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Canadian Military Journal [Vol. 23, No. 4, Fall 2023]

Image by: Corporal Justin Dreimanis, 4th Canadian Division Headquarters Public Affairs

NATO Chair of the Military Committee Admiral Rob Bauer gives apresentation to a group of students at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto, Ontario, 16 November 2022.

Adam Chapnick is the deputy director of Education at the Canadian Forces College and a professor of defence studies at the Royal Military College of Canada. He thanks LCol Anthony Robb and Dr. Paul Mitchell for their feedback on an earlier draft of this article.

I am writing this as the Canadian Forces College (CFC) has begun its plans to resume fully in-person teaching and learning in both the Joint Command and Staff Programme (JCSP) and the National Security Programme (NSP) for the 2023–24 academic year.

Inasmuch as nearly three and a half years of online and hybrid teaching has been difficult for everyone involved, I suspect that the CFC will emerge from the pandemic as a stronger and more agile institution of professional military education, and I am certain that the experience has made me a better teacher.Footnote 1

Here are three reasons why:

1. Advancements in Pedagogy and Learning Supports

Although not all of us would have admitted it at the time, prior to the pandemic the CFC’s approach to new communications technologies was mired in complacency.

We made poor use of an outdated learning management system and taught largely the same way in 2020 as we had when I arrived at the College in 2006.

The pandemic caused at least three significant changes.

The Information Resource Centre

First, it strengthened the relationship between the academic faculty, the students, and the staff at the Information Resource Centre (IRC). Because students could not wander over to the IRC at their leisure, we had to integrate the centre and its internationally-regarded digital resources into the curriculum more deliberately. Doing so strengthened relationships between the IRC staff and the student body; those relationships persisted throughout each year, leading to a better use of IRC resources and more coherent programmes as a whole.

Thanks in part to the pandemic, the IRC has finally been able to take its rightful place as a full partner in the College’s teaching and learning process and the CFC has made the transition to a digital-first approach to academic research.

The Flipped Classroom

The CFC embraced the flipped classroom by accident.Footnote 2 In 2020, as we transformed our curriculum to enable online delivery, the College declared that all synchronous learning had to take place during a daily five-hour window (to accommodate students working from Canada’s many time zones). To maximize student engagement during that window, many of us chose to pre-record course lectures and use the synchronous blocks for live question and answer periods as well as live seminar discussions. A much-improved learning management system enabled students to post questions to the lecturer in advance, but we also offered the opportunity to ask them spontaneously. As an added bonus, drawing on the College’s bilingual mandate, we were able to have the pre-recorded lectures translated.

The combination of pre-recording and translation was transformational. Some of the francophones (and some of the international officers who spoke French) could finally watch the bulk of our lectures in their first language. Others chose to watch in the original language of delivery, but took advantage of their ability to stop and start the recording, and returned to ideas that were not clear the first time. Still more downloaded the lectures and listened to them as podcasts in the car or in the gym. The opportunity to post questions in advance allowed some of the most thoughtful students to think through their ideas and take the time to ensure that their questions were phrased appropriately.

When I was briefly able to resume in-person lecturing in NSP in fall 2021, I maintained the flipped approach. It simply made more pedagogical sense. My lectures are now bilingual, and significantly more accessible. Certainly, pre-recording requires more work (especially up front) on my part, but it is well-worth the investment. My classes will continue to be flipped in the future whenever possible, as will some of my colleagues’.

Break-Out Rooms

Although small group discussions have always been core to the CFC curriculum, instructors had often been hesitant to break individual seminar cohorts down any further, if only because the physical design of the College — i.e., insufficient available physical ‘break-out’ spaces in close proximity to the main classrooms — made it difficult to break out and reconvene as a whole particularly quickly.

Virtual teleconferencing applications like Zoom and MS Teams removed our dependency on physical geography. With the press of a button, one could easily establish smaller groups, and faculty members could circulate among them. Calling everyone back together was similarly straightforward.

The break-out room experience inspired a permanent change in how we conduct discussions on the NSP experiential learning visits.

