Bringing Conference-Style Training to the Desktop
The National Highway Institute serves customers from across the highway sector: State departments of transportation, local public agencies, consultants, and industry professionals. Increasingly, many of them face restrictions on travel, reduced staffing, and limited time, all of which impact their ability to participate in classroom training or conferences, or to host traditional instructor-led training. To help meet the need for training within these constraints, NHI offers a wide variety of Web-based training and webinars.
Now, NHI is working to adopt more advanced technologies and methods to reach remote audiences. The institute has hosted two successful pilot training events in three-dimensional (3–D) virtual worlds: the first in March 2012 and the most recent in March 2015. These events enabled NHI to offer State DOT employees the experience of attending a conference without the time and travel costs. (For more information on the 2015 conference, see “Making Virtual a Reality” on page 14 in this issue of Public Roads.)
Meeting Technical Requirements
For the 2015 training event, NHI sought to improve the virtual world experience and take advantage of advances in technology that have occurred since its 2012 pilot. The developers explored options for an avatar- and browser-based, 3–D platform at a lower cost using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services for communicating within the virtual world. The team wanted a customizable, easy-to-use product that could provide a virtual space that resembled a main conference area, as well as a trade show and breakout rooms.
The platform needed to accommodate a large group of participants. For the 2012 pilot, NHI limited State DOTs to one connection per agency because of concerns about available bandwidth. The new technology needed to offer an improved buffering rate, significantly fewer connection errors, and other enhancements to better handle many users and periods of heavy Internet traffic. These upgrades would enable employees of participating agencies to connect from multiple locations, improving the convenience and flexibility of the virtual conference.
After researching available technologies, NHI selected a platform with features such as participant text chat, avatar customization, video screens, and presentation and collaboration tools. “The VoIP system, which works for most users with little or no configuration, is proximity-based and gives users control over how far they want to project their voices—whisper, normal, or shout,” says Silas Nichols, an event organizer. “The system offers administrators important participant management tools like microphone muting and discussion management tools including user polling and laser pointers.”
The platform accommodates 100–200 participants per server, and an event may use multiple servers to enable more users to access a single space. However, participants can only interact with others on their own server. For the first use of the new technology at the March 2015 conference, NHI decided to limit the event to 100 participants, including panelists and administrators. This ensured that everyone could network with all users and reduced the likelihood of experiencing bandwidth issues.
The platform used for the 2015 conference required the installation of a browser plug-in that enables the 3–D environment and VoIP system to run within the user’s Web browser. However, browser plug-ins can cause security concerns. The Chrome™ browser recently dropped support of plug-ins, and other browsers may soon follow.
NHI is working with the Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Information Technology Services to analyze alternatives and determine if a virtual world platform exists that will provide greater security while offering the features needed to deliver training virtually. One emerging Web technology enables companies to develop 3–D virtual worlds that run natively in Web browsers without needing a plug-in, which would greatly reduce or eliminate current security concerns.
An overwhelming majority of attendees who completed an evaluation of the March 2015 conference want to see more virtual training events and conferences. NHI is soliciting input on topics and training courses of interest through either a virtual environment or via other means to reach audiences where they are. To share feedback, send an email to NHICustomerService@dot.gov.
For more information, contact Louisa Ward at 703–235–0523 or email@example.com.
Louisa Ward is a training program manager at NHI.