Time to say goodbye to computer-based training in the military?

Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

Online or computer-based training has become a big part of how the US military develops service members. Carl Forsling calls it an addiction, and says it’s got to stop. He is a senior columnist for Task and Purpose and former career Marine Corps officer, and joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin to talk more.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Forsing, good to have you on.

Carl Forsling: Good morning, glad to be here.

Tom Temin: So you did a lot of things in the military that require intensive training. I guess flying helicopters would rank there. What’s your take on the degree of computer-based training and how it’s happening?

Carl Forsling: I think generally the military does too much. It’s kind of become the easy button for a lot of the recurring training requirements, and anybody who has been the military for more than a couple days knows that there’s plenty of recurring training, and you know what might be called rote learning events. And the immediate temptation is to just go straight to the computer-based trading as sort of a catch-all to get those done in the quickest, simplest manner even if it’s not the best manner to convey actual knowledge to the troops.

Tom Temin: Well, what are the types of things you feel that it’s not as well suited for, and what did you find that they do tend to rely on it for? Because there’s so many activities and skills needed by an average service member.

Carl Forsling: Yes, and I think the first part of the problem is that we put too many things in that bag of things that the average service member has to know. Obviously, every service member has to know the tools of his or her job. And generally the military does a good job, at least on the initial training, of making sure those things are appropriately taught by appropriately trained instructors. Gotta train the trainer to actually know, too, how to teach the subject they’re teaching. Usually it’s called general military training, and that could be anything from some very basic generic tactical skills. You know — how to set up a basic defense or something like that, which all service members may be required to know but more commonly, it’s things like the smoking cessations, the anti-alcohol training, the safe sex, whatever have you. A lot of these things have been lumped on by either higher commands or civilian leadership as requirements for every soldier, sailor, airman, marine, and they have to be touched upon at least annually sometimes more often. And because it’s such a rote topic, the temptation is immediately to go to computer-based training because it’s the quickest way to get the most information of the most people. Problem is that troops being troops, they find the that this is rote, repetitive and largely pointless. So the computer-based training becomes just an exercise in how fast you can click through the screen. And the only adaptation the military does is to make it harder to click through by making that exercises harder to get through by playing scenario-based training. Sometimes it gets almost ludicrous, the difficulty levels that though they do. There’s a famous one for computer security that involves a lengthy cybersecurity scenario where you have to go through every room in the building and identify the alleged cybersecurity pitfalls that exist in every office. It rapidly becomes a joke. The characters on these things become urban lore among service members, and it really serves to not convey information. It’s just a check in the box all these service members try to get through, so they can get back to their real jobs. If the military really cared about committing information, versus just fulfilling a requirement they would actually invest the time in teaching an NCO or an officer how to teach the subject matter and actually allot the appropriate amount of time in a classroom or in a practical setting to give people these skills.

Tom Temin; We’re speaking with Carl Forsling, senior columnist for Task and Purpose and former career Marine Corps officer. It sounds like, really, the military is taking the approach to those types of topics that most corporations are doing now. And I think getting the same type of rote results.

Carl Forsling: Yes, and really, it’s a question of priorities. Do you really mean this, or is this something you’re doing just to satisfy a legal hurdle? And the military should have the flexibility to set its own destiny on this. The service members’ time is valuable enough that we should not be doing it just to satisfy a arbitrary requirement. Either they need to know this information and it’s worth investing in the trainers, or in actual quality, computer-based training software. I mean, you go to any major university now, many of them spend a lot of money making well designed courseware that actually does hold the user’s interests and actually does teach information. But again, that requires time, money and effort, and training and the service members’ time. And remember, this time is, could be used to do those jobs that we’re actually paying them to do, whether it’s flying aircraft shooting rifles — what have you. Every minute you’re not doing that and you are on a shared computer in some office on a base somewhere, that’s time and money lost that the military could use much better.

Tom Temin: In many ways, it strikes me as contrary to the notion that most people have is that the US military organizations are not just military organizations, but in many ways they’re some of the largest training institutions that we have. So you would think that’s where you would find best practices in this type of thing. But it sounds like that’s not really the case, at least at the low-level types of things that have to be done for that check box.

Carl Forsling: Absolutely. And to be sure, when the military sets his mind to something when it actually values given occupational specialty, the instructors you find the most military school houses are outstanding at their jobs. And in many cases that’s a coveted assignment. But anything that’s not a core skill or that involves those tactics or key military occupational special skills. All these ancillary things the military has decided it needs to do — it decides those are just [sic] and it’s not worth spending the time. Again, I’m not going to pass judgment on any individual courseware, but if you decide that you want spend X amount time from a service member to do this, you should spend the time to do it correctly. And to be sure that the military has made some strides, especially, the Army and the Marine Corps have tried to pull some of the more arbitrary and capricious training standards that don’t contribute to combat readiness. But there’s still a lot out there, and there’s many studies out there that show that if you were actually complete all the required training for a given service member in terms of, this stuff that’s supposedly required for their specialty, plus all this ancillary general military training, you’ve actually exceeded the actual amount of training days in a year. So the first step is to cool down to what you actually think each service member needs to know and then, once you’ve decided on that, that those things are worthwhile, then you have to resource them appropriately, whether that’s with a human instructor and align the time and effort for that, or whether it’s actually hiring or consultants or contract, whatever acquisition mechanism you need, to get the appropriate courseware put in the field for those people to use.

Tom Temin: And you mentioned courses on smoking cessation or alcohol abuse or safe sex. What about higher level things that are more militarily related? Like you said, setting up tactical skills and so forth — are those, is the training that’s computer-based in those more military-specific areas, or maybe even service-specific, is that a little, tends to be a little bit better than what you get at the lower level types of training?

Carl Forsling: Generally so, and I think it has evolved over time, and some of the stuff has actually gotten to the formal school house of the military, and the military again puts that effort in there because it sees those things is being worthwhile. Now at some of the leadership schools, such as NCO academies, what have you, you’ll still see some very check-iin-the-box-type training that’s still out there. There’s a famous one that was just recently on Task and Purpose about the Marine Corps, I believe in the sergeant’s course. And there was a just incomprehensible question about sexual assaults and fraternization. I think it was designed to teach something about the uniform code of military justice and absolutely failed miserably. But in terms of actual military skills, those do tend to be better. It’s again these ones that tend to be rote information that tends to be not well-adhered to. And granted there are situations where there are requirements to pass this information to service members. But if the goal is to merely acknowledge receipt, then all that needs to happen is, you know, the electronic version of the old school message board that the service member needs to electronically sign, that they’ve read the material and be held responsible for it. If that’s all we’re aiming for, and that’s all that needs to happen. But if our goal is to transfer knowledge then we have to put the appropriate effort into doing so.

Tom Temin: Carl Forsling is senior columnist for Task and Purpose and former career Marine Corps officer. Thanks so much for joining me.

Carl Forsling: No problem, it was my pleasure to be here.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview along with a link to his article at www.federalnewsnetwork.com/FederalDrive. Subscribe at Apple Podcasts or Podcastone.

Related Stories


On DoD

WEDNESDAYS, 11 A.M. & 2 P.M.

Each week, Defense Reporter Jared Serbu speaks with the managers of the federal government's largest department. Subscribe on PodcastOne or Apple Podcasts.

Sign up for breaking news alerts