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.

Technology-Enabled Interactions in Distance Learning : Part 2/3

In part 1/3 of this series, which you can find here, I discussed the importance of interactivity in distance learning (DL) and how technology has supported it to an increasing degree over history. In many contexts, the move to DL has quickly increased due to necessity during the COVID pandemic. Restating Anderson (2003), learning can be successful as long as one type of interaction is very well done i.e. learner-to-content, learner-to-instructor, or learner-to-peer. However, instructional design that successfully incorporates more types of interaction, “will likely provide a more satisfying educational experience” (p. 3).

If you, as an instructional designer, developer, instructor, or technological support for a training/educational institute, wish to provide a more satisfying learning experience to your students, I offer the following, with relation to the three forms of interactions, to consider in the context of DL.


Traditionally, in a face-to-face classroom course, students have interacted with their instructor before or after class, through feedback on assignments and sometimes through meetings that take place during office hours.  The availability of the instructor has often been quite limited and the student may need to adjust their schedule in order to meet with the instructor during office hours.  The instructor’s role in this form of interaction often includes lecturing on the course material, offering assistance and feedback on assignments to the students, and facilitating course activities and discussions.  The student’s role in this form of interaction often includes clarifying content and instructions with the instructor, taking part in discussions on the content, and providing course feedback, as needed. 

With newer technologies available to better enable DL, there are many options that can increase learner-to-instructor interaction.  Students can interact asynchronously with their instructors through email addresses and through Learning Management Systems’ (LMS) internal messaging.  Instructors often communicate with students within LMS threaded discussion forums on the course content, and news and social forums.  LMSs often offer a chat system which allows for instant messaging as an interaction option.  Video conferencing tools, such as MS Teams, and/or virtual classrooms, can also be used to enhance synchronous learner-to-instructor interactions. 

It is important for instructors and academic institutes to consider which of these technologies optimize the potential for interactions between learners and instructors.  From an administrative perspective, students should feel that they have sufficient access to the instructor, without the instructor having to be ‘on-call’ 24 hours a day. From a learning perspective, students should, either synchronously or asynchronously, be prompted and challenged by their facilitators who work to add depth to the learning process and outcomes.


As someone who strongly values sharing ideas and discussing concepts, this type of interaction is very important towards enriching learning experiences. Traditionally in a face-to-face classroom, students have interacted with other students in different ways.  Some classes have tutorial sessions where students would work together to solve problems.  Sometimes courses have group discussions where students hash out ways in which to deal with certain scenarios.  Sometimes in these face-to-face situations, the more extroverted and dominate students engage fully in these discussions, while introverted students listen and quietly reflect.  After-class discussions “around the water-cooler,” can sometimes lead to informal and social learning about classroom subjects.  

Newer technologies in DL have advanced the ways in which students can interact with each other.  Some of the examples include online discussion forums and communities of practice, group work through the use of wikis and other collaboration tools, and large group discussion in a video-conference or virtual classroom. 

Discussion forums are one of the most common types of learner-to-learner interaction tools being used in asynchronous DL.  They allow flexibility so that students can have the time to research in order to provide a more thoughtful response than they may have offered in a synchronous classroom discussion.  Kassop (2003), an experienced classroom and DL instructor, posed the following thoughtful question to his readers, “When was the last time that you saw that many well-reasoned responses in a F2F [face-to-face] setting from the majority of the students in attendance?” (para. 8) As someone who enjoys the time to formulate a good response, I appreciate this distinction.

The role of learner-to-learner interactions include into DL, achieved through the use of technologies, can remove the feelings of isolation that can often accompany DL when it is merely a “solo endeavor.”  Students can learn from each other through discussing others’ thoughts, interpretations, and former experiences.  It can build a “sense of community” which research has shown is “an important factor for maximizing student satisfaction with the experience” (Shackelford & Maxwell, 2012, p.229). 


Traditionally in a face-to-face classroom setting, students have interacted with course content by reading textbooks and by listening to lectures while taking notes. Traditional forms of correspondence courses have also been primarily focused on students reading a study package received in the mail.  

