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Cultural Training: More Than Learning a Culture

May. 20, 2013 - 03:45AM   |  
By LAUREN BIRON   |   Comments
CAMO, the Culture Awareness for Military Operations trainer, provides interactive lessons in cultural awareness.
CAMO, the Culture Awareness for Military Operations trainer, provides interactive lessons in cultural awareness. (Aptima)
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CAMO, the Culture Awareness for Military Operations trainer, provides interactive lessons in cultural awareness. (Aptima) / Aptima

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As the U.S. military shifts its focus away from the Middle East and over to Asia, the Pacific and Africa, it faces a particular quandary: How do you give soldiers cultural awareness when they don’t know which culture they will encounter?

Aptima’s Culture Awareness for Military Operations trainer, or CAMO, focuses on teaching students how to recognize and assess culture more broadly rather than providing detailed instructions on how to deal with a specific populace.

“If there has been one trend, one push, it’s been towards the development of these general competencies and less on the nuts and bolts of a specific culture,” said Alex Walker, Aptima’s program manager for the project.

Born from a classroom course for Marines and under development for the Office of Naval Research, the computer-based training is interactive, distributable and aims at higher-level thought processes.

The CAMO course addresses five dimensions of culture: environment, economy, social structure, political structure and belief system. In each category, users go through three kinds of instruction aimed at helping Marines understand second- and third-order effects of their actions.

“We need to get them to learn how to think about cultural situations, how to interact with a culture, how to pull out the information they need for their interactions, regardless of the specific context of the situation,” Walker said.

It starts with something called “problem-based learning,” a style often used for teaching complex cognitive skills.

First, users read through case studies describing a certain problem they might face in a new culture. They investigate the problem, make a decision on how to act, and then get feedback. By steeping Marines in a problem before giving them instruction, developers help the user start asking questions, finding common threads, and looking for core problems rather than the surface-level issue — all before the portion of direct instruction.

For example, a case study might show a town doesn’t have access to clean drinking water, and the Marines choose to help build a well. But the simple solution may not take into account that an economy is established around the transport and sale of water — and there could be repercussions.

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“It’s more than just identifying the problem and solving it,” Walker said. “A lot of it will center around understanding the problem and the context so you can address that problem in a culturally appropriate way.”

After the case study and a contrasting case (one that draws on similar principles), CAMO includes a period of direct instruction, which begins to address some of the issues users grappled with in phase one. Instead of pages of text, CAMO developers have included multimedia elements and interactive images, meaning users can click around a scene to uncover more information.

The third phase is deliberate practice. After being briefed with a mission, commander’s intent and available resources, users are given a final problem to address using the skills they have learned. For example, they might be given a map and asked where they should rebuild the school, given the mission to maintain stability and a bevy of cultural factors including location, access or safety.

In addition to the hands-on scenarios, there are additional multimedia resources and sections of the course that users can navigate. These will provide additional information, resources, and tips on how to navigate new cultural interactions.

Much of the learning in the operational culture class comes from the guided discussion and interacting with instructors and learning from their experiences. To harness this information, CAMO worked with subject matter experts to collect a variety of scenarios from different cultures and geographic areas — including around the U.S.

“One of the things driving the need for cultural training is the fact that Marines have to be multidimensional,” Walker said. “They have to fight, they have to conduct counterinsurgency, but they also have to do things like disaster relief.”

Aptima has been working on CAMO for just over two years, and continues to work with Marines on the prototype for other features they would like added. Walker said he hopes that future versions will include adaptive feedback and training. Currently, the feedback is general and allows for self-evaluation, but Aptima has used adaptive training in the past.

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“We have that capability, but we have yet to substantiate it within the CAMO software,” Walker said. “We’re looking to do that.”

Adaptive training could tailor the course to the student and resequence scenarios to best fit their experience level. There is also potential to add natural language processing down the road, meaning students could enter a rationale for why they made a decision, which the computer could assess. Walker hopes that the Marine Corps will use the program and update it with lessons learned, keeping information current and capturing expertise from the battlefield.

“We don’t want this to be a rigid training structure,” he said. “We want it to be something malleable, that they can use and evolve with over time.”

CAMO could find a home in several locations if the Marine Corps signs off on it. The system could be used as a train-ahead before Marines attend the culture course — meaning they could then start the class at a higher level. Alternatively, it could be used for additional practice alongside the course, or as refresher training. And, because it is computer-based, it could also provide train-at-your-own-pace learning.

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