Experiential Learning: From a CAF Perspective

Photo Credit: Corporal Daniel Chiasson, Canadian Armed Forces photo

Experiential learning is becoming a much more recognized alternative and compliment to pure traditional academic learning.  Experiential learning has been defined by Lewis & Williams (1994) as, “…learning from experience or learning by doing. Experiential education first immerses learners in an experience and then encourages reflection about the experience to develop new skills, new attitudes, or new ways of thinking” (p. 5). “Learning by doing” is certainly not a new concept, though, as we have had “apprentices,”journeymen,” and “masters” in most learning contexts since before we necessarily had words to describe them. The post-activity reflection that is included in this definition aids the acquisition of the new skill, attitude, or way of thinking.

Examples of Experiential Learning

One context where we sometimes use the term “experiential learning” is when we are assessing previous experiences in work and training in order to make a prior learning assessment which can grant individuals with academic credit, entry into an academic or training program, strengthen a job application, or allow entry into a professional body. In job advertisements, we will often see that a certain degree is required, or equivalent work experience. Through this recognition of experiential learning, new opportunities can present themselves for those who do not have the required prerequisites but who do necessarily have sufficient past learning experiences. In the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), we often use and encourage the use of Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR) to reduce unnecessary training time and costs required for a member to achieve their qualification. If previous work and/or training experiences show that specific CAF performance objectives have, indeed, been previously achieved through other means, such as within a previous work or training experience, a PLAR can be requested and evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Conversely, there are also organizations outside the CAF who will recognize CAF experiences towards credit or qualifications.

Canadian Armed Forces Professional Development Framework

The second use of the term “experiential learning,” which is likely the more common use in the training and educational context, concerns itself with integrating experiential learning into traditional training and education.  This may include real-life simulations and other learner-centric and learner-controlled activities. The instructor’s role in this context is as a facilitator. We often see experiential learning in the CAF as part of the Training Pillar of the Professional Development Framework, which is illustrated in the figure above. Examples of experiential learning in the CAF could come in the form of simulated live field/air/sea exercises, planning an attack, operating simulated vehicles, typing a memo (as I did in my RMS Clerk QL3 course back in 2005!), firing a weapon, performing first aid on a dummy, taking apart and putting together an engine during training, and using simulated a 360 degree air traffic control center to run through real-life scenarios, as they do at Canadian Forces School of Aerospace Control Operations (CFSACO). In my own occupational training, as a Training Development Officer, we led mock Qualification Standard and Training Plan Writing Boards during our course, followed by real writing boards, under supervision, with real subject matter experts during our on-the-job training.

Experiential learning also occurs as part of the Experience Pillar, as illustrated above. The Experience Pillar is defined as “the application and continued development of the knowledge, skills and attitudes obtained through education, training, and/or self-development in the performance of assigned roles and duties” (GoC, 2018a). In other words, experiential learning happens on the job and throughout our careers. We move beyond simulated vehicles, for example, and operate various types of vehicles in theatre, on various types of terrain, and in various types of weather. In other contexts, such as leadership development, we move beyond role-playing difficult discussions, and move into handling difficult discussions within many different real-life scenarios, in many different contexts, and with many different types of people. Experiential learning in training is excellent for practicing what is to come. Experiential learning throughout our career, and indeed throughout our entire lifetime, continuously develops us and adds depth to our knowledge and skills.

Myself, showing off a simulated Reverse Osmosis Water Purification Unit (ROWPU) during the Basic Public Affairs Officer Course: Exercise Veritas Thunder, 2012


Experiential learning is an important consideration in terms of prior learning assessments. Older workers want their life work experiences to be recognized so that new opportunities can open up for them.  CAF recruits are no longer only younger adults people fresh out of school. Practical abilities and tacit knowledge must be respected and equivalencies must be offered through the process of PLAR in order to avoid training redundancy and to reduce unnecessary training days. There are many occupations in the CAF that have an equivalent in the civilian world, for example, cooks, various types of technicians, and nurses. Granting equivalencies based on experiential learning, whether through work or other life experiences, just makes good sense. In many cases, only training that covers the military aspects of the job may be required to get an individual to the operationally functional point (OFP) in their occupation.

Recognizing education in the younger graduates (or recruits), who may be new to the workplace and lack life/work experiences, and recognizing the life/work experiences of the older population, who may lack traditional academic degrees/training certification, “levels the playing field” and can help to provide the best individual, regardless of age and regardless of how the pertinent knowledge and skills were gained.  In a time when we, in the CAF, are focused on reconstitution, that is rebuilding the numbers we lost due to the lack of recruitment and training during the pandemic, this point seems especially relevant. As Lance Lee, in Spectre’s (1993) article on experiential learning, stated “capability is the bottom line” (p. 135). Indeed, it is!

