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Imagine engineers, program managers, shipyards, Sailors and Marines designing aircraft, analyzing parts, creating new tactics, training and models — all together in real time, without ever leaving their office.

All this is possible in a virtual world, a computer-based 3-D simulated environment. Virtual worlds, such as OpenSim, MOSES or AvayaLive Engage, enable real-time, synchronous, remote human interaction via avatars.

Members of Naval Air System Command's (NAVAIR) Leadership Development Program (NLDP) are using virtual worlds to increase their collaboration by networking, connecting and creating through voice and text chat.

"We are exposing our future leaders to the potential of virtual world technologies through virtual conversations and interactions, so they can learn how to infuse this technology into their programs and work," said Pamela Jamieson, deputy director of NAVAIR's Total Force Strategy and Management Department. "One way we offer in-world conversations is through NLDP's monthly 'fireside chats.'"

To date, NLDP has held five virtual fireside chats in Second Life with NAVAIR technical and leadership personnel from all over the U.S. Employees log into the virtual Patuxent River base in Second Life as their personally created avatars, meet with other NLDP participants and guest speakers at a virtual fire pit and spend an hour chatting about the new NAVAIR University, the "Federalist Papers," job rotations or the current NAVAIR environment. Using their avatars, they can also explore training simulators and other NAVAIR facilities.

"We are finding alternative venues to connect up and down the organization to get input from everyone in the organization," said Gary Kessler, executive director for the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division, who participated in the Jan. 22 fireside chat. "By going to these open architectures, we can stay ahead of threats and do it at a lower cost, leveraging the best and brightest ideas inside the government and across academia and small businesses so we can continue to deliver world-class products and services to our Sailors and Marines."

Mechanical Engineer Don Balcom said he enjoys the relaxed social networking environment of the virtual world the best, while P-3 Assistant Program Manager, Systems Engineering Kerry Westervelt said being exposed to cutting-edge technology and skill development will help keep employees on the front end.

"Because technology is forever changing the way we operate and do business, it is critical that NAVAIR's developing leaders be technology visionaries and be well informed of where technology can lead us in the next few years," Westervelt said.

In addition to NLDP, NAVAIR is researching and partnering with other pioneers across academia and the Department of Defense on virtual environments to:

 Develop and conduct virtual world training with the Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division Newport and Submarine Learning Center, leveraging NAVAIR's SAIL facility and SQQ-89 trainer. Targeted for summer 2014, this instructional event will connect real-life tactical remote systems. Effectively, team members from all over the country, co-present in a virtual world, will remote control tactical equipment in other remote locations, using standard interfaces.

 Maintain and develop NAVAIR's public virtual space to educate and showcase the command's capabilities;

 Interface with students to bring science, technology, engineering and math concepts to life inside a virtual world;

 Develop a browser-based virtual world, offering the capability for employees and customers to share desktops and presentations and incorporate video;

 Build a secure NAVAIR virtual space for use across NAVAIR programs, competencies and sites;

 Help accredit virtual worlds for secure use across the DOD.

Virtual office

Virtual spaces aren't the only new technology NLDP participants are using. The program also has a virtual office, the brainchild of NLDP alumna Marie Marrero, where employees can access program materials, links and other resources via a visual interpretation of a standard workspace.

"The virtual office and NLDP SharePoint lounge foster a 'green' information technology (IT) approach to leadership," Marrero, an IT software engineer, said. "They help us maximize use of the wonderful resources made accessible to us throughout the program."

Massive open online courses

Barely two years young, massive open online courses (MOOCs) have already begun to radically change the way universities teach. The top universities worldwide have begun creating free, Web-enabled courses. NDLP participants are encouraged to participate in these classes using Coursera and covering topics such as organizational analysis, nutrition sciences and terrorism.

"As a national program, NLDP has explored possible methods of effective collaboration across the command and identified virtual worlds and MOOCs to be highly effective," said NLDP Manager Stephanie Gleason. "Over the past year, program participants have been able to not only develop a deeper comfort level with emergent technologies — an important leadership skill — but also increase their dialogue and engagement with one another."