Soldiers being selected to take the Sergeants Major Course in a nonresident status should prepare themselves to be introduced to a whole new course, one that will challenge them and is as close to the resident course as it can be in a distance learning environment, said Command Sgt. Maj. William Tilley, deputy director Sergeants Major Course and leader of the Nonresident Sergeants Major Course for the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy at Fort Bliss, Texas.
“We have added a lot of rigor into the course, just like the resident course,” he said. “The next two years is not going to be a cakewalk like it used to be. The education you will receive is up-to-date and relevant and mirrors what is being taught in the resident course. So you are getting all five departments, Military History, Resource Management, Army Operations, Joint Operations, and Force Management.“This course is going to take time, a lot of commitment and dedication to complete the distance learning portion of the course, but you can do it. It is not that difficult and what you are going to learn out of the course is going to make you a better sergeant major and get you rolling on to someday being a command sergeant major.”
Making the course relevant is something that has been a topic of past graduates for years and is not a new issue for the Academy.
Since the very beginning of the Sergeants Major Course in 1973, the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy has been grappling with the challenge of providing a nonresident version in order to meet the needs of the Army each year. In 1974 USASMA kicked off its inaugural Corresponding Studies Course (later to be known as the Nonresident Sergeants Major Course) with the typical mail correspondence course. That was followed by computer discs with all of the course curricula. With the advent of the Internet in the mid-1980s the idea of online instruction came into play, but at the time it too had its limitations. As technology continued to advance and new software were developed the Academy found the challenge of distance learning getting a little easier. Still the course had issues – high attrition rates, course length, technology issues and relevance.
Upon his arrival to the Academy in 2011, Command Sgt. Maj. Rory Malloy, the commandant of USASMA, made it one of his priorities to fix the problems in the course and bring it to a point where it mirrored the resident course. For that mission he turned to the Academy staff to come up with the fix.
“We did an in-depth study on why those attrition rates were so high and a lot of it was that it took too long to get through the course,” said Malloy. “There weren’t any good control measures, or gates, in place to ensure a sergeant major was progressing on course, and by the time they were checked they were so far behind we were losing a lot of them for lack of progress. The other challenge was under the old course they had three years to complete it and they would get promoted to sergeant major, serve their two years and then retire and not complete the course. So it was taking too long.”
Tilley said that making changes to the course wasn’t hard “when you have got the 10-pound brains, the guys that can actually put what is being taught by an instructor face-to-face into a distance learning product that is relevant to the end user.”
Those 10-pound brains he referred to where his senior instructor Juan Ortiz, the staff of the Sergeants Major Course, course developers and the Interactive Multimedia Instruction office staff.
“Juan Ortiz is my go-to guy for the course. He pretty much builds the lessons,” Tilley said. “He gets with all of the other senior instructors of the resident course; gets feedback from those guys and pulls all of their information in so he can put together the right product that is delivering the right learning outcome and once he says it is good to go, the chief instructor looks it over and if everything is good we send it off to the IMI guys so they can put that product into a dl platform.”
The dL Conversion Process
Ortiz has had experience in all aspects of the Sergeants Major Course – he graduated from Class 52, he taught the resident course on the platform and currently he is the senior instructor for the nonresident course. He had the arduous task of converting the resident course into a relevant distance learning experience.
“First I take all of the lessons and go over them and filter out what can be done individually in distance learning and what has a group process or has to be done in a group,” he said. “Then once I identify those I go over to the developers and they look at every lesson and we adjust those group lessons into individual projects. It goes through a process we call storyboarding. They go through the whole process of looking at the lesson plan and putting into a storyboard format where the IMI folks can translate it into an actual multimedia product.”
Once the product has been designed it is transferred into a graphic user interface where group discussions are substituted with threaded discussions, similar to a blog; checks on learning are added along with videos and narration. Once the product has been completed, Ortiz explained, it goes through an initial validation.
“When we get the product the first time, which is called an Alpha, we have people go through the whole product and indentify anything wrong with it,” Ortiz said. “It then goes back to IMI or the contractors who fix it and then goes into a BETA. When it goes into a BETA final we do it again, look at it, ensure everything is working, content is correct, and if so we sign off on it that it is okay to post.”
Ortiz said the validation is done by what he refers to as performers, those who are familiar with the material such as instructors and course developers; and the nonperformers those who are not familiar with the material but are there to push all the buttons, navigate all of the links and ensure the functionality of the online product.
“So we go through this validation to ensure everything is working within Blackboard (an online education software platform) and we identify any shortcomings and go back and make fixes,” he said. “Once we fix them we don’t do a second validation, we just test that particular item they identified to be fixed.”
The hardest part of converting the resident course, Ortiz said, was trying to maintain the same learning outcomes.
“It is a very difficult process because you have to look at a lesson plan which is designed for a resident course and interaction with people, and then figure out, ‘How can we get the same affect online?’ So we came up with the checks on learning,” he said. “As we go through the process we stop and we ask the student a series of questions. If they fail the checks on learning the course will send them back to that particular module and they will go over it again. That was a difficult part coming up with the checks on learning.”
Another area that needed attention was student briefings. Students are required to research, develop and give briefings on various subjects, but how do you do that in a distance learning environment?
“One of the most challenging things to do is the briefings. How do we do briefings? In the past we used to send that particular student to their sergeant major to have them give their brief and we would get confirmation they did it,” Ortiz said. “We wanted to get it better. So what we have done this year is what we call PowerPoint narratives. Now the student has to develop the briefing; they have to do a narration on the briefing; and then they upload it to Blackboard. That way the instructor can grade their briefing because [the students] are actually narrating the briefing in their own words.”