The future of experiential learning, in terms of enabling experiences in training or in the workplace, looks bright. In fact, it would be hard to imagine one CAF school or qualification that does not have some sort of experiential learning included. In terms of civilian academic and college programs, many are offering experiential learning extended opportunities in the forms of co-ops, internships, and practicum.  

It is highly likely that these practices will continue and expand.  The implications of the greater recognition and value given to experiential learning, that I envision, will be that training and educational institutes could evolve.  It could be more the norm that students come in and out of programs to acquire what, and only what, they need to do their jobs.  They will not invest time or money, or their organization’s money, to relearn what they already know from previous workplace or school learning.  Workplaces will value experience gained equally to, if not more than, academic credentials.  Job advertisements will never list a certain degree as an absolute minimum.  The words “or equivalent experience” will always appear in advertisements- including within CAF recruitment advertisements.

Final Words

I believe that training and education should always include some form of experiential learning. Examples include through simulations, role-playing, working through scenarios, games, field trips, and many other options. Consider your target audience, consider your context, and consider what it is, in the world beyond the schoolhouse (or virtual classroom), that you are looking to achieve. The next time you, as an instructor, consider creating a long PowerPoint deck for your classroom lecture, consider how you could enable “Learning by Doing.” Your students will thank you for it!


Government of Canada. (2018a). Canadian Armed Forces professional development framework.

Government of Canada. (2018b). DAOD 5031-1 Canadian Forces Military Equivalencies Program.

Lewis, L.H. & Williams, C.J. (1994). In Jackson, L. & Caffarella, R.S. (Eds.). Experiential
Learning: A New Approach (pp. 5-16). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Spectre, P. H. (1993). Lance Lee: Building self-reliance, character, and boats. Wooden Boat, 114, 52-63. Published by Jossey-Bass Inc.

Sternberg, R. J., Wagner, R. K., Williams, W. M., & Horvath, J. A. (1995).Testing common sense. American Psychologist, 50(11), 912-927.

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.


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

Technology-Enabled Interactions in Distance Learning : Part 3/3 (CAF Members’ Input)

Canadian Armed Forces medic at laptop in back of a LAV
Photo Credit: DND photo IS2011-1036-02 by Sergeant Matthew McGregor

In the previous two blog articles in this serial (1/3 & 2/3), I focused more generally on the concepts of interaction in Distance Learning (DL). In this entry, I will focus specifically on the qualitative findings that I gleaned from my own mixed methods (qualitative & quantitative) doctoral research, within the context of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). Although the mixed methods approach gave rich findings, I have always really wanted to specifically share with a wider readership, the words of the CAF members who responded to open-ended questions in my survey and who took part in the interviews that I conducted. In short, my research into CAF DL satisfaction included a sample of those who graduated between Jan, 2015 and March, 2018, from the Officer and Non Commissioned Members (NCM) professional military education programs, which, at the time of this research, were either delivered solely by DL or as blended learning (DL + classroom). In relation, specifically, to the Joint Command and Staff Programme (JCSP), only graduates of the DL version (with visits to the college) were part of the research sample. While, overall, 78% of these CAF members reported that they were somewhat or very satisfied with their DL experiences, 71.7% stated that, all things being equal, they would choose classroom learning over DL. Some interesting nuances emerged from the qualitative data that I happy to share here, in relation specifically to the three types of interactions in DL. More detailed research findings can be found from here.

Today, I will focus solely on DL interactions. It must be noted that this research was completed prior to the COVID pandemic, and as such, we could potentially expect different responses today, based partially on the quick stand-up many organizations moved to, including the CAF, of desktop Internet videoconferencing as a tool to enable synchronous DL. Some residential courses switched to synchronous virtual classes shortly after the pandemic began.

The first category within the theme of DL course quality, within this qualitative thematic analysis, contained members’ comments and perspectives regarding the three forms of interactions described in the previous two blog entries of this series. The interactions category included the following: 1) peer interaction, including comments about networking, 2) interactions with instructors and staff, as well as, 3) interactions with the course content.

Generally, the quality of interactions came up often in members’ qualitative responses to DL satisfaction, with many reporting that they had felt that they were missing out on what they perceived as rich face-to-face opportunities to meet, discuss, and create relationships with their peers that could benefit them throughout their careers.

Some members felt that the online asynchronous forum discussions were valuable for effective interactions with peers. One, for example, said that “they were excellent. Part of it is because you’re forced to interact.” One member said, “getting in contact online with people like that, you meet a lot of people… so I think it’s good.” Another member said that the connections with the other students were great and stated that they would stay in contact with their classmates. One member said that they liked the flexibility in that they could contribute to a discussion at any time, day or night. In an interview, one Senior NCM offered his positive perspective on one aspect of interactions in DL:

“One of the things that distance learning will enable, when we’re looking at group discussion kind of formats, is typically, when you get people physically in a room, group dynamics always take over. You’re going to have one or two people that will naturally take charge of the room, you’ll have one or two people who won’t say a word even if you come around and poke them with a pen and, then, you get the fence-sitters who can go either way. In the virtual chat room [discussion forum] everyone has a voice and they’re not afraid to express opinions.”

