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Research Questions

  1. How do graduates evaluate the effectiveness of the Army's Advanced Operations Course taught via blended distributed learning?
  2. What issues arose for students taking the course in a completely distributed environment?
  3. What are best practices for blended distributed learning to support acquisition of critical thinking skills and related competencies?

The U.S. Army's Command and General Staff School offers its Advanced Operations Course (AOC) for junior field-grade officers using both traditional resident instruction and a model referred to as blended distributed learning (BDL). The BDL course lasts 12 months and uses a variety of information and communication technologies to support synchronous and asynchronous collaboration among students and instructors entirely at a distance, with most students completing the course on discretionary time. This report assesses the effectiveness of AOC-BDL based on student and graduate surveys and identifies best practices for BDL from empirical research and case studies. Results show that the course has a number of strengths and that students were generally satisfied with the course. However, student responses also suggest that improvements are needed to support computer-supported cooperative learning and collaboration in distributed teams, particularly for instruction and collaboration on complex tasks. Furthermore, while students were satisfied with instruction for some operational topics, their responses may indicate needs for improvement in instruction of critical field-grade competencies, such as the military decision making process, problem solving, and communication skills, and in teaching leadership skills corresponding to a range of operational environments. Case studies and the research literature point to a number of best practices and options for improvement. Adding a resident segment may offer the greatest potential for improvement but may not be feasible in this context. Alternatives for improvement include modifying the composition of student teams to alleviate coordination challenges, moving the course delivery platform to a dotcom to improve technology reliability and functionality, and addressing policy to ensure that the chain of command and employers provided dedicated time for students to work on the course.

Key Findings

Students Were Generally Satisfied with the Course

  • The majority of students felt that AOC-BDL achieved its core purpose. Most were satisfied with computer-based instruction, instruction of operational topics, and aspects of the learning environment, such as instruction quality and peer interaction and feedback.

Students Noted that the Distributed Environment Posed Challenges to Meeting Course Goals

  • Students reported that computer-supported collaborative learning impeded some course goals, particularly for complex topics, such as the military decision making process. Students also cited challenges to group coordination due to technology reliability and access, competing commitments, and difficulties working across time zones.

Although Many Blended-Learning Courses Have a Face-to-Face Component, In-Person Instruction May Not Be Possible in all Situations

  • Adding a resident segment to AOC-BDL may offer the greatest potential for improvement and is consistent with student preferences and best practices. However, this option may not be feasible due to available infrastructure, costs, and operational manning requirements. Consequently, other strategies become particularly important to consider.

Cases Studies of BDL and Related Research Point to Best Practices and Options for Improvement

  • Successful BDL programs find ways to reduce conflicts with students' other commitments. Two strategies include limiting the use of synchronous modalities and engaging students' employers to dedicate time for students' coursework. Instructors use a variety of approaches to engage students and foster success in virtual collaboration, including training students in use of course technology, scaffolding discussions, providing timely feedback, limiting group size for interactive activities, and using peer evaluations to increase accountability in teams.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was sponsored by the United States Army and conducted by the RAND Arroyo Center.

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