Newer technologies have advanced the ways in which students can interact with the content.  Although reading content is still common, students can now normally access all content online through the use of a Learning Management System (LMS).  Often text can be accessed as a file attached to the LMS or a link that leads the students to a file on the internet.  Although these are common practices for access to content, new and innovative ways for students to interact with content are increasing with the use of ever-evolving technologies. Students often watch videos through the use of a websites such as YouTube or Vimeo or streaming through their LMS. They listen to podcasts created by an instructor or subject matter expert.  Links can be provided within the electronic content to supplemental reading on Internet sites in order to offer students more information to build upon what they are learning.  Games can also be used as ways to offer variation and grab the learner’s interest. Different types of 3D simulation can now also provide more experimental learning, offering an immersive environment where students can practice scenarios related to the course content and even interact with 3D characters (not quite learner-to-learner interaction but it can make for an interesting alternative!).

The main role of this type of interaction in relation to DL, supported by different types of technologies, is to provide the learner with the content at a distance, whether that be 10 meters away or internationally.  Students can then read, watch, listen, interact with, and reflect upon the content in various ways.  Technologies can often improve the learner’s experience by making it more dynamic and active.  It can also make learning more student-centered in that students exert more power over how they learn (e.g., the choice to watch a video or to read a text), and how much focus they place on the various subjects or modules based on their previous knowledge and experience.

Discussion: How Technologies Can Support or Impede Interaction

Technologies in DL can enable the three forms of educational interaction.  As many of the examples given above have demonstrated, technologies can enhance interactions to improve the learning experience of the students.  Adult learners often require flexibility in when, how, and where they interact with content, instructors, and peers and technologies can help provide this.  Technologies can also support educational interactions for adult learners who may otherwise feel isolated by DL. I know from my own experiences during post-graduate studies, the three forms of interactions in DL provided me intellectually stimulating learning experiences when I might not have otherwise had these opportunities e.g., being home full-time with an infant or during the COVID pandemic lock-downs.

On the other hand, technology problems can also impede good interactions.  If technologies fail or cause frustration to students or instructors who may be less ‘tech-savvy’, for example, it can cause negative attitudes which may, in turn, cause them to try to avoid attempting interactions.  Power outages, bandwidth issues, and workplace firewalls (which many of us are far too familiar with!) are all examples that can lead to frustrated students whose abilities are impeded in successfully interacting with content, instructor, or peers.

While there are many technology options available to an educational institution, careful consideration must be given to choosing technologies which enhance and support interactions to optimize learning outcomes.  Any issues with technologies that may impede interactions should be considered beforehand and contingency plans put in place (e.g., pdf versions of downloadable content should be made available to students who, intermittently, may be unable access the Internet due to connection issues or international travel).

In the third and final blog article of this series, I will share some of my doctoral research findings, specifically related to DL interactions and technology within my own organization, the Canadian Armed Forces.


Anderson, T. (2003). Getting the mix right again: An updated and theoretical rationale for interaction. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 4(2), 1-14.

Kassop, M. (2003). Ten ways online education matches, or surpasses, face-to-face learning. The Technology Source, May-June.

Shackelford, J. L., & Maxwell, M. (2012).Sense of community in graduate online education: Contribution of learner-learner interaction. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 13(4), 228-249. Retrieved from

Technology-Enabled Interactions in Distance Learning : Part 1/3

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many traditional in-class courses, quickly, and often out of necessity, made the leap into distance learning (DL). Within different contexts, including academic, government, and military, many educational employees, including designers, developers, instructors, and administrators, made haste in order to rapidly acquire and practice new online skills. Some of these were specifically related to using online technologies, which were often new to the employees, such as virtual classrooms, desktop videoconferencing, and Learning Management Systems. Some of these new skills were related to optimizing training methodologies in an online format. Many of these skills were related to online facilitation, such as providing prompting questions in a threaded discussion forum for asynchronous DL, or, specifically within a synchronous DL environment, skills such as enabling online virtual discussions while simultaneously managing instant chat messages on the side, and enabling group work via virtual breakout rooms and/or collaborative document creation with Internet tools, such as Google Docs.