Other members, however, found the value of the DL interactions compared negatively to in-class peer interaction. Some stated that students were often just posting the bare minimum to meet the course requirements and that the forum discussions were not engaging. Many stated that they felt they would learn more in an in-class situation rather than, as one member put it, from, “the cold face of a screen.” One Intermediate Leadership Programme (ILP) graduate said that he found himself, “unable to fully engage with other participants.” Another stated that the DL experience, “isolated the users and did not really allow for positive discussions amongst peers.” One Senior Leadership Programme (SLP) graduate stated that “for leadership and command courses nothing [referring to DL] beats face time and learning from others, ‘Friday night in the shacks learning over beers with peers.’” Another stated that “it’s easier to appreciate other experiences when soldiers are assembled in one location.”

One ILP graduate stated, in reference to DL, that “there is no human component, experience, lessons learned. There is no feeling of camaraderie, team building etc.” Another ILP graduate stated that “the over reliance of computers has taken the “human” interaction away from most courses. The “tech net” used to be formed when sitting in a class with peers from different areas.” Another stated that a negative impact of DL, beyond the immediate training, is the “general group mentorship by rank or trade.” Another member stated that DL does not improve our people skills and, “leads to more people ‘leading by email.’” Several of the JCSP graduates shared that they felt the online forums were more effective after the cohort met face to face during the residential visit halfway through the DL course. Some also felt that, following the program, the students from the residential version of the JCSP seem, “to have a greater network of peers and mentors than DL students.”

Some members found that discussions in DL forums were lacking in depth as it was, as one member put it, “difficult to gauge an individual’s perspective without being able to read body language and identify tone.” Another mused that “you don’t get the facial expressions, you don’t get the gestures, you don’t get the intonations.” As one member described, “some things come across as very pointed where they’re not intended to be.” Another member explained that “text and narrative can be taken out of context and read in many different ways,” and yet another member said that “it’s hard to bring emotion into a conversation through a computer screen or through an online chat forum.”

The Canadian Armed Forces Junior Officer Development (CAFJOD) program and the Primary Leadership Qualification (PLQ) did not incorporate any peer interaction in the DL course design. A Junior Officer who had completed the CAFJOD program stated that it was, “a solo endeavor.” Although he said that discussions with peers, outside of the courses, were encouraged, you “have to sit down and do the course all by yourself.” A graduate of the PLQ course suggested that DL courses, “need to be a little bit more interactive.” When I asked him to explain what “more interactive” would be like, he replied with examples such as, “being able to talk to other students,” and “more networking and bouncing ideas and having to work together.” He also reflected that “maybe through other people you can actually learn the information a little bit better yourself.” When asked if any of this type of interactivity was seen in his PLQ, he stated, “None. There was zero.”

Some Advanced Leadership Programme (ALP) graduates shared their disappointment that there was no longer a residential portion of the ALP in that it was presently delivered solely via DL. One ALP graduate stated, “I am extremely dissatisfied with the DL package. It does not foster networking, nor does it allow us to broaden our experience with other trades.” Another member stated that “ALP should have a small portion by DL and bring back the residential portion since that is where your networking is establish[ed] which you cannot have online. The face-to-face interaction is definitely necessary.”

Interactions with instructors were also seen as an important issue in members’ discussions regarding their satisfaction with their DL experiences. There was a range of levels of satisfaction with instructor interactions. Some said that they communicated with instructors through the messages and online forum discussions on the Defence Learning Network (DLN) / Learning Management System (LMS), some via email, and some communicated on the telephone. One member said that they found the interactions with instructors to be “adequate,” and another said, “effective.” One Senior NCM that I interviewed, who had completed the SLP, stated that the course staff were, “always there to help.”

On the other hand, some members felt that the interactions with their instructors and staff left something to be desired. The interaction, one member stated, was “effective but very brief and not necessarily personable.” In terms of feedback, one PLQ graduate hinted at his displeasure saying that it should be made “mandatory for instructors to respond within a given time period.” A Senior NCM stated, in reference to the interactions with instructors, that he was “not overly satisfied… it was more process management than people management.” He suggested this could be improved by “more feedback on how we’re communicating, more feedback on things that we’re doing, greater interactive sessions.” In terms of the online discussions, another member stated that “the instructors could have been involved. They could have actually chimed in, they could have given some feedback directly in the middle of conversations, they could have redirected conversations or opened up the conversations much more,” and that this probably would have, “elicited a little more.”

