In the army now

Maybe not one of Quo’s better songs… Well I’m not in the army but I did stay in an army camp last night. I was giving a talk about Moodle to various military personnel which kicked off a discussion over dinner in the Officers’ Mess about elearning. It was fascinating to compare the issues faced by our respective organisations in moving towards greater use of elearning.

The number of people in the UK defence forces is about the same as the number of students in the Open University: around 200,000. They’re distributed widely around the UK and other parts of the World. Another similarity is the (sometimes justified) fear staff have that something will go wrong with the electronic delivery, particularly where assessment is concerned. Students can be very quickly alienated when something goes wrong, and those opposed to elearning will be quick to say “I told you so”.

The differences between the organisations are stark, though. There is much less diversity in the type of learners found doing a course in the army; you would tend to study with people of similar age, race, background and interests who already know each other and have forged a shared identity. At the Open University (and increasingly at other universities) there is growing diversity in our learners who may have very little in common other than the course they are studying.

There is also a distrust of independent learning in certain sectors of the forces, and a feeling among many instructors that unless you get learners together in one place and keep an eye on them, they’ll just waste their time. Open University students are also likely to be more motivated to learn than squaddies crammed into a classroom, many of whom have poor IT and literacy skills. Computer-based learning in the military has tended to be instructional with minimal collaboration; the introduction of wikis and blogs in a course would raise a few eyebrows.

An additional problem faced by the forces is the fear that laptops and mobile devices will be misplaced, thus posing a security risk and the potential for embarrassing revelations of incompetence immediately latched onto by the media.

Nevertheless things are moving forward and attitudes are changing. Moodle is being looked at with great interest, as is the use of mobile learning devices in the field. But don’t expect to see British soldiers podcasting from Afghanistan any time soon.

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