Jacqui Carswell

Having discovered the benefits of online learning when the pandemic gave us no choice, we should embrace it as a valuable addition to our education tools.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced all providers of education and training into rapid development of online forms of learning to allow students across the world to continue their studies away from the traditional classroom environment.  With no real sense of how long it would take to get the pandemic under control, there was no other option if we wanted to continue to learn. So we have found ourselves in an environment where innovation has been a necessity and the results have been illuminating. Elements of Defence in particular have flexed their agile muscles to provide quality online learning solutions in quick time. For many others, this has been their first genuine foray into the environment and I think we have surprised ourselves by responding so quickly and adapting so well.

Online learning as a concept has existed in various forms since the invention of the personal computer. Traditional methods have been with us for considerably longer and it is what we predominantly prepare our instructors to use in the ADF. Therefore, there is no surprise that we have a reliance on this form of delivery. We see the teacher/instructor/lecturer as the subject matter expert and the holder of all wisdom and knowledge. They are our ultimate resource to make maximum use of. Our error is assuming that using traditional methods are the best way to make maximum use of our greatest resource.

Yes, traditional methods allow for personal interaction. They give learners the right environment and resources to interact and ask questions that might go unanswered in an online environment. It also empowers relationship building between the subject matter expert teacher and the learner, and fellow learners who are learning and growing together. All positives to exploit.

A constraint, though, on traditional methods of learning is student numbers. This method requires a teacher to be present at all times, and success will be limited if the class sizes get too big or one-on-one interactions are limited. Another major disadvantage of traditional methods is their inflexibility. It is difficult to meet all learners’ needs if they are required to learn at the same pace. The teacher either leaves the slower learner behind or risks providing other learners with a sense of feeling unchallenged. Either way, there will be learners who may not remain engaged or learning will be limited or not take place.

Online learning, when designed properly, provides the opportunity for all learners, and a significant number of them, to remain engaged, no matter what their pace. It also allows the learner to review the content as many times as is necessary for learning and reflection to take place.  Even after a period of time, if the content is not used, as it is online it is easily accessible again as a refresher resource or even as a type of ‘performance support’.

So, other than the fact that we don’t train many people to develop or deliver online training, why is there still a relatively small uptake in the development and use of online learning in the ADF? We do have access to contractors who can do the delivery and/or development on our behalf. One of the reasons that we have continued to go with what we know, is that we are comfortable with it as we, in the main, are a product of it and believe without real evidence that the traditional methods provide greater results than they actually do. We have also seen in comparison that online training is costly to develop and remain unconvinced by the offerings due to a lack of exposure to good quality product.

So we overestimate the performance of using traditional methods and we underestimate what online training can provide because of cost and our version of quality. We have not compared the strengths and weaknesses of both equally because we have never taken the time to consider it properly. COVID-19 has provided us the environment, time and space to consider what we may be missing. It is not just a matter of taking traditionally developed content and turning into an online format.

As a Military training and education specialist, I have had multiple postings over the past 20 years where my colleagues and I have tried to champion the digital transformation of learning, whether it be distance, flexible, computer-based, online or blended forms of learning. Working with a number of colleagues on various projects, we have had limited success because funding has been hard to secure and producing a quality product can be time-consuming without the right resources. Now is the time though, where due to necessity we can provide the examples to show how efficient and effective online learning can be. We can also address the issue of why we don’t train online delivery or alternative methods to traditional methods as part of our instructor education. The ADF needs an in-house capacity to design, develop and deliver online learning.

Is online learning the answer to all our training and education needs? Of course not. Depending on the numbers we need to train and the complexity of the learning that needs to take place, we should choose the most appropriate method to achieve our goal. Online learning is another way to provide for the learning needs of our people, all of them in some respects. We need a level of self-sufficiency in this space. So what now?

So, with business returning to what has been described as the new normal, we are returning to traditional methods of education and training in the main. It has been interesting to read and hear the dialogue around the use of online learning since the return. Clearly, a large number of people have missed the person-to-person contact and are feeling that there is no substitute for it. Now is the time to document what has happened in terms of both the strengths and weaknesses of online learning in order to make the most of what it has to offer going forward. Let us not just hope that we don’t have to go back. There is no going back!


WGCDR Jacqueline Carswell is an Air Force Training Systems Officer with a Bachelor of Education and Master of Educational Studies. WGCDR Carswell has been the acting Director Joint Professional Military Education at the Australian Defence College since April 2021 and has over 31 years’ service with Defence.