A Junior Officer who had completed the CAFJOD program explained that “there’s no instructors on CAFJOD” and that the course is, “entirely self-serve.” He stated that any questions a student may have were to be directed to the Chain of Command.

As for interactions with the course content, members reported that, depending on the different courses, they accessed the content in different ways, such as the following: on the LMS, by downloading pdfs or accessing content through provided links and electronic libraries, both from internal and external sources; and, in some cases, through content and references that were either mailed or emailed. One member said that there were “phenomenal resources” that were “easy-to-access.” A JCSP graduate stated that “the content as provided was easily accessible, you could get it, you could read it.”

As you can see, there were a range of levels of satisfaction with the interactions within the CAF Professional Development Programs for Officers and NCMs and I have, obviously, not represented all comments here. The sentiments within, however, generally speaking, were also supported by the quantitative data. In my opinion, many of the issues that were brought up in this research regarding interactions, could be addressed somewhat with the use of the newly available technologies, such as desktop videoconferencing now available to all CAF members. Even at a physical distance, a blended approach including technologies that enable synchronous interactions via, for example, MS Teams or the DLN virtual classroom, and asynchronous, for example, via the DLN LMS, could offer even more opportunities for valuable learning interactions via DL than prior to the COVID pandemic.

As stated in earlier articles in this series, higher quality interactions, in various forms (i.e., learner-content, learner-to-instructor, and learner-leaner) has the potential to lead to a more satisfying learning experience. While, there may sometimes be roadblocks (e.g., bandwidth, Internet access), we should make all attempts to optimize the training technologies available to us to the benefit of our students.

For further information, including the quantitative data of my research in relations to DL interactions, feel free to pursue my full dissertation linked below. More discussions related to this research’s findings, in relation to training technologies and military-specific considerations for DL, will follow in future blog articles.


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

Leadership Styles in the Military Context: Personal Reflections

During my career as a member of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), I have seen many different leaders and leadership styles. I have learned much through watching, what I would describe as, positive and negative examples of leadership. Effective leadership skills are important for enabling mission success, whether that be on a battlefield, in an office, or in an educational setting. Due to the contextual realities and challenges that DND/CAF has been facing of late (i.e. numerous allegations of misconduct at the highest rank levels), DND/CAF has become increasingly focused on the topic of leadership in terms of how we can develop good leaders. The recent 2022 Government of Canada federal budget, in fact, allocated funds to “strengthen leadership in the Canadian Armed Forces,” along with other culture change efforts, such as to “modernize the military justice system; bring into force the Declaration of Victims Rights as set out in the National Defence Act; undertake engagement and consultation on culture change; and enhance restorative services, including dispute resolution and coaching services” (Government of Canada, 2022).

In this personal reflection, and in relation to the CAF organization which has a particularly hierarchical leadership structure, I will consider three different pertinent areas in relation to leadership, including: 1) leadership approaches in the military context; 2) gender considerations for leadership evaluation; and, a somewhat uncomfortable, yet necessary, topic to discuss, 3) toxic leadership.

Leadership Approaches in the Military Context

In considering this topic, I realize that after 17 years as a CAF member, my views of leadership, and what constitutes good leadership, have been strongly influenced by the leadership that I have seen. It has seemed to me that those around me have tended to define good leadership in a rather narrow way, and that this is how we have evaluated leadership skills. Great leaders, I would surmise, in many of my colleagues’ minds, are loud, charismatic, and forceful.  They look like what a majority of Canadians would expect a military leader to look like. They have the ability to effectively “rally the troops.” Being a hierarchical organization, leadership tends to be very transactional and/or transformational. In reviewing literature on this subject, I pulled an older book off my shelf that has been there for many years, titled The Military Leadership Handbook (2008), published by the Canadian Defence Academy Press. Transactional leadership, it states, “occurs when the leader influence is controlled through rewards or disciplines for the follower, depending on the adequacy of the follower’s performance” (p. 345). Some may call this ‘old-school’ military leadership, but depending on the context, it may still have its place, especially in situations related to security and, perhaps, dealing with a consistently low-performer. Horn and Walker (2008) state that “generally … the most effective approach is the transformational one” (p.348) within the military context. A transformational leadership approach can be defined as, “the process whereby an individual engages with others and creates a connection that raises the level of motivation and morality in both the leader and the follower. Transformational leaders motivate others to do more than they thought possible. They set more challenging expectations and typically achieve higher performance” (p. 346). I’m sure that many would agree that this sounds like the kind of leader we enjoy and thrive working under.

Horn and Walker (2008) go on to discuss emergent leaders. These are, “leaders because of the way other group members respond to them…. When an individual is perceived by others as the most influential member of a group or organization, and regardless of the individual’s title, the person is exhibiting emergent leadership” (p. 347). Horn and Walker (2008) state that although “emergent leadership should always be recognized and utilized… position-based or assigned leaders must demonstrate constantly the effective and professional leadership that is not sidelined by emergent leadership” (p. 348). In other words, rank must still “pull rank” at the end of the day.

