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.