School’s out: Distributed eLearning promises a paradigm shift in military training
A military’s training requirements are arguably the most challenging and broad of any organisation. Alongside extensive defence-specific courses are educational programmes that span many aspects of civilian life - eLearning has the potential to ease some of this burden.
Military education can be as varied as basic academic courses that are typical of schools, to instructing personnel to maintain advanced weapons systems, fly aircraft, or survive in hostile environments.
Meeting these demands is no mean feat, and, with many militaries facing fiscal constraints and experiencing high operational tempos, employing innovative pedagogical methods is a must.
Militaries have long embraced emerging technologies and utilised computer-based training in a variety of roles, notably where such technology can serve to significantly reduce cost and risk. Modern flight training pipelines, for example, have been greatly reduced through the use of advanced simulators and embedded systems, while these represent the ‘higher end’ of cost and sophistication, classroom-based training that would traditionally be delivered via an instructor can also benefit greatly from modern techniques and systems.
Innovation in education
So-called eLearning can go some way to meeting a number of the challenges that militaries face, such as training personnel who might be dispersed over a wide range of locations. Many armed forces – and those who are members of NATO in particular – have longstanding commitments to multiple operations around the world, as such, gathering a training audience in one location can be difficult to schedule without the potential to impact deployed capabilities, or may lead to increased costs if multiple courses need to be held.
eLearning solutions have gained significant traction in recent years and they are becoming increasingly prevalent. Such courses can introduce a high level of flexibility, enabling personnel to train wherever they are stationed and even at home or when downrange.
Self-paced learning adds a further aspect of flexibility, as does the ability to remove the need for an instructor, that is not say, however, that access to learning support is not important. Despite developments in software that bring advanced ‘help’ functions to many courses, the ability to contact a ‘live’ instructor for assistance – be that immediate or otherwise – is essential.
Standardisation in the delivery of content is another important benefit brought by eLearning. Computer-based instruction offers consistency and ensures that every student has received the same detail and level of education, it can negate differences in the skill level of an instructor and the varying performance that is inherent in humans.
eLearning also offers scalability, lending itself to the delivery of training in a customer-driven and service-oriented manner, and potentially brings cost efficiencies.
Building and delivering an effective eLearning solution is not as simple as digitising training manuals, and the design of a course must take into consideration a range of factors, not least its format and interface.
The eLearning course developed for Systematic’s SitaWare Headquarters solution combines passive learning in the form of explanatory videos, with multiple-choice assessments and periods for reflection.
The course is designed around a realistic scenario and provides training in the functionality of SitaWare Headquarters, with students working their way through the courseware via the real system interface. Rather than replacing instructor-based training, it is intended to ensure a solid foundation for users and enables resources to be best targeted, it delivers a ‘driver’s licence’ upon which users can build their skills and expertise.
This approach of providing a baseline training package and core skills enables users to develop a way of working that they are most comfortable with, as will inevitably be the case once they become familiar with the system, and the digital course can always be referred to if a refresh is required.
Providing initial instruction via eLearning also simplifies training in new features that may be introduced to a system, users will be familiar with how they have trained previously and can treat the new training modules as add-ons to the core course.
A modular approach also serves to address the challenge of preparing personnel for serving in different theatres. While the key skills for using a system may not change, many aspects of warfare do not remain the same across different areas of operation. A number of armed forces – notably those of the UK and US – have rotated personnel between theatres in relatively short order, it would be naïve to suggest that the nature of the missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, are exactly the same, therefore the specific dynamics must be accounted for in training, offering modules that address these and that can be integrated into a core training programme may help solve that issue.
eLearning can also simplify assessment and monitoring of pupils performance, as all aspects are in effect ‘digital’ extracting and analysing data can be easier than is the case with traditional methods.
While the more detailed features of SitaWare are employed largely by personnel who have received in-depth training, the potential audience of ‘casual’ users and those who interact with the software is much wider. As such, eLearning provides an opportunity to offer a familiarity course to those personnel, enabling them to at least have a basic understanding of its capabilities and an insight into what they will be seeing on exercises or deployment. A short course to meet this need could, for example, be delivered via personal electronic devices.
Keeping in touch
A major benefit of classroom-based learning is the ability to have direct contact with an instructor and being in an environment in which discussions can take place with other students. Developing some form of learning community could go some way to mitigating against the loss of this in eLearning. Online chat rooms and notice boards have the potential to act as vehicles for discussion between students and instructors, and to provide a forum for the development of best practices. Emerging technologies could be key here, with artificial intelligence and advanced avatars bringing a step-change in capability from the linear help functions that are typical of most software packages.
For all the benefits that eLearning can bring to the military it cannot be seen as a panacea, yes, it can be a disruptive capability in the training environment, however, ultimately human factors will play a significant role in its success or otherwise. Such courses require students to be in engaged in the process and impart a degree of trust that they will work their way through the material in an appropriate manner, so a balance must be struck between individual learning and interaction with instructors and fellow students.