Simulations – Hydra in the Cloud

In this interview, Dr Elaine Brown, a lecturer in the School of Law, Criminal Justice and Computing, and Shireen Dorosti, IT Communication Officer for the Information Technology (IT) Department, discuss how Hydra, a special simulation system, was developed at Canterbury Christ Church University (CCCU).

“We Love Hydra” by Elaine Brown. All rights reserved.
“We Love Hydra” by Elaine Brown. All rights reserved.

Can you briefly explain what Hydra is?

Hydra is an immersive simulation system, supported by the Hydra Foundation, that provides a unique, high-fidelity learning environment that enables the monitoring of real-time leadership and decision making in critical incidents (e.g., terrorist attacks, murders, abductions). The system has now been extended to other areas such as education, health, social services (e.g. child protection enquiries) and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) (e.g. hostage recovery) in the humanitarian world.

In each simulation, participants are split into teams. Each team operates within a separate ‘pod’ which functions as a “microworld”, so that it is as close to reality as possible; they are monitored via CCTV and boundary microphones. A team of staff will run the simulation via a central control room and will observe the behaviours and requests of each team interacting with the simulation.

How did CCCU become involved in using Hydra?

The university placed a bid to work closely with the Hydra Foundation so that we could offer students who were planning to go on an work in policing a unique opportunity to experience first-hand an authentic simulated experience of being part of a critical incidence unit. What you need to bear in mind, our students are not police officers, so a certain amount of transitioning is needed.

There are a couple of firsts for the University. We are the first university to be using the new web-based Hydra in the Cloud system that can operate on tablets, laptops, and desk computers with no addition software installed.

We are also the first Higher Education Institution (HEI) to use Hydra within our undergraduate programme offering.

How is Hydra being used by the School?

As this was our first year with the system, we piloted Hydra on a Level 6 module called Terrorism and Political Violence.

What is involved in setting up Hydra?

There was quite a bit of time needed to get Hydra up-and-running and supported, so I am indebted to Shireen Dorosti (of IT) for supporting helping me with the installation and project management aspects of the role.

But to develop a “scenario” within Hydra can take up to 6 months from idea, to research, developing a narrative, ensuring that it constructively aligned to the module’s learning outcomes and for the creation of a range of materials and resources.

I collaborated very closely with the Hydra Foundation and Kent Police in developing a scenario that was authentic, relevant and challenging to our students. Importantly, this project relied on contributions from many different departments across the University, including School of Media, Art and Design; School of Music and Performing Arts; the University Solicitor’s Office; Computing, Digital Forensics and Cybersecurity; IT; The Students’ Union; even the Reverend Dr Jeremy Law and the Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Professor Rama Thirunamachandran offered time and assistance to ensure the practical validity of the scenario.

In addition, staff that were using and supporting the Hydra system had to go on a two day training course to be certified to manage and support Hydra.

How has Hydra facilitated with your teaching?

You don’t develop Hydra around your course. It is a tool that enables you to demonstrate, as realistically as possible, the processes involved and the decision made by a team during a critical incident.

On a personal level, it was very satisfying to see how much the students enjoyed the experience and the invaluable insights that they gained from that. It has also sharpened their critical thinking skills. In fact, one of the unintended outcomes of this process is to see how transferable this experience has been to students in other modules in terms of attendance, criticality and engagement.

How have the students responded to the use of Hydra?

Because the Hydra experience was so full-on, the attendance by students on these events was very high. They developed stronger models of thinking and for some students, the experience helped to build their confidence – so it was not all about academic attainment.

The students got to learn, very quickly, that they had to think about different outcomes for certain incidents based on the information that was being presented to them by a number of external actors within the scenario. This had led to a number of students to develop mind maps to help them organise and synthesise different types of information and outcomes.

Is there anything you would have done differently?

Looking back, I don’t think there was anything I could have done differently. There was a lot of uncertainty in pulling this project off, but I learnt so much along the way. The project incorporated the co-operation of around 60 people in total and I believe we worked well as a team together to make the project a success.

What next?

We are planning to introduce Hydra into a Forensic Investigation module called Crime Scene Management in 2015/16, Law and Criminal Investigation modules in 2017/18.

I am also planning to evaluate and publish our findings and experiences into academic journals and conferences as I think we have a really good story to tell.

The School of Law, Criminal Justice and Computing are looking to make us a Centre of Excellence on the use of Hydra.

I have been working very closely with the Information Technology (IT) department to get this system up-and-running and indeed colleagues in the Computing, Digital Forensics and Cybersecurity department over the summer they will be  to refurbishing and refreshing the rooms in the Invicta building to enable us to do a lot more with our students.

There are also plans a view for the future to have a booking system so that people can book out Hydra for learning and teaching events.

So there will be a lot going on in terms of promoting, embedding and expanding Hydra within the University and beyond.

Author’s Note

My thanks to both Elaine and Shireen for giving up their time to discuss this very fascinating and important project.