Whether or not blended (distributed) learning experiences should be adopted as a means for teaching and learning in the Army is no longer an issue. Focus must now be directed towards the effective use of technology in order to construct learning environments that meet organisational requirements, desired learning outcomes and the needs of learners. The introduction of online environments readily lend themselves to developing learning systems that incorporate elements of effective learning, learner control and time and place learning. However, for successful adoption, there are a number of issues that require further discussion.
Whilst much has been written extolling the virtues of distributed learning including the use of Interactive Multimedia Instruction (IMI), it is arguable that Army instructors may not be equipped with the technical and instructional expertise to enable the effective and efficient use of technology in the learning environment. The use of IMI will not necessarily lead to quality education, particularly if content and learning objectives are not carefully matched with an appropriate teaching methodology. Inadequate technical knowledge on the part of curriculum developers and instructors together with the ‘hype’ surrounding blended learning, may lead to the aspirational belief that simply translating teaching materials to alternate delivery methodologies will result in quality learning and deep engagement of learners. Evidence in this regard would suggest this is folly.
The effective integration of IMI into educational contexts must not be considered as a simple conversion of teacher-centred approaches, nor must it just facilitate the completion of a training requirement to ‘tick the box’ or undertake a gratuitous ‘click next to continue’. Army instructors must consider the knowledge that is of most worth to learners, the activities that are most effective in enabling learners to acquire knowledge, and the most appropriate medium for delivery. For instance, designing an activity requiring a learner to drag and drop examples to an appropriate category, whilst a strategy for teaching concepts, does little to assess learning. Thus, for effective integration of IMI, a further step is required whereby the learner is required to justify answers to demonstrate understanding.
The way forward
While media alone does not teach, Army instructors must be competent in the use of technology as a delivery medium. Furthermore, Army instructors must have the technical skills to integrate a kit bag of teacher-centred approaches, and facilitation skills to obtain learner ‘buy-in’. This skill integration is imperative whether it is in the physical or virtual classroom. Instructors also need to adjust their teaching practice in response to the perceived needs of their trainees. This is important not only in terms of fostering appropriate technology use, but also in terms of overcoming resistance to the adoption of technologies.
As with many military organisations, education and training within Army has been delivered utilising conventional face-to-face training within a centralised environment. This approach rarely acknowledges or accommodates prior learning experiences, offers limited feedback opportunities, and does not generally support peer-to-peer collaboration. Additionally, it is expensive and disruptive to both the personal lives of members and unit operations. This block-paced instruction methodology (colloquially referred to as belt-fed learning) has been the main-stay of training to date. However now is the time to capitalise on a shift in culture, mindset and available technologies.
Army, like many organisations, uses a systems approach to learning. Dedicated training units have a primary focus on the analysis and development of learning experiences. The challenge in the digital space is to develop blended learning products which are relevant, collaborative and engaging. IMI and other technology based platforms are considered ‘vehicles’ which can be used to deliver content alongside face-to-face contact, print and other educational resources. However, if a blended learning solution is designed, the danger exists that developers may implement technology based interventions on convenience rather than through an analysis of the whole learning need.
Now that the decision has been made by Army to move into the blended learning methodology, many factors must be taken into account in the development of an environment suited to the acquisition of new knowledge and skills. The use of educational technology in Army has received tremendous attention over a number of years, and its role is likely to increase even more as the demand continues to grow. Indeed, a wide variety of computer-aided instructional packages, educational games, and other technologies have been developed to support teaching and learning. Although some of these development efforts have been successful, others have not. Moreover, technology based education efforts have been stymied by a functionally constrained learning management system as well as an antiquated IT infrastructure. If Army is to move forward in this space, implementation of more relevant and dynamic educational technology together with professional development of its educators is required. Ultimately, blended learning experiences must be understood, supported and adequately resourced.
Open source Web 2.0 technologies provide multiple interactive platforms that allow learners to create, share, and edit multimedia content. Learners can demonstrate understanding, synthesise new content with previously-learned material, evaluate and reflect on their learning, and generate innovative ideas and fresh understandings. They are therefore activating high-order cognitive processes rather than simple memory recall and low-level drills (such as drag and drop or multiple choice responses). Blogs, wikis, file share applications, mind-mapping tools, podcasts, video editing tools and animations and sims, all provide rich and readily accessible ways to present and interact with learning. All that is required is instructor exposure to the applications and unclassified internet access during class time.
I offer some examples how I have used open source software this year.
During an essay-writing workshop, I explained a 'thesis statement' by showing the YouTube U2/Green Day video clip 'The Saints are Coming'. I asked participants to watch the footage, listen to the music and the lyrics and determine what they believe is the song's message. This generated a rich discussion and debate about different messages such as 'Bring the Troops Home!', 'The US military should be used for humanitarian assistance not expeditionary warfare.', and 'Commercial media manipulates public opinion.' Whenever a participant suggested a message, I asked him/her to put it into a single sentence. After we had generated a variety of messages, I explained that each message was a potential thesis statement: a single sentence summary of the writer's argument. I then followed up with a mini-lecture on how to use thesis statements in essay-writing.
When teaching comma rules, I avoid simply telling learners what each rule is and giving an example. Instead, I apply a constructivist approach, whereby I guide the learners into developing the rules themselves. I do this by showing short YouTube clips on comma applications, including animations and talking head discussions by linguistics professors. After viewing the videos, participants write up comma rules on the whiteboard and provide an example. They are constructing and sharing their learning with their peers.
I have also used Podomatic to record and publish audio readings of Defence Papers to allow audio as well as text-based distribution of learner output.
I use Wix to generate high quality blogs and webpages, so that learners can share expertise in topics of personal interest, allowing them to practise their writing skills and develop confidence in their writing abilities.
I have recently used Mindmeister, a mind-mapping tool, to present lecture topics as an alternative to PowerPoint. I believe the spatial layout and flexibility of mind-maps offers a more engaging and clarifying display of concepts than the linear, slide-by-slide progression of PowerPoint slides.
All of these tools, I road-test and prepare in my own time, using my home PC/laptop and personal internet connection as DRN computers do not have the access or capacity to use Web 2.0 technologies. This means that I am currently limited to using innovative technologies to simply present material to learners which is instructor-centred learning. If we truly wish to embrace trainee-centred learning, then we need to provide wifi access in the training rooms, and encourage trainees to bring their own devices and/or provide a class set of tablets so that trainees can create their own content and share their learning.
This will create dynamic and interesting learning environments which inspire confidence in learners and allow a much deeper investigation of ideas and perspectives. At the same time we are developing learners' critical faculties as they analyse, reflect on, and evaluate their learning.