Training

E-learning and modernisation in Army: not just for distance courses

By Tim Coleman November 3, 2020


"Learners can complete training at their own pace, different learning styles can be accommodated, exploring options and simulations is possible, and resources can be located and saved for future reference"   

Brigadier Peter Gates (Former Director of Defence Learning Branch)

 

I was quite interested to recently read LTCOL Brendan Robinson's ASLO Modernisation article. The article comprehensively explores some of the work done with simulation and the use of analysis & decision making tools in the delivery of training to Army’s Combat Service Support (CSS) soldiers and junior officers. However, there is much more going in this space at Army School of Logistic Operations (ASLO).

Even before COVID-19 forced almost all Training Centres (TCs) in the ADF to ramp up their ability to conduct non-residential courses through distance learning, ASLO was in the throes of a considerable upgrade of its teaching practices through the use of technology. This was partly off the back of a challenge given by the Director General of Training and Doctrine (DG TRADOC) to ASLO to modernise and transform particularly with reference to the development 'e-learning [1]'. This saw ASLO commence a very rapid and agile development cycle to meet the timeframes specified. To further enhance the difficulty, ASLO needed to achieve this with no additional training or resources.

As a result, ASLO changed the Logistics Officers Basic Course (LOBC) from an almost holistic traditional Microsoft Power Point driven lesson model to a course filled with technologically based interactive learning across a significant scope. Everything from virtual TEWTs to fully interactive 'walking and talking' training packages were trialled and installed in the course.

Before I explore this though, it is worth pointing out that the use of software to create computer based learning and teaching is nothing new. Civil industry has been doing this for years and of course the ADF has for a long time used tools to shorten courses and provide teaching for smaller topics (Army officers will no doubt shudder as I mention the former years of All Corps Captain Course/Major course pre-course training. Others will likely not have fond memories of days spent on Campus conducting force preservation modules). It would appear that Army is beginning to realise that e-learning content has to be interesting and engaging to be effective: this is discussed on the Cove in multiple articles including in ‘Transformation at the School of infantry[2]’ and  ‘Effective application of learning technologies in Army[3]’.

To avoid covering old ground I will discuss two unique areas that ASLO transformed with fresh data to provide some validation:

The comprehensive integration of e-learning into a wholly residential course. It has become clear to ASLO staff that e-learning is not just a tool to shorten courses or prevent the need for students to travel around the country. There is real value in allowing students to complete computer based learning followed by 'flipped classrooms[4]' which can enable the students to ‘teach’ the content they have just learned or participate in stand-alone instructor facilitated discussion periods. No longer does an instructor need to deliver the exact same content over and over and talk at students for hours on end, in fact the modern generation of LOBC students seem to loathe this approach. Captured data has shown that the current generations coming through ASLO significantly prefer to conduct well-structured e-learning as part of a residential course as they can set the pace and the rate of effort. I am sure many reading here will lament the times they were forced to sit through a traditional lesson of content that they were already well versed in.

Comments from students include:

 "Allowed me to absorb at a comfortable pace and enables greater reflection"

 "Was much better than what I can imagine a powerpoint lesson being"

 "Was more interactive, allowed us to engage and therefore learn better"

 "Allowed for consolidation of learning prior to practising our presentation skills"

 "Significantly enhanced student participation"...and the list goes on

What is the evidence (*)? Even more encouraging is the data which shows that 100% of the students surveyed either preferred this approach or were not sure. Not a single student stated (even anonymously) that they would prefer the traditional method of delivery or that the e-learning was ineffective. Approximately 75% of students responded positively with 25% unsure or not answering (any training standards warrant officer will tell you there is unfortunately a significant portion of students that don't answer all the questions or hit the unsure option to get through the survey as quickly as possible). Over 60% of students indicated that the discussion period was essential to their learning. A lesser amount indicated that the movement of a course to a non-residential model would make the course less effective potentially suggesting there is level of support needed to keep discussion periods but allow them to occur via technology such as Microsoft Teams.

The critical analysts out there might (and possibly quite rightly) suggest that this data lacks meaning given that instruction is about imparting knowledge not just achieving student satisfaction with the content. The related data from instructors is also pretty promising. Based on post training Q&A over 90% of instructors believed that students had retained the information taught to them. Additionally, all instructors that ran a discussion period after the e-learning stated they would maintain it. Obviously this is a reasonably subjective analysis and more data is required, but it is certainly a positive indicator.

I could cite plenty of academic works and sources in relation to e-learning performance data but nothing quite stacks up on the relevance front than the recent data from one of Army's core logistics courses. It is worth noting that ASLOs Training Transformation (TT) is being rolled out to the intermediate officer and soldier promotion courses as well.

