The Rise, Fall, and Re-creation of the Counter-terrorism Simulation (Part 1)

Sometimes, we get lost in the excitement of technologies. When you’re a hammer, all you see is nails, right?.  It’s like that for us.  Every problem or situation we see can be “improved” with technology. Last year at CALI, I talked a little about this… the “shiny object syndrome” we often develop… looking for places technology can be used.

My story over the next few postings will be just about that.  We had carte blanche over a newly created program at the College of Law (CoL) called, “The Counter-terrorism Simulation.”  Like kids in a candy store, we saw this as an opportunity to show the awesomeness that is technology, and make the other faculty come knocking at our door.  Unfortunately, the story wouldn’t play out like that.  I’m going to tell you how it did.

Part 1: The Rise and Fall

So, what is the Counterterrorism Simulation, anyway?
The Counterterrorism simulation is an annual exercise put on by Professor Amos Guiora as part of his Perspectives on Counterterrorism class. Amos came to the CoL in the Spring of 2006 and immediately connected with the IT group to help facilitate this simulation exercise.

Of course, we jumped at the chance.  See, it was our job to help facilitate the realism of the simulation, so the students could have an approximation of what life would be like in a real-life situation. Plus, there’s a major learning theory out there that students can learn just by taking part in an activity called situated cognition.

It worked like this:  about 20 students total, take part in a full-day Counterterrorism simulation (8-9 hours).  The class was run like many law school courses are run.  The course is centered around a book Amos’ has written about Counterterrorism.  Each day was a lecture/discussion/dialogue about whatever chapter was currently being read. At the end of the semester the students were put in this Simulation and asked to “play out” a scenario put before them: dirty bombs, international border disputes, torture, and whatever the hot topic was for that time. The students took on roles of the Cabinet.  Someone was President, someone was Vice-president, Secretary of State, and so on. They made decisions based largely on what they had learned in the chapters they had read.

Amos had experience running simulations during his tenure in the Israeli Defense Forces, and found it a good way to train soldiers for situations they might encounter in the field. This experiential learning experience was very valuable for learning. He liked it so much, he brought it to Case Western (where he started teaching) and created a simulation to train students for the decision making environment they’ll see themselves in after they leave law school. When he came on board at the University of Utah, he brought the Simulation with him.

First year was slow, second year exploded…
As you can imagine, the first year was a little dance between Amos and IT. The technology we interjected wasn’t terribly advanced or well thought out. We just wanted to impress him with our application of technology.

The Simulation separated the students into three or four separate groups. Each group was “somewhere else” in the world: France, DC, NY, etc.  We facilitated this by putting the student groups into different rooms. So, some technology implemented was to contribute to the illusion of this distance and facilitate communications. We set up phone lines, video conferencing, pseudo-email accounts, etcetera.

We pre-recorded news clips, burned onto DVDs, to be delivered to the students at preplanned times throughout the scenario. These clips helped progress the storyline of the Simulation. We also tried to simulate television news in bringing information to the students in a way they might receive it in real life – through video.

The first Simulation was slow and simple, but we already had ideas for improving it the next year.

The second year saw tremendous improvement.  First, Amos recruited a student volunteer to help write out a new simulation scenario. This person consulted with IT to discuss how we could better “tell the story” and “make it more real” for the students.  It was this person’s (singular) job to draft a scenario that would last 8-9 hours.

We injected a little more technology. We did away with the DVD’s and created a mock CNN website, complete with embedded video news clips. The website was modeled after the real CNN site to contribute to the realism.  We contracted with the University’s Media Solutions team to help us make our news recordings look more realistic, complete with graphics that CNN might use on-screen during a real time of crisis.

The biggest increase in “technological innovation for realism” was a bit of a mistake. Some students made an off-hand comment to Amos about talking to the CEO of Home Depot. He passed my phone number (my personal phone number, mind you) to the students and said, “The person on the other end can help you.”  Sure enough, they called me and I acted out the role of the CEO. Soon after that another call came asking for the Governor of Maryland. Then the Police Chief of New York.  At the end of the day, I had over 300 missed calls and 70 voicemails.

This phenomena showed us that if we want to increase the realism (which was our goal, right?), we need to have “shadow players”. People whose job it was to play these roles to contribute to the activity of the simulation. We had to facilitate web conferencing, cell phones, personal blogs, email addresses, Google docs, and more.  Technology had to step in to create this illusion of reality for the students. If there was a problem and the storyline called for it, we threw technology at it, then beat our chest as to how awesome technology was for the Simulation.

Everything can be better with technology!
We started to command a pretty heavy role with the Simulation design and planning. If the simulation script writer needed something, they often contacted IT to help facilitate whatever it was they needed. We were the go-to engine for virtually every aspect of the Simulation.

Eventually, we started to stream the Simulation out to the masses. We wanted to show the world everything that was going on in the Simulation rooms.  If we told the students that thousands of people could potentially watch their performance, we’re increasing the reality – creating the “high pressure” environment. Not only that, but technology would help us turn the Simulation into a big event – almost a giant social media event for the CoL.

Not only that, but we were able to recruit a local community college and their journalism department. To fill the mock CNN website with news, we had journalism students interview and write stories over the course of the simulation. They used their digital cameras and recorders to capture the conversation, then transformed them into news articles/video clips and posted them online.

So, what are some things we did by year three of the simulation?

  • Mock CNN website (WordPress) to deliver “news” articles and video streams to participants.
  • Rooms all outfitted with video conferencing hardware to facilitate communication between “countries and organizations”.
  • Live video streams of all rooms at all times.
  • Interactive dashboard where external viewers could “peek” into the simulation without intrusion and chat about what they saw.
  • Local and remote shadow players, complete with phones, email, blogs, etc. that could interact with the students
  • Student journalists to report on the activities

Are we doing it right?
Eventually, we started to grow a little too big for our own britches.  We enlisted full-time help from the Media Solutions team to help run the web streams and capture the events. We looked at adding outside groups (hospital, political science, communications, external professional organizations) to help add additional fuel to the “realism stew” we were creating. One volunteer simulation writer became a committee of students. We even had a documentary made about the simulation that won some ABA awards.

This is all good, right?  A win for IT’s involvement in CoL affairs. Legitimacy! Faculty loved us, trusted us, and wanted to collaborate with us – right?!  Our Alumni looked forward to it every year – right?! The fact that we integrated technology with the educational environment made it a huge success that everyone wanted to be a part of – right?!

Well, not quite.  Interest in the program wasn’t quite what we thought it would be. There was even word was going around that it was a distracting circus. It’s around this time that this question popped up – “What are the students actually learning?

That single question made us wonder, what ARE the students learning? And further, how do we know?

Part 2 on Thursday….


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