FORT SILL, Okla. -- Third Battalion, 6th Air Defense Artillery is leveraging the virtual world to start real conversations in the classroom.

They're using an online platform called Blackboard, as well as simulators to teach students before they even take hold of a piece of Army equipment.

"The new concept is learner-based instruction. So the more we provide the student with how to learn, the easier it is for them to contribute to the classroom environment," said Staff Sgt. Armando Madrigal, 14E instructor and writer.

Students in the Patriot Fire Control Enhanced Operator and Maintainer and Patriot Launching Station Enhanced Operator and Maintainer courses began using Blackboard in October as a precursor to their next day of classroom learning.

The instructors said introducing material ahead of time gives the students a knowledge base so they can quickly move on to tougher concepts.

"When we teach, we show them; we present them the material; we present them the equipment. And then they give us feedback on what they're learning, what they're researching and what they're doing to learn. With Blackboard, since it's a read-ahead for the next day they have something to contribute to the class so they don't come in not knowing anything about the class," said Madrigal.

"It also saves our instructor time from having to explain every single thing," said student Pfc. Daniel Ornelas.

Already the platform has proven useful. Before Blackboard was part of the curriculum, there was an average of eight test failures. Three students also failed two tests in a row and were up to see an academic proficiency panel to determine whether or not they would be recycled. After its integration, that average dropped to three test failures and two students who had to see the proficiency panel.

"The entire Blackboard concept, our [Noncommissioned Officer] Academy uses it, our Patriot Master Gunner course uses it. We looked at what was out there, what we could use to meet Army Learning Model 2015 (ALM 2015). Blackboard was one of them," said Sgt. 1st Class Donald Clemons, 14E senior instructor/writer. "We got a hold of Fort Eustus, [Va.] which is where Blackboard is worked out of, they gave us some space and we decided as instructors what we wanted the students to have."

Clemons said it took them six months of learning the software and designing the material before they shared it with students. They did not want to just put out written material; they also supplied video to visually stimulate learning.

"We had someone videotape us doing the exercise that the student was going to do. We use that video as an opportunity to discuss what is going on so they're not just going through doing a quick check on learning, you know answering a multiple question test, they actually have to comment on what's going on," said Clemons.

Using Blackboard on- or off-duty, students can post and see each other's comments, and are able to expand off one another's ideas. Clemons said oftentimes when a student posts a question, other students supply the answer.

"The instructor is standing back and making sure everything is appropriate. If not they may jump in and say 'Hey you're close, but you forget this, this and this,' and it'll start this whole long chain. I've got posts that are 120 posts on one subject."

The instructors said it also helps them identify other students who may be able to help them outside of the classroom.

"When we go home at night, we go home at night, but now they have the opportunity to ask that Soldier who got it, 'Hey where did you find that on Blackboard?' And they do. They stay up in the barracks and when we're on duty you'll hear them walking by and they'll be talking about something and we're like it's working," said Sgt. 1st Class Shawn Daly, 14T senior instructor/writer.

"It's not like we're doing a test and we can't talk about it. Talking to our battle buddies and doing it together is a huge help," said Ornelas.

The instructors also setup a command corner on Blackboard to share information from cadre and commanders as well as a toolbox application that allows students access to all the material up to six months after leaving the course.

"They can reach back and pull information out of here on classes and courses they did while they were here and use that when they get to their line unit," said Clemons.

While the use of Blackboard is still fairly new, the instructors say it's constantly being revised with feedback from the students and other instructors.

"If I want to go in there and I see content that is wrong or I know that it's changed … it takes all of five seconds to go in there change the content and shoot out a text to my instructors saying, 'Content has changed; the lesson plan has changed. Check it out.' It's instantaneous," said Daly.

An unexpected result from the online platform is the chance to help students with their writing skills. What instructors were noticing was relaxed language and poor syntax.

"Some of the students write like they're writing a text to their friend," said Clemons. "We're seeing LoL, smiley faces, they don't know the proper military writing style. What the instructors have done is said your spelling is incorrect here, you're not using proper grammar here, so now slowly as the Soldiers progress through the classes they're learning this as well."

Blackboard also shows instructors how much time a student spends on an assignment. Clemons said while a normal assignment takes about 30 minutes to complete the time stamp may identify a student who needs extra attention from the class mentor.

"That one particular student might be having difficulty. The can focus on that one student while the other two instructors can work with the entire class. So that one student can be brought up to the class."

The instructors said they also use simulators as part of the crawl, walk, run process of training Soldiers.

Blackboard is their crawl phase of introducing language and concepts, then simulators are used so students can make mistakes in a safe environment; then they are tested on the real thing.

Clemons said even when students wait for their turn on a simulator, they have a tool on Blackboard where Soldier, can take required training such as sexual harassment assault prevention or suicide awareness. Clemons said their goal is to supply line units with Soldiers who are ready for duty.

Recently, Training and Doctrine Command acknowledged 3-6th ADA's practices during the accreditation process stating there was exceptional efforts in ALM 2015 educational technology, Blackboard use, learner-centric simulations and innovative learning approaches.

"The biggest thing is it didn't cost us a dime. The system was already purchased by the Army. All we did was request some space and we built it," said Clemons.