Military Operational Considerations Affecting Distance Learning Experiences

Photo credit: Major Carl Gendron, Camp Julien, Afghanistan, 2004

In terms of design, development, and delivery of distance learning (DL) for the military, it must be acknowledged that the military is a unique target population which often operates in unique contexts. Due to this fact, members often face unique challenges in relation to their DL courses. Depending on the specific operational situation, members often wish to continue their distance learning while in these settings, assuming time and circumstances can allow. My doctoral research, which focused on the overall satisfaction of Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) members on their DL experiences, shed some light on the experiences of members working through DL courses while on operations. This research, which was defended in 2020, included a sample of 368 CAF members who had graduated from CAF Professional Military education programs between the dates of January, 2015 and March, 2018.

In this research, I generally defined operational activities as deployments (foreign and domestic), military exercises, mission training, and working in a high readiness state for deployment.  Clearly, based on the qualitative data gleaned from interviews and survey open-ended questions, operational activities did have an effect on CAF members’ DL experiences. Many members stated that operational activities can cause difficulties with DL studies as the operational activities take members away from their normal schedules. “Certainly,” one member stated, “if you are on DL and there are taskings, deployments, whatever, forest fires, anything that can grab you away from work, that will impact your DL experience.” On the other hand, many members praised DL as a mode of delivery that can enable the continuation of professional development during operations.  One member asserted that “it’s possible to continue to engage in the learning process while deployed – if the technology supports it.”  Another stated that “DL is a viable option in various circumstances, such as while on a mission or deployed out of the country.” Another member stated that whether, “we’re looking at deployments, postings, exercises, high readiness plans… DL enables the learning process to continue through all of it.”  Another member, however, stated that some of their, “classmates had to withdraw due to deployments.” 

Several members mentioned the challenges with being able to focus on DL in an operational setting. One Senior NCM, for example, said that “understanding that when you’re in operations and deployments, the environments, the stresses, and the factors of where you are already keep you quite busy.”  One Junior Officer who had completed the Canadian Armed Forces Junior Officer Development (CAFJOD) program, while aboard a ship, stated that it was “virtually impossible” to complete the courses in a timely manner, “mainly due to inflexible work schedules (watch-keeping).”  Another member mentioned that “deployed operations present a challenge in focusing on the material at times.”  Another stated,“I did the ILP [Intermediate Leadership Program] DL while in Afghanistan.  Super busy and dangerous time.  Could not focus on the course as much as needed.”

Accessing the required equipment was sometimes a challenge that members faced on operations.  One member stated that “at sea, DL is very hard to complete, as there are few available computers that are shared between multiple users, and operational requirements have priority over individual training.” One Senior Non-Commissioned Member (NCM) made the pertinent comment that the availability of equipment during training and extended deployments is often dependent on the type of work a member is doing.  He stated, in French, that “…pour les armes de combat, notre travail est principalement concentré sur le travail manuel et de gestion de personnel. L’accès à un poste informatique est difficile […for combat arms, our work is mainly focused on manual work and personnel management. Access to a computer station is difficult].” 

The most common challenges that many members brought up regarding DL during military operations were issues of connectivity and bandwidth.  While one CAFJOD graduate said he completed three courses while deployed to Afghanistan and, “only on the odd occasion ran into any connectivity difficulties,” others reported more challenges in this respect.  Some members stated that they had dropped DL courses due to connectivity and bandwidth issues on operations.  Another mentioned the difficulty accessing good internet connections while on humanitarian relief operations, such as with the Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART).

“Restricted bandwidth while sailing,” one member stated, “can significantly reduce, or stop, DL progress.”  One ILP graduate stated that “connectivity while at sea was a big problem… There was also the constant risk that you would lose connectivity altogether and lose your work.” Another stated that “if you’re deployed to Africa or something like that, who knows what kind of connection you would actually have to be able to progress it.”  Another member stated that “HMC Ship’s IT software and/or connectivity has created a lot of headaches for students.” One CAFJOD graduate stated that “bandwidth is often severely restricted, making newer DL hard to access.”  One member stated that there was a submariner on their Senior Leadership Program (SLP) course and that due to being on a submarine, “he could only participate when… surfaced, and even then…there was no real interaction [with peers or instructors].”

A couple of sailors even mentioned that members are using time in foreign ports to fulfill their DL commitments.  One Senior NCM stated that “once I was deployed onboard ship the internet wasn’t very good and [so I] had to do extra work before and download info at a café once we docked in another port. Not ideal.” Another stated that “students spend personal time in foreign ports downloading and uploading assignments,” and that, due to this fact, “their quality of life goes way down.”

Military exercises, mission preparation training, and high readiness states can also cause unique challenges to members pursuing professional development via DL.  One ILP graduate remarked that, during major exercises, it is “hard to write and send essays while living off a tank.”  Being in the field can often cause accessibility issues. One Joint Command Staff Program (JCSP) DL graduate stated that he was required to participate in mandatory field exercises during his studies.  In reference to a lack of course flexibility and connectivity while on exercise, he described the scenario he faced.  “Imagine”, he shared, “having to leave the field, go find a Tim Hortons for their Wi-Fi and have to submit content iaw [in accordance with] an arbitrary and completely inflexible timetable. Ridiculous.”  Another mentioned that members sometimes “use their BlackBerry [work cellular phone] to send essays” in the field.  Another shared that “trying to send in your last few assignments in the middle of the field in WX [Wainwright Exercise] will most definitely leave a bad taste in your mouth.”  Another member stated that “conducting DL while on exercise was extremely difficult and led to considerable corner cutting, reducing the quality of the learning.”  Others mentioned how military activities during DL led to more stress and more difficulties finding time to dedicate to DL and meeting course deadlines. 

Members suggested that granting flexibility in professional military education is paramount in enabling members’ success. Such things as allowing for deadline extensions due to other military obligations and ensuring course design flexibility, such as allowing for the downloading of course content and alternative offline activities for members who may not have access to Internet connections, would be beneficial to the military population in dealing with the military-specific considerations that can influence members’ DL experiences.

Much thanks to the members who shared their first-person accounts to help inform the CAF training and education system and enable our collective continuous improvement.

Reference

Jones, K.A. (2021). Satisfaction of Canadian Armed Forces Regular Fores Members with their Distance Learning Experiences [Dissertation]. Athabasca University.

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