Group editor Marty Kauchak reports on the opportunity to take mobile devices for military learners to a higher level of capability and utility. 

Mobile devices are delivering increasingly more content to learners across the US Defense Department. The military-industry team furnishing this technology is rapidly expanding the capabilities of these products and harmonizing these platforms with evolving instructional designs. These advancements aside, this technology space is on a plateau. While costs, cyber security and other program-level implementation challenges are addressed, technology insertions including augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are poised to be integrated into materiel supporting service programs.

Department Survey

Courses across the US military’s continuum of learning are being delivered with increasing rigor on mobile devices, according to community subject matter experts.

Jesse Gusse, a computer engineer at Orlando, Florida-based Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division (NAWCTSD), pointed out from his service’s perspective, “A few examples of this happening is with the eSailor pilot at recruit training, the Navy App locker from the Navy's Sea Warrior Program (PMW-240) that makes public apps available to sailors, and various Navy school houses that are utilizing mobile device technology.”

Shane Taber, the development director at Engineering & Computer Solutions (ECS), said his company’s clients find that the mobile training tools developed for them expedite the timeline for fully training their warfighters. Also providing one business case to invest in this technology, he noted, “In many cases, mobile is used to augment or supplement other traditional training, whether that be in a classroom or live. The mobile training applications that we develop are also well suited for just-in-time-training, giving the trainee the ability to refresh and review their skills anytime, anywhere.” In the past few years, ECS developed several mobile tools that are improving warfighter performance in this way, such as an Installation Deployment Officer/Unit Deployment Manager (IDO/UDM) Reference Mobile Application for the Air Force. “It acts as a quick training reference guide for students after they’ve completed the existing IDO/UDM course,” Taber explained and continued, “The app is a takeaway that is instantly available on an ongoing basis to assist in performing and perfecting the duties required of the IDO and UDM roles.”

SAIC reported on its expanding portfolio of products in this defense learning space for this article. Anne Little, PhD, the senior solutions architect in the company’s Advanced Analytics, Simulation & Training division, noted that in one case, through its work for the Army Game Studio (AGS), SAIC has developed a mobile-delivered scenario-based simulation for the Hearing Center of Excellence to instruct the armed forces in the use of different types of hearing protection and how to recognize when hearing protection is needed. Little explained the simulation includes full animation and audio, and shows the impact of various choices, including showing the simulated soldier being treated by an audiologist. “It also links to another app that can test hearing, so the product provides both a theoretical understanding of auditory concerns and a practical application to support good auditory protection habits.” This simulation is part of a course delivered via the Joint Knowledge Online (JKO) Learning Management System (LMS), and the mobile app will soon be available via the Google Play Store.

SAIC mobile device scenario-based simulation

Through its work for the Army Game Studio, SAIC has developed a mobile-delivered scenario-based simulation for the Hearing Center of Excellence to instruct the armed forces in the use of different types of hearing protection. Image credit: SAIC/US DoD.

Also for AGS, SAIC developed mobile-delivered courses for DRSKO (Dismounted Reconnaissance Sets, Kits and Outfits) to instruct armed forces in the use of devices for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear. “The DRSKO product provides demonstration of device operation procedures as well as simulated exercises for user performance in order to provide assessment and feedback to the learner,” Little said, and added, “In addition to being available through the Army Game Studio app store, this course is Sharable Content Object Reference Model-conformant and can be delivered though a LMS, as well as local to PCs.”

Impediments and Challenges

Aside from these advancements, the military-industry must overcome technology and program challenges to take this technology to a higher plateau. The Navy’s Gusse minced no words when he declared, the greatest technology hurdles certainly remain in the cybersecurity and connectivity domain. He added, “While private industry has created solution sets to address these for enterprise organizations, the Navy presents some unique challenges that have limited those solution sets ability to meet our requirements. Additionally, connectivity is lacking in many learning environments which significantly hinders what can be done.”

SAIC’s Dr. Little furnished another insight, noting additional challenges include bandwidth and cultural inertia. On the former topic, the industry expert said that as large digital files can be difficult to distribute to remote locations, SAIC solved this by focusing on compression and distributing minimal compressed bites for updates. “Traditional authoring tools and development using Flash were not viable options for mobile development, so SAIC developed a custom HTML framework suitable for our mobile apps. Our developers also had to handle input data differently to create course navigation which would work in the app.”

This technology perspective also resonated with ECS’s Taber, who told the author, “Designing intuitive and effective user interfaces for mobile training applications is always a challenge. Anytime you take a lot of content – as with training modules – and pack it into a limited amount of screen space, it presents a problem. This is especially true when converting desktop, presentation or web platforms to a mobile application. There are also many other technical considerations, such as bandwidth, data storage, variation of hardware devices, and faster cycles of mobile OS versions.” More significant, “Many of these limitations are either non-existent or straightforward on desktop or web-based applications.”

However, the biggest challenge facing widespread adoption of training via mobile devices according to Dr. Little, is “cultural inertia”. The SAIC technology leader explained, “Even though learners appreciate the control offered by a learner-directed and learner-demand approach, this is not something learners are accustomed to at all,” and continued, “While we have seen our learning community increasingly embrace mobile technologies, we still have a way to go to fully take advantage of using the devices to blend ‘formal learning’ with learning how we need to learn.”

Training Program Management Focus

Raytheon is expanding the utility of mobile devices in the training sector to a higher level – beyond the learning audience. This January, Corey Hendricks, the senior manager of Engineering, in the Global Training Solutions division at Raytheon, told the author his company launched a mobile application that “sets a new standard in global management of large scale training programs.”

