Technology to Drive New, Better Ways to Educate the Force
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 2, 2010 Got a cell phone handy? It could be your ticket to keeping up with your professional development requirements.
That’s just one concept being explored at Air Education and Training Command, the Air Force’s training and education component. Like its counterparts in the Army, Navy and Marine Corps, AETC hopes to take advantage of new and emerging technologies to provide more efficient, effective educational opportunities to the force.
Most servicemembers are familiar with the concept of distance learning, with training delivered through the Internet or snail mail.
Distance learning is a big money saver for the military, reducing travel and temporary duty costs associated with classroom training. And in light of heavy mission requirements, it enables servicemembers to meet many of their educational requirements without extended absences from their duty stations and loved ones.
But with ever-expanding technologies and young “digital natives” now entering the force, officials hope to take military education to a whole new level.
“What we are out to do in the future learning side is improve the efficiency and/or the effectiveness of our recruiting training and education programs,” explained Air Force Col. John Thompson, AETC’s future learning adviser.
The idea isn’t to replace classroom instruction, he emphasized, simply to augment it where it makes sense, and in some cases, to improve on it.
“We obviously have courses where we need instructors present, and they need to be able to answer questions right away,” Thompson said. “So one of our experiments is to duplicate that in a virtual classroom, where students would put on a headset and talk to their instructors the same way they would in a classroom.”
But Thompson’s team is looking beyond this concept, trying to identify ways to leverage emerging technology to provide the force everything from routine refresher training to realistic training scenarios that simply can’t be replicated in real life.
He envisions a day when airmen awaiting a flight at the airport or enjoying a weekend at home will be able to take professional development classes delivered through their cell phones or other mobile devices.
Thompson sees it as a perfect way to provide ancillary or regular refresher training such as the mandatory “Laws of Armed Conflict” course. “If I could break down that training into 10- or 15-minute segments, and enable you take them on your cell phone, anywhere and anytime, I think a lot of people would be interested in doing that,” he said.
The command also is exploring ways to blend traditional and nontraditional instruction to either shorten the amount of time students spend in the classroom, or make better use of that time.
Thompson recognizes the value of social networking sessions that bring students together in shared projects and class discussions before they report for a residence course, and after they return to their duty stations.
“This can make the time they spend on the ground shorter,” he said. “But another philosophy is that it if they have the same amount of classroom time, it can be used to make them better leaders.”
Meanwhile, AETC is looking for ways to tap into “virtual worlds” created through new and emerging technologies and social media networks to make military education not only more cost-effective and convenient, but also more effective.
“As we start to look at virtual worlds, I relate it back to when flight simulators were new,” said Thompson, a former Air Force pilot. “We have a new technology that is coming on line, and we have to figure out where specifically to use it, or how.”
Flight simulators, for example, enable instructors to create optimal training conditions. “Rather than having to go and fly around four hours and hours to find a cloud to teach somebody to fly into clouds, I can create clouds in the flight simulator,” Thompson said.
Likewise, virtual worlds could provide the perfect venues for training that simply can’t be replicated in real life.
“I cannot release a weapon of mass destruction on a base” to teach airmen proper response procedures, Thompson said. “But in a virtual base, I can. I can simulate things in a virtual environment that I can’t do for real. And hopefully, as a result, I get better, more realistic training for that unfortunate chance that we might actually have to do that for real.”
ATEC recently awarded a contract to create a virtual Joint Base San Antonio, Texas, that will replicate the numerous military activities there, including the joint medical training venues at Fort Sam Houston. The concept will include a virtual base command post.
“The idea is for you to be able to wander as an avatar into a training environment there, and it will take you directly into the simulation you are supposed to be doing,” Thompson explained.
As AETC explores these and other new training opportunities, Thompson said it’s taking many lessons from the Army.
The Army has been a military frontrunner in advancing video game technology, and its “America’s Army” game has proven to be a boom not just from a recruiting standpoint, but also as a training tool, Thompson said.
“We are looking at the same type of thing for the Air Force, and questioning, ‘What’s the Air Force version of that game?’” he said.
Thompson dismissed what he considers the obvious, a flight simulation game to entice potential pilots. After all, he said, the Air Force has no problem recruiting pilots.
“I think there’s more value in identifying areas where we need folks,” he said. “Maybe it’s [a game based on] a sensor operator on one of our remotely piloted aircraft. Maybe it’s a cyber game to get folks interested in the cyber war going on.”
Thompson recently sent his program manager to Redstone Arsenal, Ala., to learn from Army gamers as the Air Force attempts to build a game focused on a financial management course.
He applauded the strong collaboration the military services are undergoing as they share information and lessons learned in advancing military education.
“There’s definite sharing,” he said. “I don’t like to invent wheels myself. If I can, I would rather go copy someone else’s wheel.
“You learn in this job that the other services do very similar things and have very similar needs,” he said. “So my philosophy is, let’s go see what they are doing and tell them what we are doing to promote this exchange of information.”