DAU trains 3,000 acquisition employees on data skills as DoD seeks greater AI readiness

The Defense Department, as it steps up its readiness around artificial intelligence, is building up the data literacy of its acquisition workforce.

The Defense Department, as it steps up its readiness around artificial intelligence, is building up the data literacy of its acquisition workforce.

DoD’s Defense Acquisition University is on a mission to upskill more than 3,000 military and civilian professionals across the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.

DAU is planning to upskill these employees on data analytics and AI skills to better understand the emerging tech that DoD is buying.

The university offers certification training, elective training and mission-assistance work to more than 155,000 members of the defense acquisition workforce.

David Pearson, the director of the DAU’S Engineering and Technology Center, said data and AI skills training courses are already available to DoD acquisition employees. But the university is taking greater steps to tailor these courses to an employee’s specific role and career trajectory.

“The skills that we hired people for 15 years ago are no longer the skills we’re going to be needing to field the systems of our future — that warfighters are going to be depending upon,” Pearson said on a recent episode of All About Data. “The emerging technology that’s going to be driving the performance of our defense systems that we send out to the field increasingly rely upon those who have the technical skills to properly manage and acquire them in the future.”

DAU’s upskilling initiative marks the latest effort within DoD to improve its AI capabilities. The department is looking to reach a baseline level of “AI-readiness” by 2025 to stay on top of emerging threats.

Pearson said these data skills are becoming more valuable for the defense acquisition workforce, and serve as the foundation for data-driven decision-making for DoD leadership.

“There’s broad recognition across all of the Department of Defense that we really need to step up our game in the area of data skills. Far too often, decisions at all levels are being oftentimes made on dated anecdotes, or simply the opinion of the senior-most person in the room. We really need to change that,” Pearson said.

DAU is partnering with Coursera to offer thousands of online courses from top universities and industry leaders.

“An acquisition workforce member could enroll in a 34-hour course from the University of Michigan on programming and Python for data analytics. Or they could take an AI product management course from Duke. We’ve made this and thousands of other courses available through our partnership with Coursera,” Pearson said.

Pearson said DAU is adding DoD-specific context to its commercial training. The university is also working with DoD’s Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Office on coursework curation, as well zeroing in on the skills and abilities the DoD acquisition workforce will need in the coming years.

“We’ve got lots of rules, policies and work practices and unique problem sets here in DoD, when it comes to using data and AI. DAU adds value by teaching students how to apply these data and AI skills to our unique DoD acquisition environment,” Pearson said.

Coursera CEO Jeff Maggioncalda said that curated training based an employee’s role and career trajectory helps cut down on “content chaos,” and presents them with the courses most relevant to their responsibilities.

“What most individuals want is a pathway to a better job, better career, better opportunities. And what learning and development is doing is creating those pathways,” Maggioncalda said.

DAU is looking to upskill the defense acquisition workforce in three phrases. The university’s first step is to promote awareness training, and to make more personnel aware of the tools and technology that is reshaping their work.

From there, Pearson said the university is looking to build general “data literacy” across the workforce — helping employees learn how to make data-informed decisions within the context of their jobs.

For more data-intensive fields, Pearson said the university is getting students to apply their newfound knowledge on challenges they’d see during a usual workday.

The DoD acquisition personnel sees the need for continuous learning to stay up to date on the latest technology.

“We’ve seen that the people working in the tech space really recognize themselves that in order for them to stay competitive, and stay relevant in their particular discipline, they have to be committed to a continuum of continuous improvement and skills,” Pearson said.

DAU is also taking a data-driven approach to retooling its coursework. The university is looking at data to determine what courses to build, how to improve them based on student feedback and when to retire a course.

“Today, we’re using some very fundamental skills to collect and analyze the data … but looking ahead, we’re excited about more fully instrumenting our courseware,” Pearson said. “Rather than relying solely upon subjective student survey data, we want to document student behaviors and how they’re interacting particularly with our online course. We can use this information to make the targeted improvements we need to our courseware, further advancing our mission.”

Maggioncalda said Coursera is helping DoD shift training away from an entirely traditional classroom setting and make more of its training available online.

“Especially if you’re deployed or you’re moving around, it’s really hard to have a purely place-based educational system that’s going to be flexible enough to meet those kinds of demands, so online is a key part of it,” he said.

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