In these examples, technology has fulfilled a vital role in enabling the further adoption of DL, while providing opportunities for educational practitioners to offer students the three types of DL interactions: 1) learner to content; 2) learner to instructor; and 3) learner to learner (Moore and Kearsley (1996). With acknowledgment for the efforts of our organizations’ technology teams, we have, indeed, come a long way in a short time. The O365 MS-Teams rapid implementation federal-government wide (including DND/CAF) following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic was, in some cases, a training lifesaver!

Long gone are the days of the “correspondence courses” when students received a huge package of course materials in the postal mail and set out on a lonely educational journey on the kitchen table (e.g., many of my more senior CAF colleagues and our Veterans may recall the Officer Professional Development Program (OPDPs) that dated all the way back to the 1970’s). Even earlier than that, as seen in the picture above, children, in the 1930’s, would gather around the home radio to hear school lessons due to the Polio epidemics. We have obviously seen significant changes in technology over the years and it continues to evolve providing new DL enabling tools.

There has been much research in the field of DL regarding the importance of interactions.  In response to a general frustration with the all-too-common boring “page-turner” DL courses, more and more learning practitioners are questioning how educational technologies can help maximize interactions to improve the learning experience of students. Technologies are now successfully being used in educational settings, not only to mimic the types of interaction that we have traditionally used in face-to-face classrooms, but to surpass commonly accepted classroom practices and create new innovative learning experiences for DL students (e.g. polls, online white boards, Internet learning games).          

Interaction in DL Defined

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, interaction can be defined as a, “mutual or reciprocal action or influence” (Interaction, 2022).  The previously shared three types of interaction remain true whether we discuss the traditional classroom setting or DL. An asynchronous DL course, that has little to no interaction with an instructor or other learners, may have its uses in certain circumstances and may be effective if done very well, but, from my own experience, is often less interesting and engaging. Anderson (2003) supports this in that he stated, “deep and meaningful formal learning is supported as long as one of the three forms of interaction (student-teacher; student-student; student-content) exists at a high level. The other two may be offered at minimal levels, or even eliminated, without degrading the educational experience. High levels of more than one of these modes,” however, “will likely provide a more satisfying educational experience” (p. 3).  This has been my experience. When possible, maximizing all three of these types of interaction is a worthy goal for instructional designers, developers, and instructors, if/when budget and time permit.

Two other types of educational interactions in DL have been postulated by educational theorists.  Hillman, Willis and Gunawardena (1994), interestingly, suggested that ‘learner to interface’ is another important type of interaction. Soo and Bonk (1998) also suggested ‘learner to self’ as another form of interaction in education.  It can be described as the reflections that the learner has regarding the course content. Reflective learning will surely be a future blog topic, as I am an enthusiastic believer in its value.

In the second part of this blog article, I will discuss, in more depth, the three types of interaction in DL and how technologies can either support or impede them. In the third part of this series, I will share some of the findings from my own doctoral research (Jones, 2020), i.e., 1) the importance of incorporating interactions in DL, and 2) DL technology in relation to learner satisfaction, both within the Canadian Armed Forces professional development context.


Anderson, T. (2003). Getting the mix right again: An updated and theoretical rationale for interaction. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 4(2), 1-14.

Hillman, D. C., Willis, D. J., and Gunawardena, C. N. (1994). Learner-Interface Interaction in Distance Education: An extension of contemporary models and strategies for practitioners. The American Journal of Distance Education, 8(2), 30-42.

Interaction. (2022). Merriam-Webster Online. Retrieved April 15, 2022, from

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

Moore, M., and Kearsley, G. (1996). Distance Education: A systems view. Belmont, CA.: Wadsworth.

Soo, K. S. and Bonk, C. J. (1998) Interaction: what does it mean in online distance education? Paper presented at the Ed-Media and EdTelecom 98 Conference, Freibourg, Germany.

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.