Rather than a return to normal in which resident education reigns supreme, distance ed seems here to stay.

Does Army distance education enable the same learning as resident education? Not among chaplains, from what I have seen. What about other leaders? There has never been a better time to examine this question than following the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced civilian and military schools alike to use more distance education methods. After all, these offer a welcome flexibility and inherent social distance. However, early indicators suggest they also degrade learning outcomes.

Rather than a return to normal in which resident education reigns supreme, distance ed seems here to stay. Nevertheless, making it work requires achieving learning equivalency, meaning, that irrespective of modality, it ensures similar learning experiences predict equivalent outcomes. Achieving learning equivalency between these two education modalities is necessary to support the ready and flexible lethal and support forces the nation requires in an increasingly complex conflict continuum. Investment in structuring the force for distance learning and gleaning best practices and pedagogical methodologies from the science of teaching and learning are essential for achieving equivalency.

The Army currently delivers professional military education (PME) in resident and distance modalities. While residential learning is the preferred method of officer PME, the Army asserts that distance and residential delivery are equivalent in value. Army Regulation 350-1 directs that, “[n]o entry will be made on student training and personnel records that indicate[s] the course was taken in residence or by [distance learning].” This equivalency consideration primarily impacts those serving in the reserve components where selection for resident PME is scarce. The National Guard and Army Reserve account for approximately 60% of the Total Army, meaning distance is the dominant modality for most soldiers’ PME.

Research reveals inequality between the two methods of education delivery at the Captains’ Career Course level, opening a critical capability gap in company-grade officers’ staff skills and leadership. I posit this gap hangs on two factors: lack of resources and improper curriculum design. On the receiving end of this disparity, captains then serve on battalion staffs and command company-level formations across the force, translating to a capability gap with communicative properties akin to a virus. In essence, the Army is undermining the people who lead, train, and oversee the force’s readiness, when it fails to educate all its leaders to the same standard. Those led by inadequately educated officers receive correspondingly degraded training and leadership. Additionally, this capability gap, created during formative company-grade level education, will hinder these professionals through the remainder of their careers.

The disruption COVID-19 created presents an ideal opportunity to assess distance learning equivalency. The COVID-19 pandemic wrought international disruption, impacting everything from commerce and travel to individuals’ and families’ daily lives. To offset any adverse effects, educational enterprises, public and private, devised and implemented virtual education methods. This led to the analysis of distance methodologies and the requisite modifications to achieve equivalency of learning outcomes compared to residential learning.

Against this backdrop, the Army Chaplain Corps, for example, was already enrolling captains in the Reserve Component Career Course. This effort addressed a backlog of students created by prioritizing operational assignments at the expense of PME. COVID-19 rendered the two-week, resident, temporary duty portion of the school infeasible, thereby necessitating distance education delivery for the entire Career Course. Conducting these career courses through distance delivery provided an ideal opportunity to assess whether the Army achieves learning outcome equivalency this way.

To assess outcomes, comparable groups of active component residence and distance Chaplain Career Course graduates were surveyed regarding self-assessed proficiency on branch-specific critical tasks. The study compared the two groups’ scores from the Common Core Exam (which assesses learning in leadership, mission command, operations, and training) and analyzed course design and feedback from student surveys. Both groups self-assessed their proficiency as being at the same level. However, Common Core Exam scores demonstrated a worrying 21% degradation for distance learners, who scored an average of only 66% proficiency compared with an 87% average for resident students. This means that distance graduates had an inflated sense of their performance compared to resident students’ self-assessments. This overevaluation of skills compared to quantitative assessment is referred to as the Dunning-Kruger Effect where a certain amount of overly optimistic self-assessment is well-documented, but this gap exceeds that average.

Given that members of each group had comparable educational and professional backgrounds, the mode of instruction is the dependent variable requiring closer analysis. As distance learning demands have increased over the past 20 years, civilian universities embraced and implemented Transactional Distance Theory. This theory bridges the geographic distance through “overdesign” of the curriculum along three axes of interaction: student–curriculum, student–instructor, and student–student and leads to better outcomes.

Under the theory, student-curriculum interaction considers how course materials are delivered. Course material and resources must be readily accessible, diverse in type and method (e.g., audio or video recordings, articles and presentations, synchronous or asynchronous instruction, etc.), and must take into account internet and library access.

Unfortunately, the Army’s Common Core curriculum was delivered in a one-time view method using modified presentation files with limited access to libraries and with no digital resource orientation from the Combined Arms Center (CAC), where the Common Core curriculum is administered. Anecdotally, several students reported completion of the curriculum in two to three days. The resident version, by contrast, comprises eight 40-hour weeks of instruction. The Common Core delivery method is the same for all distance learners, irrespective of branch. This uniform approach renders curriculum design and methodology concerns applicable to all Captain Career Courses, while simultaneously raising questions regarding an industrial-aged “one size fits all” process in education.

Dedicated distance learning instructors are central to these interactive aspects of the process but often face challenges of increased throughput or extra administrative taskings due to a perception that they are not engaged in traditional educational delivery, when the converse is true — distance learning educators require dedicated time for student-instructor interaction.