Clearly, their comments do ring true in the military context. In terms of “emergent leadership,” there are context-specific leadership considerations and requirements, such as the need to avoid potential insubordination within the chain of command and the need for due respect to position and rank-based leaders, perhaps especially in a war-time or security situation.  Emergent leadership, however, can be very instrumental in leading change at all levels regarding such things as the culture change efforts currently underway in DND/CAF.  When we speak of leadership, I now more fully realize that the specific situation must be considered, in order to determine which leadership approach would be most appropriate and effective within a specific context. Good leaders must have the ability to shift their approaches based on their current context, situation, and audience.

Gender Considerations for Leadership Evaluation

How we evaluate leadership skills is an important consideration as DND/CAF moves forward with efforts to develop a more inclusive environment with diverse representation in leadership positions. To explain one reason why building this diverse cadre of leaders is important, I share an excerpt from the Marie Deschamps report (2015), which was an external review into sexual misconduct and harassment in the CAF. In her report, she states that “there is an undeniable link between the existence of a hostile organizational culture that is disrespectful and demeaning to women, and the poor integration of women into the organization. Increasing the representation of women in the CAF, including in the highest positions of senior leadership, is therefore key to changing the culture of the organization.” As the female makeup of the CAF is only slightly higher that 15%, and the female representation in the General Officer/ Flag Officer cadre is only ~10% (by my own count), we do, indeed, have an under-representation in females. I believe that growth in the numbers of females in the highest of leadership levels could be increased by broadening our definition and appreciation of what a good leader looks like.  

If the organizational and historical culture tends to see a leader as a loud, tall, strong, and charismatic male, females may not, subjectively, be evaluated fairly on their leadership skills in their yearly evaluations.  Of course, female leaders can exhibit a wide range of leadership styles, taking advantage of their unique skills and abilities. It is worth considering, however, if a female happens to be soft-spoken but leads well through a high level of emotional intelligence, which has been shown to be a good predictor of effective leadership (Gill, 2011), would she be rated as highly as one who has the traits and behaviors traditionally held by male models of great leadership in the military. These biases run deep, and are often subconscious.

As we are currently having these types of discussions in the CAF/DND; as we have made a decision to remove gendered pronouns from our yearly evaluations; and as we are starting to look at promotion requirements through a Gender-Based Analysis Plus (GBA+) lens, I am confident that there is much to feel positive about in terms of our move towards greater organizational understanding in these areas. As is always the case, time will tell.

Toxic Leadership

An article was once shared with me on the topic of Toxic Leadership in the context of the United States Army.  I recommend reading this short article, linked here. It led me to consider how leadership can have such a significant effect, both positively or negatively, on troop morale, and on conduct and culture in the CAF.  Toxic Leadership, in the US Army Doctrine Publication (2012), has been defined as:

“a combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations, and behaviors that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organization, and mission performance … Toxic leaders consistently use dysfunctional behaviors to deceive, intimidate, coerce, or unfairly punish others to get what they want for themselves. The negative leader completes short-term requirements by operating at the bottom of the continuum of commitment, where followers respond to the positional power of their leader to fulfill requests. This may achieve results in the short term, but ignores the other leader competency categories of leads and develops” (as cited in Zwerdling, 2014, para. 31). 

Unfortunately, as positive and effective as authentic transformational leadership can be in the military context, toxic leadership is on the opposite and negative side of the spectrum.  Many of us can likely pinpoint a time in our career, whether in or out of uniform, where we’ve experienced this type of leadership and witnessed its often-devastating effects on personnel. Based on the sharing of this definition and reflections of our own experiences, I hope we are better equipped to recognize this negative style of leadership and see it as a style to strongly avoid in ourselves and discourage in our colleagues. Even if toxic leadership can sometimes seem to attain quick wins towards organizational goals, one must question themselves. -At what cost? -At what cost to members’ mental and physical health? -At what cost to team cohesion? -At what cost to retention of personnel? And, ultimately, -At what cost to operational effectiveness in the long-term?

Future Considerations

Different approaches to leadership and how we will define effective leadership into the future are very important discussions that should be encouraged at all levels. Although leadership in the military will likely always be within a hierarchical structure, it must be understood that, as we further diversify, we must recognize that the most effective leaders may have different traits, abilities, and behaviors than were historically seen and evaluated against in the past. We must also understand that there can be no place for toxic leadership in a modern and successful military.


Deschamps, M. (2015). External Review into Sexual Misconduct & Sexual Harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces. https://www.canada.ca/en/department-national-defence/corporate/reports-publications/sexual-misbehaviour/external-review-2015.html

Gill, R. (2011). Redefining leadership: A new model. In R. Gill’s Theory and practice of leadership (pp.91-123). London: SAGE Publications.

