Boot camp elearning – train your employees CIA style

You’ve been transferred to a foreign branch of your company. You’ve studied the language at school but you haven’t used it in years and you’ve never been to that part of the world. Besides, to comply with local regulations the work procedures are different. Now imagine, it’s your first day in your new role. You walk to your desk, log into the local system and start your work as normal. The phone rings, it’s your local client who wants to amend something on their project. The call isn’t in English but you manage to understand your client and agree on how to implement the changes. After the call, you email your team to inform them of the changes… all of this in the local language.

Sounds like a dream first day, something that only one of the Jameses could do (Bond or Bourne, take your pick). But why can a special agent perform their basic duties correctly after being fully trained, but ordinary learners in the corporate environment can’t? Granted, the CIA does handpick highly capable individuals with a specific set of skills and provides them with intensive training, but so do many companies.

Several decades ago, the CIA developed an intensive program to teach foreign languages to their operatives in a short amount of time.  The learners were immersed in a sort of language bootcamp with décor replicating a typical city where the language is spoken. The “trainers” were native speakers who would act as real people, carrying out everyday roles (think shopkeeper, for example) and they would only communicate in the language being taught. The learners would have to live in that environment for a few weeks and would have to adapt pretty quickly in order to meet their everyday needs such as buying food from that shopkeeper.

Following the standard CIA operative training, the learners would have to carry out missions similar to what they would do on the ground once sent to the foreign country. The results were astonishing and the agents were able to communicate almost fluently within a few weeks. This means that they could be sent to the foreign country and start their missions straight after the training.

“Immersive” courses exist in the more familiar world of corporate learning and development but when you compare them with the CIA language boot camp it does put things into perspective. While I’m not suggesting that we create simulated environments for each type of real life situation learners may face, I believe that in 2015 we already have all the necessary digital tools available to better simulate working environments and create efficient and immersive learning that has an impact. Here are some of the features of boot camp learning which we tend to ignore:

  • There is no “frame” in the form of a course guide, corrective guidance or tips. There are just realistic behaviours and the consequences of getting it right or wrong
  • The sensory elements of the learning experience including appearances, sounds and emotions are generally not considered as much as the content itself
  • This is a deep and sustained dive into the world of the learning, not the sequence of very short interventions which is currently the fashion

One example of connecting physical objects to the internet and creating the “Internet of Things” is the “SmartLiving” project. This works by placing sensors or small processing units on a physical object and it then recording or sending message actions. For example, your fridge sends you a message asking you to get milk on the way home. I’m sure these little sensors would have their use in creating an immersive learning environment. The possibilities are endless. You could place sensors on a mannequin used for first aid training and the data could be used to simulate the real consequences of the learner’s actions, whether right or wrong, on a nearby screen, or even via a VR headset.

The principles of immersive learning point naturally to virtual reality and replica environments where the new behaviours and skills could be fully applied. This is still expensive, but it’s getting a lot easier and cheaper thanks to gaming and graphics engines like Unity. 3D is beginning its migration from the world of video games and movies into a much wider application, just as the use of film itself migrated from the big screen to the small screen, and finally into the hands of corporate trainers.

It’s also worth remembering that the very big budget stuff like 3D contributes only part of the “immersiveness” to a contemporary film. The original innovation of ‘talkies’ as opposed to ‘movies’ was to combine sight and sound in a single experience which was radically more immersive than what came before it. Audio in elearning courses is often used in a very basic way, usually to meet accessibility requirements or tackle literacy issues. But good sound, including background elements and auditory responses to learner interactions, matters as much as good graphics. It’s very rare to see it used to turn a course into a fully immersive experience but it’s cheaper than the 3D route.

Nevertheless, even good sound is going to make a typical course more expensive, especially when you take into account the costs of music and sound effect production. So you’re probably wondering whether I’m implying that a Hollywood budget is necessary for a good learning experience. Well… Yes!

To create a CIA-type immersive environment where you reduce the learning time from one year to a few months requires a lot of money and development time. But if we can reduce the time spent by learners to pick a new skill, there’s huge scope for generating ROI. In other words, we need to find the right balance between drastically increasing the costs of elearning and reducing the learning time, thus generating ROI by enabling learners to hit the ground running as soon as they’re done with their training.

In this context, it’s interesting to see this argument made by the CIA in a 1961 publication entitled “Comes the teaching Machine.” The article marvels at the world of possibilities with the arrival of new technologies and lays out a number of surprisingly prescient instructional design principles which are still applied today. It also highlights that whilst the main drawback to computer learning is the high upfront cost, for large audiences it’s worth the investment. I personally believe that changing the way we use sight and sound to create a fully immersive experience is the way forward. To echo the words of the CIA’s 1961 publication, “it is worth serious examination.” We just need to wait another 54 years to catch up!