Program Analytics eXecution, or PAX, is the mobile version of Raytheon’s powerful MIS tool suite called InSITE. Hendricks explained, “The capabilities and insights provided via the PAX mobile application empower users to make critical management decisions while on the go. It is a technologically advanced program management tool that provides a wide variety of information to the user, including meticulous tracking of contract and finance actions, as well as up to the minute status related to system availability for training devices located around the world. PAX provides tremendous capabilities to the user and is presented through a state-of-the-art interface design, which makes using the app intuitive while optimizing user effectiveness.”

Under an encrypted system, the mobile application is designed to be a one-stop vehicle for contract modification requests and status reporting for any large training project or program, a capability certain to gain the attention of the military customer’s contract oversight office. Further, PAX reportedly provides at-a-glance views of the financial health and status of each task order and CLIN (Contract Line Item Number). Hendricks continued, “The data visualization features allow the program manager to easily flag important trends. The program manager and customer can skip the hassle of exporting data to a spreadsheet and managing via email; instead PAX will display critical program information on demand. The PAX app provides the customer access to near real-time maintenance information which enhances oversight capability.” The mobile access is further reported to empower the program manager and customer with actionable maintenance information from any location, at any time. “Instead of waiting for multiple layers of notification, or wading through a string of emails, the program manager receives an alert from their PAX app when a training device is down,” the industry expert said and added, “The program manager can also track the progress to bring the device back online and make informed decisions if a failure has occurred to minimize cost, schedule, and mission impacts. The features within PAX enable the program manager to stay abreast of a wide variety of program actions through a single application.”

Jesse Gusse and mobile Virtual Interactive Shipboard Instructional Tour 3DTM

Jesse Gusse, a computer engineer at NAWC-TSD, (second from right) demonstrates advances in technology and mobile applications used for training, such as the Navy's eHelm and mobile Virtual Interactive Shipboard Instructional Tour 3DTM, during a Navy Ready, Relevant Learning Summit. Image credit: Kate Meadows/US Navy.

On the Horizon

Technology and cultural challenges aside, concurrent efforts are in progress to advance the state-of-art of mobile devices. NAWC-TSD’s Gusse noted an internal R&D project of interest, is what it is doing with the Delayed Entry Program (DEP), called the Virtual Recruit Tracker. He added, “There is a desire to push training content to future sailor's devices and track how they interact with it. We are tackling numerous challenges with this in an environment, DEP, which is more forgiving than it is in ‘big Navy’. This R&D effort is providing lessons learned needed for later success.”

But beyond this internal effort, mobile device use by learners in the next three-to-five years will really hinge on cost and implementation, and cost not just for the devices, but connectivity, cybersecurity demands, and associated logistics, Gusse offered and further noted, that philosophically, “mobile technology is embraced in our personal lives because it gives us multiple tools in a single device (information access, phone, entertainment, GPS, camera, etc.) and it gives it to us wherever we are. For mobile device use to be as pervasive in military training, a similar construct needs to still be true. Mobile devices can't just be used for one or two training items that sailors are required to carry around and take care of but use infrequently. They need to encompass much more of their work life to be embraced by the sailor and become an integral part of their learning,” he concluded.

On the 2017 I/ITSEC exhibition floor this author once again observed the unfettered, “increasing expectations”, so to speak, of the military viewing commercial off-the-shelf products as cost-effective, fast materiel solutions for existing training gaps, or requirements. This observation validates one perspective from ECS’s Taber, who observed, “The biggest challenge we have faced is reconciling rapidly advancing mobile technologies in the commercial sector with the military’s need for training without compromising other established standards.” The community expert noted that with cloud computing, for example, the commercial sector is becoming more and more reliant on centralized and shared data, but that presents an ever-increasing challenge for securing sensitive information, even if only in a training environment. Taber continued, “In many cases, these off-the-shelf capabilities cannot be used, and we take other approaches to meeting the military's requirements. I feel many of the designs we have created for the military could be enhanced with access to cloud data, but until a secure way of accessing the information exists, that’s not viable, and we’ll continue to offer alternatives that replicate, as closely as possible, the benefits of what is commercially available.”

Back at SAIC, the company views this market evolving “at a very rapid pace,” and is remaining on the cutting edge by expanding its mobile delivery options from simple reader applications into a highly interactive user experience with enhanced content, integrated AR and VR capabilities, a streamlined content generation, distribution, and consumption system. Dr. Little further observed, “Cloud computing is not the future of mobile device learning – it is the present. Culturally, we are used to a centralized control infrastructure afforded to us by the cloud which allows more information to be available and to stream it as needed.”

But it is “the integration of augmented and virtual reality supported by mobile devices that enhance the learning experience that ‘is the game changer’ – both in terms of making the training better and more relevant or robust, and allowing the learner to direct every aspect of the learning engagement to learn,” Dr. Little emphasized.

The community subject matter expert also forecast this market space will also evolve based on other technologies, including “huge advancements in wearables as part of training events because they are becoming lighter and less expensive, and as they become more subtle, they will become more embedded into our everyday use.”

A short list of other mobile device technology enhancers in SAIC’s field-of-view include voice interfaces, likely to impact improved “chat bots” with AI, and an accelerated training framework based on xAPI (Experience API) data.

ECS’s Taber expects that mobile devices will continue to get more powerful and include additional features that can be leveraged for training purposes. He concluded, “Improvements in processing power, storage and features, like voice recognition and biometrics, may enable exciting new training opportunities and capabilities. There is a major trend toward devices integrating augmented reality as a prominent form of interface. But, a full transition is probably at least a decade away.”

Originally published in Issue 1, 2018 of MS&T Magazine.