Government of Canada. (2022). 2022 Budget: Chapter 5: Canada`s Leadership in the World: Supporting Culture Change in the Canadian Armed Forces. https://budget.gc.ca/2022/report-rapport/chap5-en.html#m97

Walker, R. W., & Horn, B. (2008). The military leadership handbook. Kingston, ON: Canadian Defence Academy Press.

Zwerdling, D. (2014, January 6). Army takes on its own toxic leaders. Retrieved March 16, 2016, from http://www.npr.org/2014/01/06/259422776/army-takes-on-its-own-toxic-leaders

The Use of Simulation in Military Training

Some years ago, I worked in the realm of simulation for training with the Navy. I learned so much about the power of using simulation for experiential learning that it left me inspired to explore and learn more. The content in this blog outlines some of my own professional development on the topic.

Generally, the Canadian military makes wide use of simulators as training platforms. To name a few examples, the Royal Canadian Navy has Naval and Bridge Simulators (NABS) on each coast, the Canadian Army stood up the Land Vehicle Crew Training System (LVCTS) project to purchase a range of vehicle crew trainers, and the Royal Canadian Air Force has various flight simulators, as well as a simulated airport control tower to train Aerospace Controllers/Operators. Simulation is also used in other fields, such as in health care. It would seem that the sky is the limit to the use of simulation in training. New and exciting, though, can rarely be the sole reason for change. The value of simulation, including the benefits and drawbacks, within the context of training, will always need to be evaluated on a case per case basis.

Simulation in training, however, has shown the potential to provide a method of instruction that can engage students in a rich and active learning experience.  Assuming a thorough analysis of the training requirements is performed upfront and the best practices in instructional design are adhered to throughout all phases, simulation can result in skills that are transferable to the workplace and it can result in a sound return of investment (ROI) for training budgets.  As Page and Smith (1998) wrote, “the need for, and demands on, military simulation are continually increasing. Driven largely by fiscal necessity, an increasing pressure to employ simulation is driving exploration into new methods for modeling combat activities” (p. 57). 

Simulation has been defined as a technique, “to replace and amplify real experiences with guided ones, often “immersive” in nature, that evoke or replicate substantial aspects of the real world in a fully interactive fashion” (Lateef, 2010, p.1).  Simulation can sometimes be mistaken for a tool or an instructional technology.  While it is true that simulation may make use of a certain tool or technology, it is, in fact, an instructional method.  As stated by Timothy Clapper (2010), “technology is just a tool to be used in conjunction with a good learning plan that enhances and does not replace the need for active engagement activities” (p. e12).  Having the use of a technologically cutting-edge simulator, for example, does not exclude the need to adhere to good instructional design principles.

Simulation is broken down into three main types: live, virtual and constructive.  These three types can be characterized by these simple distinctions: 1) live simulation uses real people and real equipment/systems; 2) virtual simulation uses real people with simulated equipment/systems; and 3) constructive simulation uses simulated people and simulated equipment/systems. 

Live simulation uses real people and real equipment/systems.  Technicians often work on real engines in learning how to take them apart, fix them and put them back together.  Military exercises typically consist of real soldiers running through simulated exercise scenarios in the field, often using real vehicles and real weapons.   

Virtual simulation has real people using simulated equipment/systems.  A simulated firing range has a real person firing a simulated rifle into a simulated firing range of targets.

A constructive simulation has simulated people, environment and equipment/systems.   An example of a constructive simulation could be found with the Canadian Virtual Naval Fleet (CVNF).  This 3D training environment allows sailors to immerse themselves in the 3D ships to familiarize themselves with the different ship classes and to train on procedures related to their occupations (National Defence, 2012).

The best type of simulation, whether it is live, virtual or constructive, will often depend on the resources available. The best ROI is dependent, among other things, on how often the simulation will be used.  Live simulation, for example, has a quite high cost as it is usually highly dependent on human resources and other materials.  Virtual simulation, however, has a medium cost, comparably, in that it often requires less resources and it can frequently be reused.  Constructive simulations are often the lower cost option in that they frequently require the lowest human resource and material cost and they can be used for many serials without a lot of additional costs.  Due to all of these factors, a sound cost benefit analysis is an important step in determining which of these types of simulation would best serve a particular learning need.

Fidelity is a common word used in relation to simulation-based learning.  It is a term used to define the “degree to which the simulator replicates reality” (Beaubien & Barker, 2004, p. 2).  A typology of fidelity, adapted from Rehmand et al. (1995) and described by Beaubien and Baker (2004), focuses on three main aspects of fidelity: 1) equipment fidelity; 2) environmental fidelity; and 3) psychological fidelity. 

