University of Texas at Austin Group, Air Force Incorporate Social Networking into Training Course

March 24, 2009

AUSTIN, Texas — University and military researchers are proposing new approaches for Air Force leadership and teamwork training at the Squadron Officer School (SOS) at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama.

The University of Texas at Austin partnered with Air Education and Training Command (AETC) and the Air University (AU) to produce a "blended learning" model that incorporates information technologies such as cell phones and social networking. The model maximizes the learning experience while offering potential for significant savings in cost and time.

Researchers examined SOS as a case study for determining the right mix of live, virtual and constructive simulations for education and training. They proposed 12 recommendations to enhance learning in SOS in a report, "A Proposed Method for Converting Squadron Officer School into a Blended-Learning Course with Live, Virtual and Constructive Simulations" (PDF).

The academic researchers are from University XXI, a part of the Institute for Advanced Technology at The University of Texas at Austin.

"Blended learning is about embedding social and professional networking when you learn," said Col. Glenn Hover, AETC Future Learning Division deputy chief. "We are getting on board with the way of the future for young minds who are already using these means to study and learn in the current environment. The goal being: building a network of Department of Defense leaders 'linked' throughout their careers."

AETC leaders believe applications such as e-mail, Facebook, chat rooms and smart phones can help SOS students get to know each other and engage in the course without leaving their home station on a temporary duty assignment.

"For an airman who can take blended learning courses from home station, time is saved to remain with families, to maintain duties on base and to have access to the leadership training sooner, as opposed to waiting until coming in residence," said Sheilagh O'Hare, a University XXI researcher and co-author of the report.

Part of the model is dedicated to converting the 1,000 pages of reading and five tests required to complete SOS in correspondence to a more interactive online model, O'Hare said.

However, it lacks face-to-face collaboration with fellow students. For that, students will be expected to attend a portion of the course offered in-residence at Maxwell. While in-residence slots remain competitive among Air Force captains with four to seven years of service, this model promises to serve more students, especially those in the National Guard and Reserve.

"With chat rooms, forums and other collaboration tools, students can be brought together online now, providing them with initial leadership experiences per course guidance, rather than whenever student slots at Maxwell open up," said Michael Mayrath, a co-author of the paper and a Ph.D. student in education psychology. "For the Air Force, having airmen who engage in leadership education and practical application sooner than later should mean the Air Force as a whole benefits."

In order to make blended learning a reality for SOS and other students attending AU schools, such as Air Command and Staff College, one recommendation is to start a pilot course using volunteers already enrolled in SOS.

"Teams of experts are already meeting on a regular basis at AU to discuss implementation techniques," Hover said. "UT has provided us with a template to follow. Now it's up to our AETC and AU training and education professionals to lead the efforts of integrating these highly interactive and social learning technologies into Air Force professional military education."

Through collaborative efforts of university and military researchers, these studies also afford opportunities for graduate students to publish their body of work and gain valuable experience before entering into different careers, said Aubrey White, principal investigator for the University XXI program.

"It's no doubt this study has provided an incredible investment for the Air Force and the next generation of officers and educators," Hover said.

For more information, contact: Tim Green, Office of the Vice President for Research; Aubrey White, University XXI, 512-232-4554; Sheilagh O'Hare, University XXI, 512-232-4744.

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