Army Eyes Permanent Shift to Distance Learning for Some PME Courses

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COVID-19 Army virtual learning
First Lieutenant Charles Chandler, left, infantry mortar platoon leader, conducts a mortar training course to his platoon with Staff Sgt. Brian Hegert. Due to COVID-19 soldiers are executing social distancing procedures while sustaining readiness by executing courses through virtual learning and practical exercises. (U.S. Army photo/Vonnie Wright)

U.S. Army training officials are studying how the service's increased dependence on distance learning during the novel coronavirus pandemic may become a permanent part of leader education.

The service has focused heavily on keeping new soldiers moving through the initial entry training centers and just resumed shipping recruits to Basic Combat Training on Monday after a two-week pause to ensure that the "current procedures and capabilities are in place to screen and test our recruits," for the highly contagious virus, Gen. Paul Funk, commander of the Army Training and Doctrine Command, told defense reporters at a call-in roundtable Tuesday.

Training centers at Fort Jackson, South Carolina; Fort Benning, Georgia; Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri; and Fort Sill, Oklahoma, have instituted a "two plus eight" model where new recruits are isolated for a two-week period of classroom training before moving onto the more hands-on portion of BCT.

"All four of the training centers are doing that ... to make sure that, when the recruits come in, we are making sure that we can form the safety bubbles necessary to get us through the training," Funk said.

Related: Army Moves to Reopen Basic Training as 50 Coronavirus Cases Emerge at Fort Jackson

But many of the Army's professional military education courses designed to build leaders as they rise through the ranks have been forced to shift to online, distance learning -- a concept that Funk and other Army leaders have envisioned for the future force.

"The long-term vision has always been to take the training to the soldiers. not the soldiers to the training, and this virus has actually caused us to focus on that long-term vision in a clear and present manner," Funk said, describing the "kind of incredible people we have."

The Army's Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and the Army Sergeants Majors Academy at Fort Bliss, Texas, have drastically increased their dependence on a virtual classroom setting, according to Maj. Gen. Stephen Maranian, the provost of Army University at Leavenworth.

The students of both courses were just returning from their spring break when the Army began enforcing many of its strict social-distancing protocols, which forced many to transition to a virtual classroom to continue coursework, he said.

Capt. Allison Brager, a neuroscientist currently working with Army medical personnel at the Javits Center in New York City as part of the COVID-19 response, is doing her CGSC course work online, Funk said.

The Army's Cyber Center of Excellence has increased its use of distance learning to "roughly 70% based on this COVID-19 pandemic," said Maj. Gen. Hersey, commander of the Cyber Center at Fort Gordon, Georgia.

"Using distance learning works really well for individual technical work and, really, many aspects of training and education that would require that type of effort," he said. "But I would also say that this experience has reinforced that distance learning is not the right technique for every learning outcome or every instructional methodology."

Maranian agreed, adding that online courses can never replace traditional classrooms where soldiers and leaders can interact with one another.

"What makes us as good as we are, are the courses that bring folks together for an extended period of time in groups that have an opportunity to learn with each other ... and be able to interact with each other and have professional discussions about the material," Maranian said. "But what we are finding is that there is a lot of our education that we can deliver, and ensure that we maintain the quality, by doing it online."

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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