Strengthening the intellectual foundation for our profession of arms.

Idea Pitch – Online Short Courses for Professional Military Education

September 22nd, 2016 by John Shipp

Australian Army officers perform a Tactical Exercise Without Troops (TEWT) for Unit PME

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.”

Massive Open Online Courses have exploded since 2008, with over 4.5 million enrolled globally

Massive Open Online Courses have exploded since 2008, with over 4.5 million enrolled globally

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:

  • Firstly, maintaining professional education following ab initio training by offering refresher short courses covering material first encountered at Duntroon – mainly warfighting theory, leadership and tactics.
  • Secondly, maintaining professional education between promotion courses and preparing for subsequent promotion courses. For example, bridging the gaps between Duntroon, the All Corps Captain’s Course and the Advanced Operations Course.
  • Thirdly, disseminating new or substantially changed doctrine across the officer corps. If a new capability is introduced at the battlegroup level, like short-range tactical UAS for example, a short course on the capability’s tactical employment could be part of the roll-out.
  • Lastly, reinforcing strategic priorities for Army officer development, as set out in the Chief of Army’s professional development priorities. For example, the Chief of Army (in his address to the USI) noted that Army officers suffer from jargon-laden writing, and this impedes our ability to think and communicate clearly. Short courses on professional writing could be offered targeting this.

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.

Click here to view a prototype MOOC-style resource from the WONCO-A

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:

  • Question 1. What topics could elective online short courses target?
  • Question 2. What incentives could be offered to encourage participation in short courses?
  • Question 3. What would be the best method of delivery? Who would staff and organise the courses?

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.

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24 Comments on "Idea Pitch – Online Short Courses for Professional Military Education"

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David Kelly

John, I love your idea and have an example of a model that you might want to consider. It’s called Future learn and you can access it via the following link:
They already partner with UNSW Canberra campus for some courses and some of the lecturers may be familiar (such as Dr John Connor).

I hope this assists.

Chris Bulow
Hey John, good article. A couple of points for topics; breaking RMCs Syllabus into short courses available online would be a great way to improve the exposure that A-Res and SSO personnel get to tactical war fighting theory. Another area of topics I believe would be useful is the areas that people have to deal with on an everyday basis that are done sub optimally but have big impacts on unit performance (contract management, risk management, requirements practise, etc). Some other questions that may help are, how is it funded? Would the competencies be nationally recognised (this will help incentivise… Read more »
Derek Simpson

I enrolled into a Military Ethics MOOC through future learn. The content was very good and discussion amongst the course was well administered. The quality of videos was high and the sequence was great. 7 weeks at 3 hours per week I found achievable. The UNSW facilitated the course with references from many militaries.
The range of courses and durations vary greatly and if you run behind due to competing priorities you can just re-enrol, free and flexible learning for all.

Michael Scott

Great stuff Derek. I am really pleased to see self-directed PME being undertaken by team members across the Warrant Officer and Non Commissioned Officer Academy. Keep up the good work. You are leading the way in this, and setting the path for others to follow. 9

Ben Gallacher

John, great idea. I have thought about something similar but at target rank WO2 and MAJ. I have an interest in this area and may be able to provide you some assistance. There are lots of people working different angles so it would be good to collaborate. Call me next week.

Sir, fantastic idea. As a reservist officer cadet at the pointy end of the FAC, I wish we had something like this in place. Of late, ADELE ( is being utilised more and more for NRT type training. For me personally, the ‘fire hose’ approach would be one of my main concerns throughout the continuum. I am a mature aged, non-degree qualified OCDT and I struggle to keep up with the rate that content is delivered, let alone retain it. It’s not that I don’t understand it, it just that there isn’t enough time to absorb it which then has… Read more »
Question 1: What topics could elective online short courses target? Elective online courses could effectively target: 1) Tactics taught at RMC, including basic infantry and all corps concepts – and a slightly more in depth view of tactics. This would include pro’s and cons of adapting specific tactics in certain situations and some examples of war-gaming for the battlefield. Focus should be given for modifying tactics to a range of different intensity battlefields – fighting a war, not the war (For example, a peace keeping operation versus a theoretical Australian presence in the Ukraine), with related historical examples, and further… Read more »
John Simeoni
John, great innovation and you are on an excellent path here. We need to to also address the incentive and time for our soldiers and officers to undertake PME outside of , unless Units make a deliberate effort to make PME part of their weekly program. A question I would continually pose during CTC AARs with CTs, BGs and CBs is who is the chief instructor within your unit / brigade ? Often there would be silence and confusion the answer should be clearly understood as all leaders have training responsibility, a PME package could aim to arm our leaders… Read more »
John, great idea and great post. First some observations: “The urgent often pushes out the important.” Excellent point. How do we change that? Maybe we place the same importance on exercising the mind as we do the body? The same way that COs may dictate that everyone will do a minimum of 3 PT sessions a week, we do the same for professional education. If some admin tasks do not get completed…then so be it. From the Soldier and the State: “The intellectual content of the military profession requires the modern officer to devote about one-third of his professional life… Read more »
James Greer

Could not agree more. Connected learning is effective for leader development, particularly if each leader develops a personal learning network and then is educated through MOOC on topics which they, the leader, personally believes important to their personal development. Thanks for sharing. This was actually the topic of my dissertation: Employing Personal Learning Networks for Self-Development of Army Leaders: A Connectivist Approach. My research results support exactly what you suggest. Have talked to Brigadier Ryan about the same. Jim Greer

John, love the idea. Taking your idea one step further (and answering your second question) is the idea that we tie this formalized PME into part of the annual PAR. If we structure the learning package correctly, we (as commanders) can use it as a gauge of our subordinates professional development, but also enable the participants to use their learning package as a gauge of personal strengths and weaknesses. With sufficient support and emphasis from the chain of command, such a program can be game changing in reshaping our culture such that the self learning package is the starting point… Read more »
Linda Waldron
Hi John, I am an LT edjo at RED–NT. I’d like to propose essay-writing as an advanced literacy MOOC. I am currently designing an online course consisting of a 6 module series of lessons on essay-writing. The target audience would be experienced soldiers who require essay-writing instruction IOT write Defence papers, pass EWDA/ASWOC, participate in higher education or separate with a view to applying for AFP, emergency services, APS etc. Each module would comprise videos of direct instruction, interactive activities and practice writing tasks. Modules would involve instructor-trainee, trainee-instructor and trainee-trainee interactions. The course outcome is for trainees to produce… Read more »

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