Why cyber trainers take gaming seriously

08/12/2021
Why cyber trainers take gaming seriously - SSgt Murray

In the world of cyber warfare, you might be surprised to learn that the Defence Academy uses gaming to teach the next generation of cyber operators, just one of its many modern approaches to training.

This gamification of training allows students to use immersive, Synthetic Learning Environments (SLEs). It allows students to practise and hone their cyber skills, at home if they wish, attacking and defending virtual systems without the risk of damaging real-life IT networks.

“They have to understand how an enemy might attack a network, so as well as defending a system, it’s vital they learn how to attack as well… and the game-like virtual lab lets them do that safely,” said Staff Sergeant Julie Murray, a trainer at the Defence Cyber School (DCS), part of the Information Warfare Group in the Defence College for Military Capability Integration (DCMCI).

A gaming leader board – including the trainers and people in other military units –generates healthy competition to be at the top.

“A lot of our students are gamers. They take this very seriously and try to go as far as they can to be top of the leader board,” explained SSgt Murray.

But it is not just the gamers who learn from these virtual labs. “All of our students, no matter what their age or background, benefit from this because most people are experienced with online platforms now,” said SSgt Murray, “It isn’t the dry reading material of past years. The virtual lab has videos, quizzes and feedback that reading notes don’t provide. We have many kinaesthetic learners, who learn best by doing, and this helps them a lot.

“It is a dynamic learning environment. We teach the theory and then set students tasks in the virtual lab. We can monitor how each student is doing, and if one of them is struggling on a particular task, we can adapt our teaching to help them improve.”

The DCS is a centre of excellence for cyber training for defence, preparing personnel for operations above and below the threshold of armed conflict. The DCS demonstrates how the Defence Academy is optimising professional defence and security education, sharpening the intellectual and technological edge of our people.

SSgt Murray, who joined the Defence Cyber School as an instructor in 2020, said that gamification is just one example of innovation in the DCS’s training.

Why cyber trainers take gaming seriously - SSgt Murray

“We are innovative on many levels. For instance, we have a flexible training pathway that adapts to the skill level and requirements of our students and their personal circumstances. Courses – whether master’s degree study or the Cyber Foundation Pathway (CFP) – can be delivered online as well as face-to-face.”

“We can tailor the nine CFP modules to meet individuals’ needs, starting with the basics or moving straight to more advanced modules,” said SSgt Murray, whose previous postings have included Chicksands, Blandford, with the Royal Corps of Signals, and delivering courses on the Bowman military communications system.

This flexibility means the DCS can reach a wider audience by allowing people who might otherwise struggle with the commitment of cyber training to adapt the courses to their professional and domestic schedules.

As a supervisor of new staff joining DCS, she aims to ensure that, as well as being cyber experts, they become effective teachers in this increasingly critical domain.

“Of course, we are on the cyber front line at the DCS, but it’s important that everyone is cyber aware. It doesn’t matter what your role and background are. For instance, we’ve had a military chef on the course who wanted to learn about cyber… and he did very well.”

For SSgt Murray, cyber is fascinating, absorbing and exciting work. And DCS students appear to agree. “We know students are doing 50 per cent of their work in their own time, for instance using the virtual labs. There aren’t many vocations where students are that absorbed and dedicated, she said.”