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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Public Roads - September/October 2015

September/October 2015
Issue No:
Vol. 79 No. 2
Publication Number:
Table of Contents

Making Virtual A Reality

by Heather Shelsta

NHI has delivered interactive, conference-style training to State DOT desktops.

A computer-generated island constitutes NHI’s virtual campus, which includes an auditorium (center), an entrance area (right) for visitors to learn about NHI and the training event, and breakout rooms (left) for small group meetings.

State departments of transportation face increasing challenges in training their employees. Traveling to out-of-State conferences or training programs can be expensive and time consuming, and may not be feasible given travel restrictions, reduced budgets, and limited staff time. Moreover, a State DOT may not have enough staff members with the same training needs to host and fill a traditional instructor-led course onsite.

With such constraints, how can State DOTs effectively offer their staff the opportunity to hear from national experts about the latest technologies or policies, or the chance to network with peers in other areas of the country? To help, the National Highway Institute, the technical training arm of the Federal Highway Administration, recently tested a new approach: a virtual, interactive, conference-style training held in real time.

With support from FHWA’s Geotechnical Team, NHI built a virtual world--a training facility with a lecture hall, breakout rooms, and exhibit space. In March 2015, NHI offered its first virtual training expo in the newly developed virtual space.

Bringing the Conference To the Desktop

NHI scheduled the training expo in conjuction with the International Foundation Congress and Equipment Expo (IFCEE), held in San Antonio, TX, to take advantage of the availability of subject matter experts in attendance as speakers. With 83 participants from 29 States, the training reached participants who could not otherwise attend IFCEE.

Virtual world technology is essentially enhanced Web conferencing that uses avatars to represent a participant’s physical presence. Participants can customize an avatar to look like themselves, including gender, hair and skin color, height, and weight. Attendees can even customize their outfits--an opportunity to have a little fun at the event.

“Our virtual world platform has an orientation area where attendees can learn how to move their avatars in the space and collaborate with others,” says Louisa Ward, a training program manager at FHWA who helped organize the event. “Evaluation results from this virtual world training showed that a number of attendees felt the use of avatars helped people stay more engaged than in a traditional webinar.”

The ability to have one-on-one, small group, and large audience discussions is one of the benefits of the new technology. Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) enables participants to speak to others who are nearby--as a conference attendee might chat to others in surrounding seats--and to ask questions of the panelists and speakers. By replicating the type of interaction that attendees can experience in person at an event, the technology offers improvements over webinars and Web-based meetings, which do not offer the ability to have side conversations or small group discussions.

Jeffrey Sizemore, a geotechnical engineer with the South Carolina Department of Transportation, says about his State’s participation in the virtual expo: “This innovative virtual training platform allowed SCDOT the opportunity to participate in the conference technology transfer without the actual physical travel. Interacting with experts in the different subjects and the large number of participants, all from our office desks, gave the sense of being at the conference, and was more conducive to learning.”

Providing Expert Panels at a Distance

Conference-style training differs from traditional NHI training in that it offers access to numerous speakers on a variety topics, rather than a single course with one or two instructors. During the virtual expo, participants could attend keynote speeches and several technical panel sessions available only to the virtual attendees. They could also participate in live-streamed presentations taking place at IFCEE and a showcase featuring virtualized equipment and information on industry and construction advances.

For three of the sessions, Silas Nichols, a geotechnical engineer at FHWA, and the other organizers of the virtual event asked industry groups representing deep foundation design and construction to identify subject matter experts for each panel. He also asked them to develop discussion topics in advance of the conference about issues with construction practices and quality assurance on structure foundations. Finally, he asked them to prepare responses to frame the debate with State DOT engineers. The panelists and participants received the questions in advance so that they would be prepared to comment and facilitate a dialogue.

A fourth panel was a State-only session to discuss an emerging technical issue on foundations and begin developing a strategic plan for research and development. As in the industry-led panels, representatives from State DOTs developed questions in advance to focus the discussions and enable the panelists and participants to prepare comments and questions for one another.

To stimulate further interaction and facilitate debate, event organizers incorporated questions from polls conducted during the panels to solicit information from State DOTs about their practices. The moderator of each session could use the poll results to better direct questions to panelists and to enable States to see what their peers were doing in these technical areas.

Offering Exclusive Access to Lecturers

One of the significant benefits of conducting the training event from the site of the IFCEE conference was the availability of technical presentations. As part of the virtual conference, the event’s organizers selected several IFCEE lectures by internationally recognized experts on structure foundations to broadcast to the participants. Industry experts being honored for their contributions to the field gave three of the presentations. The fourth lecture was the IFCEE conference keynote address by G. Wayne Clough, former secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

During the broadcasts of the lectures, participants could comment to each other and the moderators via instant messaging. Following the broadcast, the speakers participated in moderated discussions that provided an exclusive question-and-answer opportunity for State DOT participants. This additional benefit was not available to attendees at the real-world conference in San Antonio.

Showcasing Innovations Virtually

The third component of NHI’s conference was a showcase of equipment innovations and construction advances. This component required moving what normally would be an exhibit hall of displays and models to the virtual space. Manufacturers, contractors, and consultants created three-dimensional representations of equipment and offered informational videos and other materials. Virtual visitors could view the 3–D models and videos and download information from vendors.

“The goal of the showcase was to educate public sector engineers on equipment capabilities and limitations in a way that is usually restricted to in-person expos,” says FHWA’s Nichols. “It provided an opportunity for virtual attendees to engage industry experts and other State DOTs regarding structure foundations and construction of geotechnical features.”

Using Technology To Overcome Limitations

Training delivery methods must continue to evolve to meet the challenges of limited budgets and travel restrictions. NHI is working with FHWA’s Office of Information Technology Services to determine a platform that meets NHI training requirements as well as security requirements in order to offer future training events in virtual worlds.

In addition to the auditorium, entrance, and breakout rooms, the virtual campus offers a long pavilion for exhibit booths and an expo space for 3–D equipment models, visible here at the far side of the island.

The March 2015 event was well received as a special opportunity for State geotechnical and bridge engineers to easily access information on advances and innovations by connecting them with subject matter expertise in the geotechnical community. Participants indicated that they would like to participate in further conference-style training and expressed interest in the possibility of traditional, instructor-led NHI courses being delivered using a virtual format.

“The virtual campus gives NHI and the FHWA program offices a very different, yet effective platform for making external subject matter expertise available to State DOTs,” says Nichols. “The ability to network with the semblance of a physical presence gives users a sense of participation within much larger peer groups than we have ever been able to provide through traditional learning environments.”

Heather Shelsta is a training program manager at NHI. She holds a bachelor of science degree in foreign service and a master of policy management, both from Georgetown University.

For more information, contact Heather Shelsta at 703–235–0987 or