In the not too distant future, Ortiz said, they plan on developing a way to video record briefings.
The IMI Process
While determining how to break down a particular lesson into its learning outcomes is a difficult process, portraying that in the actual online version is a process in and of itself. That part is left up to the staff of the Interactive Multimedia Instruction office and contractors.
Working within the confines of Blackboard and the Army Learning Management System, the IMI folks have been creating the distance learning modules using HTML, or HyperText Markup Language. This allowed the course to be delivered anywhere in the world, but it was cumbersome, slow and students often found themselves getting timed out or having the module crash and then they would have to start over from the very beginning. That is until recently.
“The way we developed lessons previously was through HTML pages so when the person clicked the next page a new HTML page would open up. That kind of slowed down the system,” said Geraldo Hernandez an Interactive Multimedia Instructor. “So our challenge was how to make a faster experience when opening up a page. We did some research and we developed something that we called a virtual database array. Basically what that is, instead if developing 40 HTML pages we developed one java script and in short term code put everything into one java script page.”
The new process allows students the ability to access information much faster without having to open numerous HTML pages and reduces issues with getting timed out or system crashes. The folks at IMI also made numerous improvements to the overall product – automatic bookmarking every five seconds so you never lose your place, if the lesson mentions a reference the Soldier can click on that reference and the lesson will take the student to the exact page the reference relates to, you can listen to the narration or mute it and just read the narration and much more.
Hernandez said creating the new Nonresident Course was not hard thanks to all of the folks at the Academy.
“Making the course exactly like the resident course was not difficult thanks to the great help from the training developers and the facilitators of the resident course,” he said. “They know what the training support package looks like, they know what the material is so with their help giving us the information and giving us a layout and a story board it was easy for us to use this template we created. They would also recommend what images to use, so we would go image mining and look for something similar to what they are looking for. All that made it a lot easier.”
Final certification of the new course took place earlier this year and all modules are ready for delivery. The biggest problem so far, Soldier’s web browsers aren’t set up properly to access Blackboard or the new course.
“One of the problems we have been encountering is that the student’s or Soldier’s computer is not set up to accept Blackboard or to view a Blackboard web page. Blackboard has created a training site to ensure they have the latest java script, web browser, everything updated to allow Blackboard to be read easily, and then they will step into the lessons,” Hernandez said. “Blackboard technicians get hundreds of calls because the Soldier’s web browser has not been updated. Some people out there still use IE6. As far as the course itself, we haven’t gotten any real complaints.”
Tilley said so far Class 40, the first to use the new course, has had nothing but positive comments about the changes.
“We are getting a lot of positive feedback from Class 40 which is the new one we just launched that has the five departments in it like the resident course,” Tilley said. “There were a couple of hiccups in the beginning but I don’t think it was the IMI guys fault, I think it was kind of the validation process where some of the buttons weren’t working. So we went back to the IMI guys, pulled the product offline, made sure it was good and upload it back. The turnaround was good.”
Tilley added that because the has been updated to match the resident course, students graduating from it will receive more college credits from the American Council on Education.
“Because of the rigor we have put into it and because of it almost mirroring the resident course, they are getting 12 ACE credit hours for completing the course,” he said. “It is a good incentive. Prior to the update it was 9 credit hours.”
To ensure students stay on track and to keep the class on schedule, the Academy has instituted gates or time hacks for when modules are to be completed and when new modules are released. As each class is constituted, the students are given access to only those modules on Blackboard and won’t be allowed to fast track the course.
“The modules, classes 38-39 were gated every 6 months, the legacy courses, classes 37 and before, they could actually fast track it and get done earlier. But we don’t want the students to fast track,” he said. “So now they have module suspenses. So say they complete the module early, they could in essence be waiting for two or three weeks before the next module is released.”
The reason behind it is due to limited seats in the two week resident phase.
“We can only hold upwards of about 80 students per two week resident phase and we run 10 per year. So if you have a whole bunch of fast trackers that would go through the course, we would have an influx of too many students trying to get into the resident phase,” Tilley said. “We would have to ask for overages and we only have five instructors so we would be creating a large backlog. This makes it so we always have 50 to 70 students per resident phase.”
Ortiz explained the other reason they instituted gates, was because they want to keep the course relevant. If changes are instituted in the resident course, they will be able to incorporate those changes in the nonresident course and everyone will remain on par.
“The reason it has been changed is because we can’t do that anymore in order to stay current and relevant and parallel to the face-to-face (resident) course,” he said. “The changes to Class 65 are minimal so that is going to allow us to stay parallel to them. But in order to do that we can’t load everything up. If we can do something on a module that is not due to be released for 6 months, why would I want to put it up there and pull it back down to make changes. This way we can make the changes before the module is released.”
The Resident Phase
Tilley said students coming to the two-week resident phase should prepare themselves for a rigorous challenge as well.
“First they need to be in shape and they need to be prepared to share their experience with everyone in the classroom,” he said. “They have to do briefings while they are here, there is some CPOF training and a lot of case studies to be involved in. You have to come here and be committed to the course and are able to share your experience with everyone and you will learn from everyone as well.”
Upon arrival to the Academy, students are in processed. On Day Two, the students are weighed in and if they are deemed overweight, they are taped. If they fail they are given one week to come into compliance with the standard. On Day Three they are given the standard Army Physical Fitness Test. If they fail that they are given one week and are retested. Failure to meet standards is an automatic dismissal from the course.
“It takes a whole lot of commitment to get through this course. It is not a cake walk; rigor has been built into it,” Tilley said. “If you are one of those Soldiers that wants to continue to be a member of this great Army and be a sergeant major it takes a little bit of dedication and time. It is a course that is not difficult if they stay focused and progress through the course.”