Tools to enhance interaction in the classroom - a focus to engage the learner.  ASLO staff also aimed to modernise the in-classroom experience for students. Tools were utilised such as Mentimeter to allow students to electronically interact with the instructor and their class mates in the middle of a lesson. Students were able to ask questions, respond to questions, express opinions and rate each other’s expressions under the moderation of the instructor. While this has been used at other schools with advanced methods (such as through gamifcation[5] or simulation), from the evidence available it does not appear to have been used as extensively as it was during the recent LOBC iterations (or used as part of a wider e-learning residential course model).

 

 

ASLO actively conducted this in multiple periods of instruction and embedded the concept across its course structure. This saw technology used to get the learner to a base level of understanding before the lesson and technology again used (facilitated by the instructor) during the lesson to achieve greater interaction and therefore a greater impression of knowledge onto the students.

By doing this ASLO staff sought to steer away from the traditional military teaching model of 'you will find this content interesting and will listen to me for multiple instructional periods about it' through the transitional model of 'you will complete this unengaging flash enabled computer content, email the instructor if you have issues and maybe you will get a response' to one of interest and engagement with the learner: 'complete this interesting learning at your own pace (that is flexible depending on your level of knowledge, engagement and the time you have available), you will have constant access to an instructor and there will be a discussion period where you can interact in a complex, meaningful and even discreet manner'. Stolovitch and Keeps[6] discuss the importance of student engagement in e-learning and the centralisation of the learner is widely explored as a principle in academia. At ASLO this technology centralised the learner in a large, centrally planned residential course, a training environment which has been traditionally criticised for being the exact opposite.

Does the data(*) suggest this isn't just a bunch of words?  Yes. The comments from students and instructors was consistent with the earlier e-learning comments. The numbers are similar with 70% finding the interaction effective or highly effective and 30% not sure/didn't answer (again some portion of this 30% is likely students clicking through the survey so that they can quickly escape for the weekend or end of course).  Instructor data again suggests that the tools enhanced knowledge retention.

Challenges with the technology:  - the planning cycle

Have no illusions; however, that this was all 'roses and rainbows'. Partially due to the timeframes and resources available in the challenge laid down, instructors were not able to dedicate the time and caution that would have been desired into the development of the content. The instructors had to teach themselves everything utilising a 'try and fail' kind of methodology. The only real independent testers were the students themselves, which is far from ideal. In a recent presentation on learning technologies (delivered on the Army Training Systems innovation forums accessible through the Army Learning Management System) CAPT Jody Nicoll described this as a common fault in the Defence TC approach caused by a 'bias for action'.

I have subsequently enrolled in an ‘e-learning masterclass’ (and lifted some of the articles sources from it) run by John Stericker from The Australian Institute of Training and Development. This course has confirmed some of my suspicions that ASLOs Logistics Officer Training Wing didn’t follow some key best practices in its pursuit of a rapid development cycle.

Most notably the following was not conducted:

  • Establishing e-learning member roles and responsibilities [6]
  • Planning and setting content and technology requirements [8]
  • Testing and reviewing content impartially
  • Effectively establishing analytics and measuring effectiveness of the learning [9]

What is key now is that this content is developed and improved through an iterative process. Our next target is the finalisation of a trial report which will seek to gain funding and establish operating procedures for certain e-learning software.

There are also a host of technological road blocks and potential issues out there, especially for instructors tied to the Defence Protected Network or the approved Defence Learning Management Systems. For example the ASLO instructors developed a lot of content on a certain program with a trial licence (with the intent of getting a full licence after the technology was proven to be viable). After applying for the licence a legal issue was identified that has so far prevented this acquisition going ahead, meaning that all this content is now locked and unavailable for modification. The positive is that after raising it with DG TRADOC and the Director of Training Systems at their learning and innovation forum, it is clear these issues are being worked through. However, this is but one demonstration of the many additional complexities when considering this technology. Even more advanced technology can come with even more complex issues [10].

Conclusion:

There are considerable benefits (even for supposedly dusty and tired residential courses) including a significant increase in: student engagement, knowledge retention and student satisfaction. There is a real opportunity to more closely connect with the new generation of students coming into Army while maintaining the benefits of the collaborative residential/physical environment. Fresh data supports this approach with much more analysis required before drawing definitive conclusions.  However, with these potential benefits comes potential risk. There are even more pitfalls that could be fallen into compared with traditional learning if it isn’t approached and developed correctly. There is real risk of being counter-productive and training ‘going backwards’ if lessons are not learned. As recently affirmed by the Director of Training Systems training transformation (TT) and modernisation are not necessarily a cost saving measure (and not just a measure to make courses distance based to save Army money). In a recent response to a question from ASLO, COL Brendan Kellaway (the Director of Professional Development) described TT as enterprise change and explained how instructors would need to work to positively influence the enterprise level to reduce the barriers to instruction (such as ensuring the acquisition of fit for purpose software). One thing is clear, these barriers are going nowhere if instructors do not trial, innovate and get involved.

