Army eEducation: The distance learning approach

By Jack Judy / September 2012

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There are a growing number of military officers vying for a finite number of seats for their mid-level professional education. The vast improvements in distance learning technology provide a solution to meet the educational demand of the armed forces and bypass the constraints of resident programs. Effective distance learning programs offer the same learning outcomes and quality of learning as resident programs by providing the same curriculum via the "virtual classroom."

The benefit of distance learning has been embraced by the United States Army, which is working to transform the future of its educational environment. The central idea of the U.S. Army Learning Concept for 2015 (TRADOC PAM 525-8-2) is "the Army must have an adaptive development and delivery system, not bound by brick and mortar, but one that extends knowledge to soldiers at the operational edge, is capable of updating learning content rapidly, and is responsive to Operational Army needs"[1]. This concept is the framework to expand educational opportunities throughout the force.

Bringing Training to the Soldier

Since the employment of print-based correspondence courses in the 1940s, the Army continues to support the lifelong learning needs of the force [2]. Using a combination of technologies and methodologies, the U.S Army Command and General Staff College's Command and General Staff School (CGSS) provides distance learning opportunities that support professional development requirements of field grade officers. The Command and General Staff Officers Course is the officer's intermediate level education and has two components: the common core (CC) and the advance operations course (AOC). For an officer to achieve the requisite educational level for continued schooling (senior service colleges) and remain competitive for promotion, the Army requires them to be Military Education Level (MEL) 4, which involves the completion of both the CC and AOC for officers in the operations career field. The Army provides a combination of options to support the professional military education requirements for officers who are not able to attend in resident. Officers may complete the CC course at a satellite campus, through asynchronous distance learning, or through the reserve component schools. For completion of the non-resident AOC the CGSS Department of Distance Education (DDE) provides students a flexible learning environment as well as a robust virtual classroom. The distance learning approach is a mix between asynchronous and synchronous learning. This robust virtual classroom uses a combination of the Blackboard course management system, Defense Connect Online (DCO), an assigned staff group of 16 students, and DDE facilitator.

This distance learning approach provides students with the flexibility they need in order to balance work requirements while completing the same learning objectives of the resident course. Flexibility in this instance does not translate to self-paced; the AOC via distance learning is one year long and follows a fixed schedule throughout the year. The class progresses with lesson per week rate and requires students to keep pace with their staff group though the year. This is also important to ensure students complete all required lessons before commencing with group work and exercises.

The DDE uses Blackboard to deliver the asynchronous component of the curriculum. Simply stated, it's the virtual classroom. As with a resident classroom, students can view instruction, collaborate, create discussion, and take exams. Students use computer based instruction to receive the "lecture," access and participate in discussion boards to collaborate with other students, and take required exams. This precludes students having to be at a class at a certain place and time, providing flexibility to work around their schedules.

The department uses DCO to provide the synchronous component of the curriculum. This online live forum provides students opportunities to collaborate in real time, using voice, chat, and graphical presentations. It is also the forum facilitators use to allow students to present briefings. DCO enables peer-to-peer discussion and debate. An added benefit with DCO is the ability to record sessions for future review for students who miss the live session. With the exception of physical presence in the same classroom, there is no discernible difference in this forum and resident classes.

The foundation of the distance learning approach is the staff group and facilitator. The school assigns students a staff group and facilitator who remain together until graduation. The assigned staff group provides students an opportunity to work through group dynamics, have a familiar yet diverse set of peers to learn with, along with the below mentioned advantages of group learning. The staff groups provide students the opportunity to work through Tuckman's five stages of group development [3]:

  1. Forming
  2. Storming
  3. Norming
  4. Performing
  5. Adjourning

This delivers additional experience in working with and motivating peers to accomplish a common objective. The group diversity replicates what the student will experience as a member of a staff; each member with specific skill sets, expertise, and experiences to contribute to the group. Other benefits of the group include:

  1. Groups usually get a lot more done in a shorter amount of time.
  2. Each member of the group has something unique that they can contribute.
  3. Students are able to learn more, and truly understand things better.
  4. Students can relate to one another more easily than to a teacher [4].

While geographically separate, students still gain similar benefits as resident students.

