In 2004, while I was serving as Chief Operating Officer for 3Dsolve (later acquired by Lockheed Martin), I wrote an article for Training and Simulation Journal called “A Moon Shot for e-Learning”. [Download Paper (PDF)] The unabridged version of this article was titled “A Moon Shot for Simulation Learning”, which more accurately captured the idea of it.
In the article, I proposed that the Department of Defense commit to having complete simulation-based e-learning courseware for every enlisted and non-commissioned specialty in all the branches of the armed forces within five years:
How lofty a goal is this? According to the US Army’s recruiting site, there are currently 189 Military Occupational Specialties (MOSes) in that service alone. Most MOSes have multiple levels. For example, 3Dsolve is currently building simulation-based e-learning courseware for the US Army Signal Center and School’s 74B10 Information Systems Operator/Analyst course. This is only the first level of training for 74Bs, who can go on to 74B20, 74B30, 74B40, and 75B50. Assuming an average of five levels per MOS, that gives us a rough estimate of 945 individual courses within the Army. Extrapolating out over the Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps, we get a total of 3,780 individual courses throughout the DoD.
The most complex form of Interactive Multimedia Instruction (IMI) is Level IV, which is simulation-based. Assuming an average of 160 hours of Level IV instruction per specialty, at a nominal $25,000 per finished hour, we arrive at a figure of approximately $15 billion for the entire program. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the DoD budget over the period 2005-2009 will total $2.437 trillion. $15 billion represents just over one-half of one percent of that total. In other words, for about 1/160th of its overall budget over the next five years, the DoD would receive complete simulation-based e-learning courseware for every enlisted military specialty—nearly 4,000 courses in all. Not the page-turning, screen-scrolling, filmstrip-in-a-browser courseware of a few years ago, but challenging, compelling, and engaging courseware based on interactive simulations of the real world—courseware for the “Nintendo generation.”
Did this happen? Absolutely not. We certainly have more in the way of simulation-based e-learning than we had eight years ago, but by no means are we close to having simulation-based courseware for every specialty in every branch.
I’d be interested in hearing from people with more of an insider view, but from my perspective, the biggest barriers to adopting a program such as I’ve outlined above have been essentially technical:
- Standardization. I hoped that an effort such as I described would lead to much greater standardization between tools, on issues such as 3D file formats, scripting systems, and the like. Without the effort, the standardization simply hasn’t happened. As far as I can tell, we’re no closer to having universally accepted standards in the field of simulation-based e-learning than we were eight years ago.
- Reusability. This is closely related to standardization and is another issue I had hoped would be forced to resolution by a moon shot-type effort. With enough standards in place—with agreement on 3D file formats, image formats, scripting languages, physics meta-data, and other issues—we could literally drag-and-drop assets from one training program to another. We could define a rifle, a building, a truck, or even a soldier once and not have to redefine it for each new program. We’re just not there.
- Browser compatibility. The simple fact is that an effort such as I described is only possible if content can be played back in native browsers. Unlike the previous two items, this is an issue that I didn’t fully appreciate at the time. Web browsers are the one true universal client software standard we have. Every desktop computer, every laptop computer, every tablet, and every smartphone has a browser. For us to get to the promised land, our content has to play in browsers, no plug-ins or extensions needed. We’re close on this one, closer than we’ve ever been, but it has been a long haul.
From what I have seen, we may be on the verge of addressing all these issues, through a combination of a variety of browser improvements plus the creation of the Virtual World Framework. (I’ll defer a more technical discussion of VWF to my colleague Rett Crocker.) It may be time to revive my original call for a “moon shot” for simulation-based e-learning.