orient individuals to a new environment where they will need to perform their duties with little or no orientation to the setting and be able to perform well immediately. After conducting a feasibility study using the competencies and training requirements to evaluate multiple virtual world (VW) platforms, we determined that the VW did offer a venue for addressing the challenges. Thus, we endeavored to design training for delivery via a VW platform.

Other organizations embarking on a similar path may find that VWs offer a cost-effective platform for delivering training. Thus we share our approach and what we learned as we applied the PADDIE model (ADDIE, the instructional design model based on analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation, with a “P” for planning) to design for this new tool.

Planning Research

In planning for training in the VW, we sought to learn what others were doing. We explored VW applications online, reviewed relevant literature, and attended conferences to gather lessons learned from those conducting VW research, those using a VW environment, and vendors. Most importantly, it provided us with visual examples of VW applications. We learned that there was little skill-based training in VW; VWs have been used primarily for collaboration and exploration. Ultimately, what we found from the review of the literature is that the training community is at the exploratory stage with this promising technology, with limited documentation of specific lessons learned. Table 1 highlights findings from the literature, organized around the PADDIE model.

Outline Major Project Phases

In this phase, we developed a virtual environment (VE) analytical framework to outline the major phases of the project. This framework served as our roadmap for the effort, including the goals and objectives; the tasks to be completed to accomplish the goals and objectives; roles and responsibilities; the schedule; any assumptions that affect accomplishment of the tasks; and the products and outcomes.

As part of our analysis, we reviewed the current learning objectives, training content, delivery methods, mission exercises, and performance assessments, along with the competencies identified. We found that legacy data was limited; it included a few PowerPoint presentations, brochures, and videos, all of which were informational rather than instructional. Consequently, only a small portion of the legacy data was useful. Moreover, we found that competencies lacked the level of specificity needed to design training.

Design a Simulation

The initial design portion of this effort consisted of creating a set of simulation-based scenarios for volunteers who deploy to a disaster site. Note that at this point in the project, a VW platform had not been selected mainly due to security issues and the rapidly changing technology environment. This decision provided instructional designers with more opportunities for creativity. This approach ensured that the design requirements drive the technology selection and lead ultimately to a better training product. The overall approach to designing the simulation-based training for a virtual learning environment (VLE) would be quite different as we moved from a 2D to 3D environment.

In their book, Designing Virtual Immersive Environment (ASTD, 2010), Karl Kapp and Tony O’Driscoll suggest when “First designing instruction in a VLE, it is critical to always remember that you are designing a learning ‘environment’ and not an e-learning module or an instructor-led course.” We struggled with this throughout the design process.

Before we could begin the design phase, we needed to determine the number and types of scenarios to be designed. The client had identified five professional roles that would be the focus of training. Once professional groups were identified, we selected a team of subject matter experts (SME) corresponding to each professional group. Six scenarios would be developed. These six scenarios include one asynchronous event that introduced the learners to the virtual world while also orienting them to what a deployment entails and five synchronous events. The five synchronous events corresponded to the five professional groups. Each group helped determine the storyline for their scenario event.

Generate Scenario Ideas

Due to the limited amount of time we had to work with the SMEs, we had to generate as many ideas for scenario development and to capture as much information as possible. This was new territory. We were concerned about the amount and type of feedback we would get from each group, so we devised a number of forms and activities that would enable us to focus their attention. Planning out this step in the process was critical because we could not leverage any of our forms or templates from previous workshops; a good deal of time and energy went into figuring out how to extract the correct type and amount of information we needed. Despite our best efforts, we still didn’t know what we didn’t know.

The workshop began with normal housekeeping rules, introductions, an ice-breaker event, an explanation of roles, and examples of VE scenarios. The idea generation session began with a short comedy skit. The purpose of the skit was to tell a story in an interesting way and to prepare the participants for the next task. As a group, we reviewed the skit’s written script and identified the important elements of the story, emphasizing why each of the elements was important. Next, we asked the participants to generate a story based on a past deployment or a medical event that would be useful to those who deploy to disaster sites.