The equipment fidelity speaks to the level of similarity the simulator has to the actual equipment that one is training to use.  Environmental fidelity speaks to the accuracy of the sensory cues, such as motion and visual, to the actual environment to be experienced in the future on the job.  Psychological fidelity speaks to the trainee’s level of overall belief that the simulator is similar to that in a real-life situation.  This fidelity factor is the one that allows the trainee to suspend disbelief and feel themselves truly in the real-world situation while engaged in the simulation.  Psychological fidelity of a simulation is the main indicator of whether the skills learned in the simulation will, indeed, transfer to the real-life on-the-job situation.  This is also the one factor that can be the most influenced by instructional designers, in that the creation of realistic scenarios within the simulation can go a long way to increasing the psychological fidelity of the simulation (Beaubien & Barker, 2004).

When deliberating on the best value for money in simulation investments, it is important to remember that “technology that simulates the environmental or equipment characteristics can increase the psychological fidelity of well designed training scenarios, but cannot compensate for poorly designed ones” (Beaubien & Barker, 2004, p. 2).  Prioritizing good instructional design principles can be most valuable in the development of simulation-based learning.   

Generally speaking, the higher the equipment and environmental fidelity requirement decided upon, the higher the cost that a developer can expect to pay for a simulator.  A meta-analysis of the research in the field has show that “the benefits of simulation training can be had from low-cost, desk-top simulations, equally or more so than from expensive high-fidelity simulators” (Hahn, 2011, p. 10).  Determining the necessary level of fidelity in each of the three areas is worth the time and effort to get it right from the early training design and requirements gathering phases.  

Much current research delves into validating the effectiveness of simulation in learning through determining the level of success of the skill transfer.  It is possible for learning to take place within a simulator but not actually translate into a real life situation.  As Hahn (2011) aptly states, “if learning [in a simulator] does not result in transferable skills, the training is for naught” (p.1). 

The best way to judge if there has been an effective level of skill transfer would simply be to watch the student perform the tasks trained in a real life setting following the simulated training experience.  More elaborate studies, such as the one that will follow, are often undertaken to further evaluate and quantify the actual percentage of skill transfer that has been achieved through the use of simulations for training. 

A report presented to the 2011 Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation & Education Conference (I/ITSEC) outlined a study performed to evaluate the skill transfer of Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) cadets from pistol training.  The report titled “Pistol Skills Transfer from a Synthetic Environment to Real World Setting” (Krätzig et al., 2011) studied RCMP cadets (N=124) to compare those who trained in a simulated small arms trainer to those who trained exclusively on a live-fire range.  The cadets participated in 18 fifty-minute training sessions, live fire for three control groups and in the simulated trainer for one experimental group, and they were all assessed on the live-fire range.  The live-fire control group fired 2300 rounds each in total throughout all training and assessments.  The experimental group who trained in the simulator only fired 200 rounds each, all of which were during the assessments alone. 

Although there were some variations on the different assessments, no significant difference was shown in the assessment scores overall.  Although some cadets who were trained in the simulated trainer failed their first final qualification assessment, all passed after some remedial training.   It was felt that the addition of the recoil in the live-fire session may have distracted the cadets who had not experienced this recoil in the simulated trainer.  The authors stated in the discussion that the experiment “provided evidence that the skills needed for the basic LEO [law enforcement officer] pistol shooting, can be acquired in a synthetic environment” (Krätzig et al., 2011, p. 6-7). 

A follow-up to this study was presented at the 2014 I/ITSEC by Mr. Krätzig.  The three year longitudinal study that followed the same RCMP members showed that the RCMP members who had originally been trained mainly by the simulated small arms trainer continued to show a high level of success in their yearly recertification.  In fact, in comparison with the other RCMP members who had originally been trained by live-fire alone, they showed higher scores in the following years.  Mr. Krätzig surmised that the fact that those who were originally trained in the simulated small arms trainers, had the opportunity to fire the weapon more often, had a quieter environment to train and likely were able to hear the mentoring of the instructors to their classmates unlike those on the loud live-firing range, were all potential factors that led to the better retention of their skills (Krätzig, 2014).

Business case analysis research has often been done to study the ROI of simulation.  In the military, a savings of bullets, the usage of vehicles and the related maintenance costs, the saving of fuel for ships and aircraft are all costs that can be saved when virtual or constructive simulations are used.  Operators can be more competent and prepared as they are often afforded more practice time in a simulator and they can have experiences, in simulation, with situations that they might not be able to practice in real live settings (e.g. fighting a fire on a ship). 

The future of simulation in military training is sure to expand.  Most predict that simulation will never completely eliminate live training, in that a soldier will always need to fire real bullets from a real rifle before going to combat and a pilot will always need to fly a real plane before being certified.  Simulation will, however, play an increasingly strong role in complementing and supplementing training.  Some, such as seen in Simonson et al. (2012), predict that “virtual worlds will represent the standard learning environments at some point in our future” (p. 132).

