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Games, simulation, and the military education dilemma

Desktop training systems are playing an expanding role in military training. They can be used for the most basic tasks all soldiers and other service members must master, and they can be used to simulate extremely complex tasks performed by specialists in particular weapons and systems. In one innovation, desktop simulation will soon be used in training where tasks are not defined to teach officers to think flexibly about very difficult challenges.

Economy is one reason for the shift to desktop training. Desktop systems can often train both recruits and officers much faster and less expensively than instructors, said Ray Perez, program officer for the Office of Naval Research’s (ONR) Warfighter Performance Department. Convenience can be another reason, as software is deployed on laptops and other personal devices. One future use might be providing Navy corpsmen in the field with the ability, using handheld devices like ruggedized smartphones, to communicate novel symptoms back to systems or experts that would provide advice on correct treatment, dosage and evacuation decisions, Perez said.

Perez manages two types of desktop training systems. The first is given to all Navy recruits at Great Lakes. This includes training in the basics of naval ships for recruits, many of whom have not been on a Navy or other ship in their lives. “We teach them how to navigate their way around the ship and find compartments,” Perez explained.

Another basic desktop course instructs recruits in damage control. “If there’s a fire or flood onboard and they do not handle it correctly, the ship sinks,” Perez said. Recruits are trained on situational awareness, how to deal with damage and how to communicate to damage-control officers. The course takes 80 minutes and recruits are afterward tested on competency on a mockup of a Burke-class destroyer. Experiments show desktop training reduces the time recruits take for correct actions and cuts errors by 50 percent.

Another basic desktop system deals with recruits who enter the Navy with less than 8th-grade reading skills. Instead of two weeks in instructor-led classes, recruits are given 40 hours of desktop tutoring. The desktop system has increased reading levels by two grades, equivalent to two weeks of instructor-led classes. The system is like a game, but with a set of objectives, constant feedback and a built-in pedagogical strategy. An entirely different set of desktop systems is used at the Navy’s Surface Warfare School (SWS) in Newport, R.I., to address two challenges. Naval weapons and systems have become much more complex. And adversaries no longer fight by the book. “We have to train people in adaptive problem solving,” Perez noted.

One desktop system is the Tactical Action Officers Sandbox, which trains officers to plan and execute tactics for dealing with submarines, missiles or enemy ships. Another is the Adaptive Device for Adaptive Performance Training (ADAPT), which does the same kind of training for force protection in port. Aptima developed ADAPT for the Navy to meet two challenges, according to Chief Research Officer Jared Freeman. “The first is the scientific problem of training decision-makers to adapt well to novel problems for which there are not good rules or standard operating procedures. The second is the specific instance of force protection by the Navy.”

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