Each of the groups reviewed the stories, ensured that they contained the essential story elements, and selected one story for further development. Instructional designers worked with their group to create a list of basic deployment questions that were applicable to the selected event. We used this information to create a scenario fact sheet containing the essential elements of the scenario, such as day of the event, location, and roles.

Next, each group developed a set of objectives that would guide the development of the scenario event. We conducted several working sessions with each group to develop the details of the scenario event. Many of the SMEs had limited knowledge of virtual environments in general and had difficulty imagining the possibilities that existed, which demanded creative thinking. The information gathered during the working group provided us with much of the information we needed to begin designing the scenarios. Foundational elements included the storyline overview, objectives, competencies, number of scenes, scene locations, main support roles, and scenario flow.

Since we were designing environments, it was important to embed a number of artifacts within the virtual environments to amplify the cognition. In Cognitive Artifacts (Cambridge University Press, 1991) Donald Norman writes, “Artifacts pervade our lives, our every activity. The speed, power, and intelligence of human beings are dramatically enhanced by the invention of artificial devices, so much so that tool making and usage constitute one of the defining characteristics of our species. Many artifacts make us stronger or faster, or protect us from the elements or predators, or feed and clothe us. And many artifacts make us smarter, increasing cognitive capabilities and making possible the modern intellectual world.”

We included artifacts such as checklists, books, posters, journals, and a smartphone in the design of the scenarios. For example, we placed an interactive incident command structure (ICS) poster on the wall at the beginning of each scenario to remind the participants how they fit into the overall ICS structure.

Lessons Learned

Our recommendations are drawn from the work we have done to date, including our review of the literature on the use of virtual worlds for training.

Follow the PADDIE or ADDIE Model

While technology experimentation is beneficial, using an instructional systems design approach helps ensure that you select the right technology for the right application. More importantly, using an ADDIE approach ensures that performance will be improved as a result of the training. Sound instructional design guides the creation of scenarios and learning activities within the virtual world that are aligned to learning objectives and offer learner assessment and feedback to promote performance improvement. Both are proven instructional practices regardless of the medium. Avoid the temptation to allow the technologists to drive the creation of the learning environment.

Explore and Learn

Given this venue, it is easy to tour applications on Second Life (free to use) and see many examples on YouTube. Additionally, we found it valuable to meet with developers and researchers at conferences; many conferences offer an opportunity to participate virtually. While the literature provided some insights, we found that exploring the VWs and talking to others is essential—do not merely read about VWs; you must experience them.

Instructor as Director

In many ways, using virtual worlds for learning is similar to creating a stage or set for theater or movie productions. The learning events and scenarios become the story that unfolds, with the avatar-actors carrying out tasks in support of a mission or goal. The instructional designer needs to function as a director, guiding the team members and crafting the learning story.

Try Before You Buy

Don’t make the final selection of your platform until you have completed initial design work through the storyboard and a prototype phase. While we completed an extensive and multi-faceted evaluation of the platforms available, we identified more specific requirements and capabilities when we ultimately attempted to design and build scenarios as part of the prototype. We also were able to pose more specific questions to the technology providers as we knew more about the specific components we needed to develop.

Additionally, in just six months, the capabilities had changed significantly. Given the time required to conduct the training analysis and design the scenarios, the technology will change prior to entering the development phase. There are some low-cost licenses available and trial use periods that enable one to do this.

Build a Pilot or Prototype

As you design, it is important to see what the environment looks like, how engaging it is, and whether the platform can support the intended design ideas. Designing a prototype also highlights any elements missing from information gathered from SMEs. It also serves as a tool to show them the results of their input and to solicit further feedback and ideas.

Don’t Restrict Your Creativity

Do not limit your design ideas and creativity to what you believe the technology currently supports. Use your requirements to help advance the state-of-the-art technology. The storyboards serve as a blueprint and when shared with creative developers, the technology can often be manipulated to accommodate the blueprints.

Share Your Journey

It is important to document lessons learned to share with the larger community. We plan to continue the documentation of this effort as we enter the development, implementation, and evaluation phases. Documenting your experience also serves as a record as you begin improvement efforts.