War colleges around the world have endured significant challenges over the past two years. COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on faculties as they wrestled with lockdowns and restrictions that tested the achievement of learning objectives.
To the credit of many, the show has gone on with minimal disruption. Yes, there have been a healthy dose of remote learning periods, but the lectures continued and the assignment deadlines remained largely untouched (much to the dismay of the students).
Another element that endured has been course evaluation frameworks. Students have myriad opportunities to provide feedback on these courses. For instance, students on last year’s Australian Command and Staff Course (ACSC) were asked what changes they would make if they were 'Commandant for a day.'
Of all the questions posed to the student body, this was one of the most intriguing. While suggestions for improvement are important for course convenors, it is my view that answers to this question should be shared with a wider audience to generate a discourse to help develop the command and staff courses of the future.
Accordingly, after almost twelve months reflecting on my own experience, I offer the following points as areas where ACSC may seek to evolve in the future:
1. More tech. COVID-19 lockdowns provided opportunities for war colleges to strengthen their use of online learning platforms, which provided an unprecedented degree of flexibility in the course. While online learning will never replace the connections made through face-to-face interaction, increasing the use of online tech would yield several advantages.
The first benefit would be an increased student capacity. Agile course scheduling could ensure that only a portion of the course had to be on campus at any given time, thus increasing the upper limit on student numbers. These changes would reduce the travel burden and potentially remove the need for students to relocate away from their families for the duration of the course.
More tech would also pave the way for a wider college audience, potentially increasing the number of overseas and non-Defence students. In an era where national security is taking on a wider meaning, a broader class cohort could bring a new strength to national security through collective education, all enabled by online technologies.
2. Sharing ideas. Every year the ACSC hosts some of the best and brightest minds from defence organisations around the world, each of them writing thousands of words apiece. At present, only a small portion of these words is shared with anyone other than assignment markers. A larger selection of assignments should be cultivated with a view to share with a wider audience.
Imagine the discourse and mutual learning that could be generated by sharing these ideas within and throughout national security organisations (noting that assignments are written at the unclassified level). Pieces could be published anonymously or with the author’s details included, or perhaps a combination of both.
Naturally, there are limitations on the value that could be derived by sharing everyone’s 5,000-word essays, which brings me to the next recommendation…
3. Diversify assessment formats. The ability to articulate an idea via a central thesis statement and supporting evidence in long-form is an essential demonstrator of critical thinking and will rightfully maintain its place in war colleges for years to come. However, long-form writing should be accompanied by short-form pieces that aim to elicit discussion and promote sharing and dissemination of ideas within a peer cohort.
Students could write articles and use them to inform syndicate activities, such as peer-led discussions and internal debates. These articles could even be curated and published on websites such as The Forge, The Cove, and The Runway, to engage the wider PME community. As an added bonus, short-form pieces are also far more likely to open student’s eyes to the benefits of writing and encourage them to continue writing and sharing ideas beyond their time on course.
When making these changes, war college staff and their academic counterparts would need to be mindful of the degree requirements associated with the course. Whether these short-form pieces replaced or supplemented other assignments, we must remember that the degrees are designed to maximise the value of the war college experience for students, and not the other way around. And more broadly, war colleges and their associated degrees are means to a much more important end.
Scholars and national security professionals acknowledge that warfare is changing and a new approach is required to build the intellectual edge needed to counter emerging strategic challenges. ACSC students in the future will need a different academic program to the one undertaken by contemporary cohorts; and increasing the use of technology, sharing ideas and diversifying assessment formats are small steps that would help achieve this end.
These changes wouldn’t be easy nor would they happen overnight. Resourcing models would also differ vastly to current constructs. However, if militaries and national security institutions are to succeed in the type of strategic environment we are anticipating for the future, they will need to think dynamically and evolve. This evolution will demand a revised approach to way we educate our personnel, and ideas such as the ones above will help Commandants of the future achieve this aim.
Matt Kelly is a Squadron Leader in the Royal Australian Air Force. He is a graduate of the Australian Command & Staff Course and holds Masters in Business and Strategic People Management. He is also the author of the Flightless Aviator blog. Follow him on Twitter @trueblueloggieor LinkedIn.