The final element in the equation is the facilitator. Just as in a synchronous learning environment, the assigned facilitator coaches, mentors, motivates, and facilitates learning for the group. This also provides students a forum to discuss issues, ask questions, and clarify issues; a forum not readily available to students in an asynchronous learning environment. The facilitator provides the glue that keeps the group together. The synergy of the Command and General Staff College's distance learning approach provides students with the best elements of both approaches; flexibility when needed (asynchronous), and the interaction to learn from others (synchronous). All under the watchful eye of a qualified DDE facilitator.

The DDE AOC distance learning approach exposes students to a combination of these learning methodologies on a routine basis. Facilitators schedule most lessons for a weeklong period to provide students the flexibility to read, study, access and complete the materials on their timeline. To complete some of the lessons, the student may have to watch a computer based instruction, take an online exam, and participate in discussions with other students via an online discussion board (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Asynchronous Learning Model.
Asynchronous Learning Model

Lessons that have group practical exercise-or other group product requirements-will use the elements of Blackboard, require group interaction (email, phone, etc.), and incorporate DCO for final group presentations to the facilitator (see Figure 2). Woven between all these events is the facilitator providing guidance, answering questions, and keeping the staff group on track. These learning methodologies provide students a virtual classroom that allows them to receive lesson materials, complete assessments, interact with other students, ask questions, receive feedback, and present products using several media enhanced options. While this distance learning approach provides students a learning environment commensurate with a resident program, some audiences still question the quality of the learning.

Figure 2. Synchronous Learning Model.
Synchronous Learning Model

Findings

There are many studies on the effectiveness of distance learning, and the common finding among the studies is there is "no significant difference" between the learning outcomes of traditional and distance learning [2]. The U.S Department of Education did a meta-analysis on studies comparing online learning with traditional face-to-face learning and found that for older learners, "students in online conditions performed modestly better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction" [5]. The Army Research Institute Special Report 49 discusses similar trends reporting: "A National Guard information operations course was delivered using instructor controlled graphics and two-way audio (i.e., audiographics), and no differences were found between DL [distance learning] and in-class trainees in terms of outcomes on a final written test"[2]. While these studies demonstrate parity between the methods, distance learning doesn't always outperform resident outcomes. The special report discussed findings from a test at Fort Rucker Alabama in an air traffic control course using both modes. It stated the test results were equal in terms of knowledge; however, the resident group performed better on hands-on skill tests than students from the distance learning course [2]. While distance learning may not always be able to provide the same experiences as hands on learning, educators need to keep in mind that not all learning requires hands on experiences.

Conclusion

Distance learning can provide the same outcomes and quality of learning as resident programs by providing the same curriculum and a virtual classroom. Today's technology enables educational institutions to provide the same quality education regardless of student location. The Command and General Staff School's Department of Distance Education's distance learning approach for the Advance Officer's Course provides student's the flexibility to complete their intermediate level education while balancing the long list of competing demands of today's force without sacrificing the quality of learning.

About the Author

Jack Judy is currently an assistant professor at the Command and General Staff College's (CGSC) Department of Distance Education at Fort Leavenworth Kansas. He retired from the Army after 25 years as a Lieutenant Colonel. He's worked at the college for more than four years, and now teaches the Advance Operations Course through distance learning.

References

[1] TRADOC Pam 525-8-2. The U.S. Army Learning Concept for 2015. January 20, 2011

[2] Wisher, R. A., Sabol, M. A. , and Moses, F. L. Distance Learning: The soldier's perspective. U.S Army Research Institute. Special Report 49. May 2002.

[3] Tuckman, B. W. Developmental Sequence in Small Groups. Psychological Bulletin 63, 6 (1965). Reprint, Schuman, S. P., ed. Group Facilitation: A Research and Applications Journal Number 3, Spring 2001.

[4] Middlecamp, C. Students Speak out on Collaborative Learning. Teaching Stories. Wisconsin Center for Education Research; http://www.wcer.wisc.edu/archive/cl1/cl/story/middlecc/TSCMC.htm. Accessed Feb. 15, 2012.

[5] Means, B. et al. Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies. U.S. Department of Education. Revised September 2010.

© 2012 ACM 1535-394X/12/09 $15.00

DOI: 10.1145/2371029.2371030



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