The rising cost of fuel and resources will cause organizations to continue looking for new ways to train in the future, as has been happening within the Canadian Armed Forces.  According to the “Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Modeling and Simulation Strategy and Roadmap (Training) 2025” (National Defence, 2014), the RCAF recognized that they must “shift from live to virtual based methods in order to achieve more effective and efficient training” and that “whenever live and virtual training methods offer the same training value, the preference will be to choose the virtual training method” (p. 6).  Live training on actual equipment and the use of live simulations has been seen as the most valuable training for many years.  This required change to the higher use of virtual and constructive simulated training represents a massive, yet required, cultural shift that has been taking place over the past years. 

It’s been too long since I attended the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference (I/ITSEC) and perhaps some of my information here is aging. I will be sure to add a visit to I/ITSEC to my professional development bucket list in order to update my knowledge in this area. If you have any thoughts on this blog, I would be happy to engage in discussion below.


Beaubien, J., & Baker, D. (2004). The use of simulation for training teamwork skills in health care: How low can you go? Quality and Safety in Health Care, 13(Suppl 1), 51-56.

Clapper, T. (2010). Beyond Knowles: What those conducting simulation need to know aboutadult learning theory. Clinical Simulation In Nursing, 6(1), e7-e14.

Krätzig, G. P., M. Hyde, et al. (2011). “Pistols Skills Transfer from a Synthetic Environment to Real World Setting”. The Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation & Education Conference (I/ITSEC) 2011(1).

Lateef, F. Simulation-based learning: Just like the real thing. Journal Of Emergencies, Trauma &Shock [serial online]. October 2010;3(4):348-352.

National Defence. (2012). Canadian Virtual Naval Fleet: Fact Sheet. Courcelette, QC: Navy Learning Support Centre (East).

National Defence. (2014). Royal Canadian Air Force Modeling and SimulationStrategy and Roadmap (Training) 2025. [Executive Summary]. Ottawa, ON: Directorate of Air Simulation and Training.

Page, E., & Smith, R. (1998). Introduction to military training simulation: a guide for discrete event simulationists. 1998 Winter Simulation Conference Proceedings (Cat No98ch36274), (1), 53. doi: 10.1109/WSC.1998.744899. 

Rehmann, A., Mitman, R., & Reynolds, M. (1995). A handbook of flight simulation fidelity requirements for human factors research. Technical Report No. DOT/FAA/CT-TN95/46. Wright-Patterson AFB, OH: Crew Systems Ergonomics Information Analysis Centre.

Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2012). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (5th ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson.


Doctor of Education Dissertation: Satisfaction of Canadian Armed Forces Regular Force Members with their Distance Learning Experiences

As my first blog post and on the two year anniversary of my successful defence, I am pleased to share with you the synopsis of my doctoral dissertation, along with the link to the full version. I graduated in 2020 with a Doctor of Education degree (EdD) in Distance Education from Athabasca University with a dissertation titled, “Satisfaction of Canadian Armed Forces Regular Force Members with their Distance Learning Experiences.” I will surely have further musings about the results of the research, as well as my own personal learning journey towards its completion, in future posts. I share with you here the synopsis. The link to the full dissertation is also below if you wish to explore more. I also have a shorter summary version (~10 pages) available (upon request) that was published as a scientific letter by the Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC).


The use of distance learning (DL) as a training and education delivery method has been on the rise within the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) as a way of optimizing funding to the training system while still maintaining a high standard.  Since research has shown relationships between student satisfaction and various positive outcomes, such as training retention and readiness to transfer learning to the workplace, the satisfaction of CAF learners is an important area of inquiry. This research explored the satisfaction levels of CAF members with their DL experiences, how different variables related to that satisfaction, and how military-specific considerations affected members’ DL experiences. 

This mixed methods research involved a sample of CAF members who had completed, within approximately the past three years, one of seven CAF professional development courses/programs that were delivered via DL or in a blended DL and classroom format.  The study used a two-phase mixed-methods research design that included data collection in the form of an online survey distributed to 1310 CAF Regular Force members, which yielded 368 usable questionnaires, followed by 12 follow-up interviews.   Quantitative data were analyzed using descriptive and correlation analyses, as well as factor analyses and multiple regression.  Qualitative data were analyzed using coding frequency analyses and thematic content analysis, which added depth concerning CAF members’ personal experiences. 

The findings showed a relatively high level of satisfaction, but that given the choice between delivery modes, a much higher percentage of members would choose classroom over DL.  The exploration of demographic, course quality, support, and perception variables in relation to overall DL satisfaction shed some light on potential reasons for these findings.  Recommendations were provided to encourage continuous improvement of CAF DL programs.