Strengthening the intellectual foundation for our profession of arms.
September 22nd, 2016 by John Shipp
The Problem – the ‘Fire Hose’ Approach to Education
As the recent Ryan Review noted, the Australian Army’s current system of Professional Military Education (PME) is not broken, but needs reinvigoration.
There are long stretches between officer promotion courses when immersion into the profession of arms is sporadic and incidental. Professional development can be diminished against urgent collective training requirements and unit administration. The urgent often pushes out the important.
All ranks know the feeling of “drinking from the fire hose” and “data dumping”. The former refers to intensive study, often by rote, committing material to memory just long enough for an assessment. The latter refers to the period that follows, when students inevitably forget most of what was learnt.
During the long stretch of time between courses, we often struggle to recall hazy memories of past studies. If we are destined to forget so much of what we learn during PME, and don’t use it during daily duties, what is the point of learning it in the first place?
Perhaps there is another way. The things we learn during residential courses could be reinforced, even augmented, during the long years in between.
A Solution for the Connected Age: Massive Open Online Courses?
To maximise the Army’s human capital and maintain the cognitive edge over Australia’s rivals, we must develop new ways to enhance PME.
The Director General Training and Doctrine (DG TRADOC) could run a series of online short courses designed to enhance the officer corps’ knowledge and capacity for innovation. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which have grown remarkably since 2008, could serve as a model – offering a flexible, scalable and cheap format. This model would suit Millennials, who (as the Chief of Army said recently) “expect to know more, have access to more, understand more and contribute more.”
MOOCs would suit the Chief of Army’s vision for PME, which he explained in an address to the United Services Institute (USI) of the ACT: “I want it distributed, I want it networked, I want it virtual. I want it working in ways that no matter where our people are, learning is occurring. We need to build this resource online. We need to make it accessible and we need to design it around Army’s professional development priorities.”
Online short courses, using MOOCs as a model, are an obvious way to achieve this. The courses could target four main areas:
Short courses would promote more intellectual engagement and professional discourse among junior officers, establishing the habits required throughout a military career. They would provide a common basis for professional development across the junior officer corps, offering senior Army leadership an opportunity to shape the development of junior officers, address shortfalls and ensure changes in doctrine permeate the Army.
Making this a Reality – First Steps and Obvious Problems
The first step for creating a system of PME short courses could be a committee for PME revitalisation chaired by the new Director PME within TRADOC, comprising a representative sample of ranks and corps. A stakeholder consultation period would then gauge interest and identify topics. These processes would occur alongside the creation of a one-stop-shop online resource for self-study and unit PME and an Army Officer and Enlisted Professional Development Framework, currently underway following the Chief of Army Directive Implementation of the Ryan Review.
We could then trial short courses using MOOCs or a similar model throughout 2017, before launching an initial set of short courses by 2018.
Introducing short courses involves many issues for resolution, including how junior officers would find extra time, what incentives would encourage participation and who would host and staff the courses. These problems would need to be worked through, with possible changes needed in unit routines, battle rhythms and officer mentoring. A change in culture would be required, but it might be worth it.
Conclusion and What I Need from You?
The human element predominates in land warfare and human capital is the Army’s most important asset. To maximise this asset and maintain the cognitive edge over Australia’s rivals, the Army must enhance its capacity to think, both individually and collectively.
While the current system of PME is not broken, the gaps between courses need to be smoothed out. A system of elective online short courses provides a flexible, scalable and cheap way to achieve this.
I need your help confirming whether this is a good idea, and if it’s worth pitching to the Chief of Army and the rest of the DEF Board. I’m looking to answer the following questions:
If you have a view, just comment on this article, or via social media. I’ll then get back to you; either openly online or via a private message. Thanks for your support – I look forward to hearing your views.
About the author
John Shipp is a junior officer in the 7th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment.
Grounded Curiosity is a platform to spark debate, focused on junior commanders. The views expressed do not reflect any official position or that of any of the author’s employers – see more here.