Perceptions about Distance Learning from CAF Members’ Points of View

As I have in previous blog articles, I will share here a small section of my doctoral research on the topic of satisfaction with distance learning (DL) experiences in the CAF. Specifically, I will share some qualitative data on CAF members’ general perceptions, both positive and negative, related to DL, as well as perceptions related to the direction the CAF is going with DL use, CAF cultural aspects related to DL, and considerations related to generational differences and individual learning preferences. 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.

There was a wide variety of responses regarding overall satisfaction with DL. One Senior Non-Commissioned Member (NCM), for example, spoke positively about his experience and, in rating his overall experience from 1 to 10, stated, “I would say about 9.” An Officer Cadet, who had completed the Primary Leadership Qualification (PLQ) as a Junior NCM, rated his experiences as “6, 7 out of 10.” A Senior Officer shared that “on a scale of 1 to 10, 5.” General comments regarding CAF DL satisfaction, ranging widely from positive comments to more negative sentiments included, “best learning experience,” “various degrees of positive,” “globally it’s great,” “pretty good,” “pleased,” “quite favourable,” “satisfied,” “fine,” “mixed emotions,” “strongly dislike,” and “painful to get through.” One member even stated, “I cannot convey the depth of my dissatisfaction.” As we can see, generally speaking, the range of perceptions was vast.

Many members shared their perceptions concerning the direction the CAF was taking with the use of DL. Generally, I found that those members who were positive about their DL experiences felt that the CAF was moving in a good direction in increasing the use of DL and improving upon current offerings. Some of the comments included that the CAF was making “incredible strides,” and that “it’s a great way to go.” One member said that he was “impressed that we are going this way,” and another stated that “the CAF should continue to move in the way we are.” Additional positive comments included that “DL is a vital tool in contemporary learning and the CAF should continue to embrace it,” and that “DL is a great capability that should be explored and leveraged as much as possible.”

On the other hand, members who were more negative about their DL experiences shared that they believed the CAF was relying too heavily on the use of DL and should minimize its use. Often members made the comment that we would need to ensure that we are choosing the right balance between the use of DL and classroom. One Senior NCM stated that “we’re starting to do too much by DL, simply because there’s a cost savings factor.” An Advanced Leadership Programme (ALP) graduate suggested that the CAF should, “arrêter d’augmenter le nombre de cours donner en AD [stop increasing the number of courses given by DL].” Another member stated, “I’m just concerned that we put too many eggs in the same basket there for the DL,” and yet another stated that “the CAF needs to stop ‘pushing the easy button’ on DL courses in general”. Again, these perceptions ranged from very positive to very negative on the use of DL in the CAF.

Some comments seemed to be CAF- or military-specific cultural perceptions regarding DL. Although these quotes represent individual beliefs and could potentially be just one person’s view, they seemed valuable to consider. One Canadian Armed Forces Junior Officer Development (CAFJOD) graduate stated that operations and workload must take priority and that professional development courses are, “known as selfish career climbing initiatives.” A Senior Appointment Programme (SAP) graduate stated that “if a course is taught by a person or in class it is assumed that the lesson is important. When course materials are covered by DL, the mentality is that ‘it’s the less important stuff.’” One Primary Leadership Qualification (PLQ) graduate shared his opinion that, “In my mind, there’s no room for DL in the Army. It’s been my experience that most folks didn’t join the army because they were academics. DL courses are designed for academic oriented people, not for the typical blue collar.”

Regarding members using work time for DL, some members shared their perceptions that it would be seen negatively if they were to take this time. One member stated that they did all the DL on their own time due to, “not wanting to be judged for taking time off.” A CAFJOD graduate said that supervisors say that “professional development through courses, especially DL, are a “personal responsibility” and should “not take work time” to complete them.” These are all noteworthy individual perspectives/opinions to contemplate.

Some members shared a perception that DL was less favourable for older members and more favourable for younger members. Some members shared their opinion that there are no real differences between the generations in their affinity and satisfaction with the use of DL. One member, for example, stated that “as an older member of the CAF the greatest beginning difficulty was the technology of the computers and navigation of a DL course.” Another stated that “when it comes to the younger generation, they are probably more comfortable doing stuff online…. we older [members] have to get used to it.” Another member stated that “some of the senior NCMs… may not be as comfortable with computers…. so maybe they wouldn’t be as positive… using such a tool.” Another shared, “maybe I’m becoming one of those old guys I don’t know, but I’m reluctant, or hesitant to invest myself too much into DL.” On the other hand, one member stated that “particularly for the younger generation that’s starting to come through now, they’re so used to technology and so used to the resources and being able to find things online and that kind of thing.” Another member stated that “maybe the new generation responds better to DLN as they are less likely to want to leave “home” for a course and are more reliant on networking with “friends” they’ve never met.”

Not everyone, however, saw generational considerations having a real effect on DL satisfaction. One Senior Officer shared his opinion that we tend to think of DL as, “generational, like all the young folks like it, the older people don’t. I think that might be a bit of a misnomer or a fallacy because it just depends.” A Senior NCM stated, “I certainly think that across-the-board of generations -so whether you’re 19 years old or whether you’re 55 years old… DL is a very good mechanism.” As one 52-year-old member with 35 years of service in the CAF stated, “even us old guys can do it!” One 53-year-old member with 28 years of service made the point that even the older CAF members have been in a “technology powered workplace” for a long time now. “We may not be Digital Natives,” he stated, “but we should be just about out of web-illiterates [in the CAF].” Personally, I would tend to agree with this point. As someone who advances beyond middle-age, even I had a Commodore VIC-20 growing up and I would not necessarily consider myself a “digital immigrant”.

One CAFJOD graduate shared that “everyone learns differently, DL may work for some but it does not work for me.” One member suggested that the CAF should, “have some options for people. Some like DL… many, like myself, hate it. Basically stop looking for “one” solution because it will never work for everyone.” Another member stated that “not everyone is computer savvy (i.e. a digital native). There needs to be training available that is aimed at every type of learner.” Another stated that “we’re getting better with identifying people with… how they learn, and just try[ing] to adapt to it whenever we can…. otherwise we’ll always be leaving someone behind.” A CAFJOD graduate stated that “many people learn in different ways, some prefer classroom instruction and some prefer DL and some prefer hands-on courses. We should be helping people learn according to their strengths and not forcing everyone to supposedly “learn” in exactly the same way.” Some good food for thought regarding members’ perception related to learning preferences and the value of providing options.

For further details related to this research, the methodology used and fulsome findings, please feel free to refer to the link below. There have been some exciting advancements in CAF DL in the years since this research took place including the introduction of the new DLN 3.0 and more widely used videoconferencing/virtual classrooms for synchronous DL, which may influence CAF members’ perceptions of DL today.

Thanks so much to the CAF members who offered their time to answer the open-ended survey questions and who participated in interviews for this research. Their voices have added so much to the quantitative numerical data collected.

Reference:

Jones, K.A. (2020). Satisfaction of Canadian Armed Forces Regular Fores Members with their Distance Learning Experiences [Dissertation]. Athabasca University.

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