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Combined Arms Support Command’s shift to digital learning with Blackboard Learn by Anthology

The past two years have been a challenging time for all sectors of industry due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and that is perhaps especially the case for U.S. military educators. The shift to digital learning was one that virtually all institutions were forced to make, regardless of how prepared they were to do so.

No such sudden shift is without its growing pains, but having the right technology in place can make all the difference. In his recent talk at the 2022 Blackboard Government Summit, Mr. Alan Bodle, Chief, Training Integration Division & Quality Assurance Director at Combined Arms Support Command (CASCOM)/Sustainment Center of Excellence (SCoE), G 3/5/7 of the U.S. Army, spoke about the challenge of moving his organization’s courses to a fully digital learning environment, and how Blackboard Learn by Anthology helped to make that tall order happen.

CASCOM teaches around 240,000 students annually, both military and civilian alike, and provides training in areas such as ordnance, finance, logistics, transportation, and training for officers, among others. As of March 24th, 2020, when the order from the commanding general came to immediately transfer all courses to digital platforms due to the COVID-19 pandemic, CASCOM offered 391 courses in total across all their schools. Of those 391 courses, only 67 already had some sort of digital presence, and that presence did not necessarily consist of online instruction – for instance, perhaps a course was administered face-to-face, but course content was managed digitally. As such, Bodle and his colleagues had a rather herculean task in front of them.

Per their orders, the full transition to digital instruction had to be completed in 60 days. Bodle referred to that 60-day period as “emergency response”: the interval in which they had to figure out what exactly would be possible in the new digital environment and how to execute on those possibilities. While some courses without hands-on components would be easier to transition, how could practical military skills such as disassembling and reassembling firearms be taught virtually? Bodle shared that his mantra in that first 60 days as he worked with the instructors and stakeholders at CASCOM’s various schools was “Don’t tell me what you can’t do, tell me what you can do.”

The keys in that emergency response period were identifying appropriate tools and resources to move forward with digital instruction and making sure that the instructors themselves were prepared to teach in a digital environment. Bodle stressed often during his talk that shifting to digital learning cannot simply consist of taking a slide deck used in the classroom and presenting it in an online format, but rather that the instruction itself must be tailored to the format. Therefore, part of his team’s project was training course instructors in turn to better deliver content in this new digital format.

Using Blackboard Learn as their learning management system, at the end of the 60 days Bodle and his team had managed to transition 365 of CASCOM’s 391 courses to digital, a remarkable feat. One of the benefits of using Blackboard Learn for CASCOM’s learners during the pandemic proved to be that, as it is open source, it can be accessed from any device anywhere, and accessed securely. This became crucial since one of the challenges on the learners’ end, as many came to learn, was that during lockdown many of these learners were often home with family members, spouses, or children who may also have needed the household computer for virtual schooling or remote work.

As the pandemic wore on and digital learning continued to be a necessity, CASCOM was chosen as an operational test site for Blackboard Learn. Bodle and his team knew they would need good data points from this operational test to drive the future of digital learning at CASCOM, such as: how well did learners learn via digital instruction and were learning outcomes achieved; what kind of instruction do their learners prefer; and which method of instruction is the most efficient use of resources.

To gather this data, they ran courses with a control group, who received in-person instruction, and a test group, who took the same courses digitally via Blackboard Learn, with the same assessments given in each.

The data was interesting: the digital courses met the same learning objectives as the in-person courses; in addition, digital learning students scored higher on the assessments, and survey results showed similar positive feedback on the courses themselves from both groups of students. The results, then, were clear: digital learning is just as viable and effective a method as in-person learning, and CASCOM had proven it.

There were caveats, of course. As Bodle acknowledged, some practical skills, such as packing a parachute, need to be done hands-on. And those students surveyed after the operational test indicated that they prefer in-person instruction for courses centered around things like communication, teambuilding, and building relationships, all skills central to leadership and thus crucial in military training. Bodle agreed such a preference in these instances is fair enough.

Moving forward, then, CASCOM’s task will be to determine what courses should be in person, which should be fully digital, and which can be a hybrid of the two. These determinations, Bodle said, can be made by course level, by lesson plan, and even by learning objective. Having all of these options available can improve the efficiency of CASCOM’s use of resources and save money. There is still hesitation around digital learning, Bodle acknowledged, within CASCOM as well as in the wider world of education. With the help of Blackboard Learn, Bodle and his team are looking to change those negative perceptions.

And since we know you were wondering: how does someone teach disassembling and reassembling a firearm in a digital format? Well, the way one of CASCOM’s instructors did it early in the pandemic: by mounting a GoPro to his helmet and filming video of himself walking through the disassembly and assembly processes, and then uploading that video to Blackboard for students to review. Human ingenuity can truly thrive in difficult times, and technology – and certainly Blackboard Learn, now a part of Anthology’s technology – was ready to help during the COVID-19 crisis, and stands ready to continue helping institutions and educators innovate into the future.
Celena Westlund
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