Student–instructor interaction is vital to the educational enterprise, irrespective of modality. ‘Interaction’ includes frequency and sufficient opportunities for instructors to assess comprehension, as well as the ease with which a student can request additional clarification of concepts and principles, and can engage in pedagogical dialogue with instructors and fellow students. Dedicated distance learning instructors are central to these interactive aspects of the process but often face challenges of increased throughput or extra administrative taskings due to a perception that they are not engaged in traditional educational delivery, when the converse is true — distance learning educators require dedicated time for student-instructor interaction. They must remain prepared to cover any topic from across the curriculum, given the self-paced approach of asynchronous courses.

The assessed distance learning cohorts received no student–instructor interaction, nor was there an opportunity for such interaction. The Combined Arms Center (CAC) staff enrolled students at the Chaplain School’s request for the Common Core Course, and notified the Chaplain School upon their completion, but there was no student-instructor interaction, and the Chaplain School had no visibility of the curriculum nor student progress until completion of curriculum delivery. CAC was available for technical support if students encountered access issues. It is worth noting that this approach towards the Common Core Course is not unique to the Chaplain Corps.

Student–student interaction is where the diversity of perspectives and experiences bears fruit, as relational dialogue creates opportunities for students to have their assumptions challenged and to broaden their perspectives. Distance learning facilitates this kind of interaction through discussion threads, messaging interfaces, and synchronous group work. The United States Marine Corps designed its Command and Staff College Distance Education Program (CSCDEP) with the express intent of increasing the diversity of perspectives and peer learning opportunities. This intentionality of creating opportunities for interaction between students of diverse backgrounds bridges the geographic gap of distance learning and promotes learning outcomes. Under the current Common Core approach, students have no interaction until after completing the curriculum, and for only minutes before the final exam is administered.

In sum, the implications of this experiment are disheartening: the three axes considered crucial to creating dialogical interaction are absent under the Common Core Course’s current design. This design demonstrates a lack of proper investment in course design. The result is degraded learning outcomes that create critical capability gaps for any officer attending the Career Course’s distance version. The resultant gaps shortchange junior officers at a critically foundational point in their professional development. These degraded learning outcomes will likely lead to corresponding deficiencies for our strategic leaders later on, as these graduates progress through the ranks. More research is required to ascertain the validity of this concern, whose effects, if borne out, the Army would not realize until another 10-20 years from now.

Creating capability gaps at the company-grade level represents a risk the Army cannot afford to assume and, in all practicality, cannot mitigate. Company-grade officers with degraded understanding of the operational processes and principles of leadership will not have the bandwidth required to grasp strategic guidance, to perceive strategic implications at the tactical level that require modification of the operational approach, or to communicate critical information to higher headquarters — and across unified action partners — in a given area of operations.

Addressing this risk would take four concrete steps: first, the Army needs to support the creation or growth of the distance learning divisions at each school. Second, the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) should draft and provide clear and pragmatic guidance on distance learning design and execution, something that my research and experience revealed is nonexistent. Third, TRADOC should conduct echelon-focused pedagogical audits of distance learning programs of instruction as part of its accreditation process. Most importantly, TRADOC should conduct surveys of company and field-grade graduates and their battalion or brigade commanders, respectively, to assess the effectiveness and relevance of learning outcomes.

 Though the primarily residential PME model will likely resume with the COVID-19 threat’s decline, the global incidence of deadly variants signals that the use of distance and hybrid educational models might remain, if not increase. Nor can we predict the timing and impact of the next pandemic. The inability to predict when operational demands will outpace the military’s assigned end strength signals a need to prepare for flat or decreased budgets and increased demand for distance learning. The Army must avoid perpetuating the creation of educational “haves” and “have nots” across components. Designing and conducting distance PME under the auspices of Transactional Distance Theory mitigates gaps created by geographic distance and postures the Total Army for mission success in competition or conflict across domains. When the nation calls for the Total Army to support and defend our nation, all must be well-trained and educated to support the Joint Force with the same levels of competency and proficiency, regardless of their schooling methods.

Chaplain (Colonel) Geoff Bailey is a U.S. Army War College graduate with multiple combat tours, enterprise-wide experience from squad level to the Pentagon’s halls, and near 30-years’ service as an enlisted soldier and chaplain. He is currently serving as the Command Chaplain for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

Photo Credit: School vector created by pch.vector – www.freepik.com

Go check out Chaplian Bailey’s podcast episode on the topic of distance education

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1 Comment

  1. A Long Time Ago (late ’90s), when the Army first started looking at Distance Learning as an acquisition program, I was part of a MITRE team that developed a ‘reference model’/’reference architecture’ for the endeavor. Several of us were serving Reservists. One of our observations was that the socialization that comes with long courses and personal contact is critical, both for course effectiveness and for the more general training goals. Thus we said a long course (e.g. BNOC, Officer Advanced Course, etc) done through DL should include an initial 1 or 2 week face-to-face, and then at least one other face-to-face meeting. Part of this came from our own experience with virtual/distributed teams (our team included people from Sierra Vista AZ, McLean VA and Bedford MA, meeting through VTC). You’re much more effective in a distance meeting when you can read the body language, etc from knowing the person on the screen. We also recalled the connections we made through our Service (Army, Air Force) courses, and that clearly has value for the institution.

    The other key finding from that study was that a DL enterprise has a really strong dependence on Network Management/Network Operations. If you can’t connect, you can’t educate 🙂

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