‘Simulation [and technology] alone is not training but serves the purposes of a broader training program, one in which fidelity must be matched to the training design [11].’

 

End notes 

(*)  The data is fairly embryonic. It was taken from only two courses from ASLO and specific analysis of student performance beyond the subjective Q&A conducted by instructors is yet to be performed. Anyone citing this article or data should understand its preliminary nature.

[1] “THE CORPORATE GUIDE TO ELEARNING AND THE LEARNING MANAGEMENT SYSTEM (LMS.” LOGICEARTH LEARNING SERVICES, www.logicearth.com/elearning-learning-management-system/#section2. Accessed 7 Sept. 2020.

[2] Curtis, Fiona. “TRAINING AND EDUCATION TRANSFORMATION AT THE SCHOOL OF INFANTRY.” The Cove - Australian Army, 3 June 2019, cove.army.gov.au/article/training-and-education-transformation-the-school-infantry.

[3] Woodside, Malcolm. “BLENDED LEARNING, DIGITAL NATIVES AND THE EFFECTIVE APPLICATION OF LEARNING TECHNOLOGIES IN ARMY.” The Cove - Australian Army, 20 Aug. 2019, cove.army.gov.au/article/blended-learning-digital-natives-and-the-effective-application-learning-technologies-army.

[4] The Cove. “FLIPPED CLASSROOMS: HOW SIMPLE CHANGES CAN ENHANCE LEARNING.” The Cove - Australian Army, 9 Oct. 2018, cove.army.gov.au/article/flipped-classrooms-how-simple-changes-can-enhance-learning.

[5] Walter, Chris. “CLASSROOM GAMIFICATION.” The Cove - Australian Army, 24 July 2018, cove.army.gov.au/article/classroom-gamification.

[6] Stolovitch, Harold, and Erica Keeps. Telling Ain’t Training: Updated, Expanded, Enhanced. 2nd ed., Association for Talent Development, 2011.

[7] Malamed, Connie. “Starting an ELearning Team.” The ELearning Coach, 6 Dec. 2014, theelearningcoach.com/elearning_design/starting-an-elearning-department.

[8] Movchan, Sergiy. “8 Effective Steps To Create An ELearning Strategy.” Raccoon Gang, raccoongang.com/blog/8-effective-steps-create-elearning-strategy. Accessed 8 Sept. 2020.

[9] Greany, Kirstie. “The Top 10 Elearning Analytics Stats to Track.” Elucidat, 22 July 2019, www.elucidat.com/blog/the-top-10-elearning-analytics-stats-to-track.

[10] In a recent lecture Dr Susannah Whitney from the Defence Science and Technology Organisation outlined a whole host of challenges that Defence and other organisations have faced with simulation, from logistical issues such as batteries running out of charge (and potentially ruining the training) to interesting examples of the technology leading to poorer performance (the use of VR googles for simulated urban training at West Point led to reduced performance metrics).

[11] Summers, Jason E. “Simulation-Based Military Training: An Engineering Approach to Better Addressing Competing Environmental, Fiscal, and Security Concerns.” Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences, vol. 98, no. 1, 2012, pp. 9–29. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24536565. Accessed 8 Sept. 2020.


Portrait

Biography

Tim Coleman

Tim Coleman is a Royal Australian Army Ordnance Corps Officer. He has completed multiple postings in combat service support roles, including to Headquarters 3rd Brigade as the current and future operations logistics officer. Additionally, he has deployed to Afghanistan and been a lead logistics planner for multiple ADF operations and international exercises.  He is currently posted as an instructor at the Army School of Logistics Operations. 

 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.



Comments

Excellent points Tim. I strongly agree with your view about implementing flexible approaches to instruction within residential courses. The use of ‘in-class flipped learning’ is what you have rightly described as offering learners flexibility in how, when and at what pace they engage with the content. This is an area I am very interested in- happy to chat offline about it.

Hi Tim, thank you for your feedback. The limited data certainly suggests this is the way to go, especially if you are looking for engagement with the 'modern generation of learners'. Please feel free to drop me a line and would be happy to discuss more or share some of the content with you (noting we still have a lot of development to do).

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