Prior to the pandemic, the 30+ person cohort would meet together at the end of the day to reflect on what we had learned. The success of the break-out rooms inspired the 2020–21 cohort to request that we use smaller groups for these initial reflective sessions, to better enable everyone to speak and be heard.

We have now institutionalized this process, and the written reflection papers that have followed have been noticeably stronger ever since.

2. Clarity on the Role and Value of Informal Learning within Our Curriculum

The CFC has long championed the importance of informal learning to the experience that we offer. Members of the JCSP and the NSP are brought to Toronto for ten months to keep them away from the churn of Ottawa. They eat together, exercise together, and participate in extra-curricular activities to build the sorts of social bonds and long-term relationships that will serve them well as they progress in their careers.

Faculty, senior mentors, and defence staff are available for scheduled, and impromptu, meetings throughout the day, as are members of the IRC. There are opportunities for personal conversations and meals with esteemed guests, both military and civilian. And being situated in Canada’s most multicultural city provides CAF members and international officers with valuable exposure to a unique element of the national social fabric.

The tangible loss of some of those opportunities caused by the pandemic validated the College’s traditional value proposition. When it comes to professional military education at the intermediate to highest levels, there are clear and irreplaceable benefits to combining formal learning with in-person informalities, be they organized or more random. Transforming our core programmes into something different would compromise their short- and long-term effectiveness pedagogically, socially, and professionally.

Image by: Avr Melissa Gloude, Canadian Armed Forces Imagery Technician

Canadian Armed Forces members deployed on Operation UNIFIER Roto 10 help design the Training Systems Specialist Course in Stare, Ukraine, 12 November 2020.

But our pandemic experience has also demonstrated that there is a difference between informal learning in a group of approximately 30 (on NSP) and a group of 100 (on JCSP). Interpersonal bonds can be developed more quickly within the smaller cohort. It is therefore possible to integrate additional “at home” periods within the NSP calendar and provide students with more time with their families without undermining their overall experience. Doing so makes sense in the context of a program that typically sees more than half the cohort commuting home to Ottawa most weekends.

We have therefore begun to redesign the NSP with such thinking in mind: Which elements of the curriculum are best delivered in person? Are there some that might be offered virtually without compromising the necessary opportunities for informal learning? Thus far, we have found that the bulk of the curriculum is still best taught in Toronto, but there are select periods during each rotation that might be delivered from afar.

3. Improved Civil-Military Cooperation

Recent years have seen a marked improvement in civil-military relations at the College. When I arrived over fifteen years ago, I was warned about a significant divide between the command authorities and the small academic faculty contingent. While an increase in the size of the faculty cohort and greater humility from both sides gradually transformed the relationship into a genuine partnership, the onset of COVID-19 resulted in unprecedented improvements.

The can-do attitude of the military staff was galvanizing. Their ability to master the new technology and coordinate the renewal of the CFC curriculum was inspiring, and their commitment to hard work was contagious. The military staff brought out the best in the professoriate, and together (along with our equally engaged IRC counterparts), we responded as best we could to an extraordinarily difficult predicament.

Add to that the incredible resilience demonstrated by the student body, and I cannot imagine that any of my colleagues have emerged from the last three years with anything but the ultimate respect for the work of our military peers.

Conclusion: Work Still Needs to be Done

It would be tragic if the progress of the last three and a half years was followed by complacency upon our return to in-person learning.

It seems to me that there is still significant work to be done to maximize the student experience. The challenges that our JCSP military faculty faced in their efforts to assess their students professionally while we were exclusively online has led me to wonder whether we have positioned them for success as mentors. While we have made remarkable strides in adapting our curriculum to take better advantage of advancements in teaching and learning technologies, I have no doubt that there is more progress still to be made. I sense feelings of burn-out among my academic colleagues that will require time and empathy to overcome. Like just about every institution in the CAF, the CFC remains under-resourced given the boldness of its academic and professional ambitions. And the rapidly changing international security environment means that our curriculum will always be in flux. Nonetheless, I remain confident that we are emerging from the last three and a half years well-positioned to serve the CAF and Canadians going forward.

Winston Churchill once said that one should never let a good crisis go to waste. It seems to me that, in the face of a brutal global pandemic, members of the Canadian Forces College took his advice to heart.

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