ONR's digital tutors give Naval recruits, high school students an academic edge

Apr 18, 2011
Naval Training Center Great Lakes employs computer-based simulations to measure individual performance and help recruits prepare for their final assessment. The first-person game emphasizes operational skills relating to flood and fire control and preventing casualties aboard ship -- a critical skill in helping trainees to earn their sea legs. Credit: US Navy/ONR photo

When President Obama underscored the importance of a college education to eighth-graders during their April 11 visit to the White House, he was echoing the collective sentiment among the nation's educators and organizations that graduates must be prepared for the world's technological challenges and opportunities.

The Office of Naval Research (ONR) may have a hand in helping that class of 2015, and others, make the grade with computer-based applications similar to programs originally designed for Navy recruits.

Playing a 3-D video game developed by ONR, the science and technology provider for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, recruits are learning at-sea safety long before setting sail. And now, applying the same underlying science in public education, digital tutors are helping high-school students to master math. (Watch ONR's digital learning video on YouTube.)

Program Officer Dr. Ray Perez leads ONR's Cognitive Science of Learning program. In collaboration with the Naval Service Training Command (NSTC) and a team of , Perez and his colleagues are developing advanced training and education techniques with significant cost savings for the U.S. Navy.

"Training and education are national defense priorities," Perez said. "We're seeing an influx of recruits who are not as well equipped to handle the technological complexities of today's Navy, and we cannot wait for the standard education practices to fix that."

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The Office of Naval Research may have a hand in helping students and others make the grade with computer-based applications similar to programs originally designed for Navy recruits. Credit: Office of Naval Research

Virtual Learning Helps Recruits Retain Skills

Since fires and floods present the greatest threats on a ship or submarine, each recruit must complete training on containing a fire, controlling a flood and rescuing personnel during their initial seven-week boot camp. On completion, learned skills must be demonstrated on a capstone event or exam. For those who fail, it's back for another round of training.

NSTC Great Lakes employs computer-based simulations to measure individual performance and help recruits prepare for their final assessment. The first-person game emphasizes operational skills relating to flood and fire control and preventing casualties aboard ship – a critical skill in helping trainees to earn their sea legs.

"During the game, users are given real-time feedback on their performance as well as guided instruction when they run into different challenges or have difficulty obtaining individual objectives," said John Drake, director of learning sciences at NSTC.

The results speak for themselves: After gaming, recruits make 50 percent fewer errors, and locate ship or submarine compartments in 50 percent less time. In a study measuring how much information recruits retain after boot camp, game-playing recruits retained 83 percent of their reading gains, almost four times more than their counterparts.

Drake attributes improved scores to the appeal of video games among men and women who have grown up with consoles such as Nintendo, Xbox and PlayStation.

"They seem to align better with the learning preferences of this generation and be the next step in the direction that training needs to go," Drake said.

Among competitive trainees, the game has evolved into an extracurricular opportunity to excel.

"What we find is that during off-duty time, recruits play the game," Perez said. "You get points for how well you perform your tasks. For example, at NSTC Great Lakes, dormitories compete to see who gets the highest score."

At NSTC, computer-based games focus on teaching recruits their individual roles in a crisis situation, but it's equally important that seasoned Sailors learn and refresh on operating in a team setting.

Working with the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing at the University of California, Los Angeles (CRESST/UCLA), ONR has developed the Damage Control game to prepare Sailors for deployment. Currently in use at the Center for Naval Engineering in Norfolk, the simulation teaches Sailors what actions to take, and with which people and equipment at the appropriate time.

"The goal for the player is to manage what's called the 'repair locker,' a collection of people who are responsible — like a fire department — for responding to different fires or floods that may break out in that particular area of the ship," said Alan Koenig, CRESST/UCLA senior researcher."

Real-Time Learning Analysis

While its ability to engage players is one factor in its success against more traditional learning exercises, Damage Control's built-in analyses tools rate equally as high among instructors and evaluators.

During play, the computer measures anxiety levels based on data retrieved from electronic sensors attached to the recruit. As students experience difficulty or frustration, the game reverts back to more basic tasks before advancing too far ahead. The game is continuously adjusting difficulty levels based on the player's ability.

The game allows players to assume different roles — such as repair locker leader, investigator and fire team member — and gives them access to casualty checklists that update automatically based on their actions.

Damage Control offers real-time feedback and captures data for reporting and future enhancement purposes. The game's back-end leverages graphic models of the relationships and probabilities among concepts and procedures that are critical to completion of the task. The computer-based game is integrated with the network in real time to provide analysis for after-action review. Performance data is reviewed post-game to measure proficiencies and can be displayed in multiple formats, including charts, curve graphs and checklists. The data are analyzed both within game and across games (over time) to model changes in knowledge, skills and abilities in key areas.

"More Without More"

The one-on-one instruction afforded by computer-based games is proving not only effective, but also economical. These applications save instructor expenses as well as overhead costs, such as building maintenance and classroom materials, since the instruction can take place almost anywhere.

Additionally, ONR seeks to lessen the cost of digital tutor development by working with partners to develop game-authoring tools. These products would enable the development of new games at a fraction of the cost and time while allowing the Navy to emphasize quality in education.

Currently reviewing Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) proposals, Perez sees these tools as a means to counter the shrinking numbers of qualified naval instructors due to retirement and attrition.

"Ideally, in the future, it could be that we have these games available to recruits as they come in to lessen the time it takes them to learn some basic information; but more importantly, lessen the time for them to become experts," he said.

Applying Naval Science to High School Learning

The use of similar technologies may have wider implications within the public school system. ONR-sponsored researchers at Arizona State University have demonstrated the success of digital tutors among algebra students at Mountain Point High School, raising student grade levels.

"Using digital training standardizes what kids learn, and can increase learning by one third and do it in one third less time and at one third the cost," Perez said.

From the Navy's perspective, digital media could also lure students toward science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines and provide them with critically needed technical skills that are important to the Navy. These one-on-one digital tutors and learning games could boost learning achievement in the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) schools, in keeping with Presidential Study Directive 9.

In response to the directive, the January 2011 "Strengthening our Military Families: Meeting America's Commitment" report proposes new measures to improve the quality of life for service members and their families. The Defense Department has pledged to boost educational excellence in military schools by investing in research, development and demonstration projects. The move, which supports one of four priorities outlined in the report, could advance DoDEA schools as leaders in advanced learning technologies.

Taking the STEM lead for the U.S. Navy, ONR will host the 2011 Naval STEM Forum in June, where cognitive learning sciences and educational initiatives – including computer-based training – will fuel an ambitious agenda.

However it is used, computer-based training is opening new possibilities for the Navy and beyond. Senior researcher Koenig predicts, "The ONR emphasis on this particular project is really quite groundbreaking. It will open doors for a lot of great things in the future."

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Provided by Office of Naval Research

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