College turns to virtual world to train emergency workers

Faculty members have used virtual settings for weekly office hours.

Bringing firefighters, police officers, nurses, and doctors together for emergency training can be a logistical – and expensive – nightmare, so Algonquin College in Ontario has brought the emergency workers together for practice runs in a 3D virtual setting.

Algonquin, a campus of 18,000 students in Ottawa, has held several practice sessions this year for the myriad experts who come together at the scene of an emergency, where a variety of pressing security and health issues must be addressed, and addressed quickly.

Using avatars in a virtual meeting space, firefighters, for example, interact with police officers at the make-believe scene of a disaster. The interactions, officials said, were realistic and served as worthwhile training for the unpredictable surroundings of an emergency.

“This has really helped the college create real scenarios, wherever people are,” said Brent Hadden, leader of research and development for Avaya, the company that makes web.alive, the 3D environment used by Algonquin. “It was hard to get people together for major training sessions. That means that for the first time, they’re not restrained by their geographic location.”

College officials can add PowerPoint presentations and audio and video files to supplement the virtual-world training. The system can translate languages and help participants better understand the accents from avatars in the 3D space.

Hadden said the repetition of virtual practice allows for far more frequent training sessions for emergency workers in Algonquin College’s emergency management program.

Scheduling in-person training sessions meant that Algonquin officials had limited opportunities to help emergency workers coordinate with each other.

“When they run into a real-life situation, they’ll know exactly how to respond now,” he said.

Meeting in the virtual world could have applications in higher education outside of emergency preparedness. Fifty colleges and universities are using or piloting Avaya’s web.alive, Hadden said, and faculty members at many of those schools have found the technology useful for office hours.

“Professors sometimes have to drive back and forth from campus to campus and stay in an office that they may or may not use to see students who might not show up,” Hadden said, adding that he has spoken with educators who bemoan the time wasted waiting for students to show up to in-person office hours.

Carroll University, a private liberal arts school in Wisconsin, saved more than $11,000 last year when the campus’s international studies program used Avaya’s web.alive to host sessions on multimedia programming.

International studies faculty members saw attendance double when compared to live presentations on campus, according to the university.

John Arechavala, director of IT infrastructure services, said the savings were realized through the elimination of travel expenses.

“We know that we’ll continue to see huge cost savings for the International Studies programs because relationships that are developed in-person through costly, time-consuming travel can now be cultivated and strengthened consistently through [the virtual world] without increasing the amount of travel,” he said. “We have local green savings as more students—particularly those off campus—can receive tutoring and faculty coaching via web.alive. There will be reductions in the carbon footprint, in time, travel costs, and potentially facility expenses as offices become more virtual in nature.”

Sign up for our newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

Oops! We could not locate your form.