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DND Photo by Ken Macdonald

A lecture to the Advanced Military Studies Course at the Canadian Forces College.


by Dr. A.J. Barrett

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When the Royal Military College of Canada inaugurated its Division of Continuing Studies six short years ago, we had no idea of what we were getting into – no idea at all. Originally intended to be a small side activity, distributed learning brought surprisingly high demand from our students, very strong support in unexpected places – sometimes very senior places, and extraordinary pressures for growth. It has developed into a strategic driver for the College and a major teaching engine for the Canadian Forces.2 Naïvely, we thought for a while that we could take the credit for the success of our programme, but I believe now that we were, and are still, riding the bow wave of larger events.

There are, I believe, a number of inter-related revolutions in the making, and I will speak of three of them: a revolution in learning technologies, a revolution in adult learning and, closest to home, a revolution in military education (RME). In my view, this third revolution, which is taking place as much in the hearts and minds of military educators as in the realm of technological advance, is of greater long-term significance and will have a more profound impact than the much-discussed revolution in military affairs (RMA). If the RMA once again allows the Western World to wage war at ‘low’ cost,3 then the RME offers the potential to wage peace as well.

At the centre of all three of these revolutions – learning technologies, adult learning, and defence education – is a common feature: Distributed Learning. Modern Distributed Learning offers two new capabilities: reach and interactivity. Through extended reach, teaching institutions can distribute or, in modern parlance, push learning to very large and widely dispersed audiences. With an enhanced interaction capability it is now possible to exchange concepts and ideas with an extended audience of experienced adults. Students can learn from each other, and the teacher can learn from the taught.

The new learning technologies are the ‘enabler’ of modern Distributed Learning, especially Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL). I will argue that Distributed Learning is the key enabler for revolutionary developments in adult learning, especially for defence education. I will further argue that defence education offers great potential as an agent both for change and for order because it is education with a purpose, because it is education with a strong focus on strategic issues, and because it is education for a highly­networked community accustomed to action. Finally, I will argue that because of the central role that security and defence play in the modern world, the impact of this RME will be felt far beyond the borders of the security and defence constituencies.

My advice to any who would embark on the Distributed Learning enterprise is to be aware of the larger context, for only there do we find understanding of, and sufficient justification for the radical changes facing the world of education.

DND Photo

The presentation of a Royal Military College degree by the Division of Continuing Studies.


We have all lived through at least one technological revolution, and we have some sense of what it can be like. I learned to programme a digital computer in 1962. The people who taught me were wartime veterans who programmed using machine code – some talked about counting dots on a cathode ray tube. Just a few decades ago, computers were the domain of a few specialists feeding cards to monstrous machines for numerical computation. Today virtually anyone can use a desktop computer to do things undreamed of a few decades ago. Manipulation of vast amounts of data, including text, images, audio and video, has become common-place. Individual and group communication, networking, and conferencing have advanced to a point where we risk drowning in information unless we learn the essential disciplines of information management. I speak here as much of personal discipline as of the newly emerging field of information management. Today’s enterprise databases maintain enormous amounts of essential informa­tion, and have wonderful tools for manipulation and analysis. These systems, an essential element for the management of any Distributed Learning-based organization, are changing rapidly. Practitioners need to make serious efforts to maintain current knowledge about requirements, capabilities and limitations.

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I would like to focus on one particular aspect of the computing revolution: computing languages. Computers act through software programmes, which are written in special languages. Each advance, from the first primitive techniques to machine code to assembler language to higher-level languages like FORTRAN or BASIC, takes us one step further from the inner workings of the machine. My children and students now learn to programme using modern object-oriented, ‘visual’ languages, which are even further from the elemental machine. These modern languages permit the easy manipulation and assembly of ‘objects’ which are themselves complex and sophisticated programmes, into ever more complex and sophisticated objects. These, in turn, can be manipulated and assembled into larger programmes. To a very great extent, the development of this hierarchical scheme for managing programme objects underpins the tremendous advances in the utility and user-friendliness of the modern computer.

We can see the same object-oriented approach in learning methodologies. We are beginning to see the development of new courses – I want to be very careful here to distinguish this from the development of new knowledge – by the assembly and manipulation of shareable courseware objects. These might be text, images, audio or video selections – almost anything in a digital format. It is not hard to conceive of a near future where, guided by a knowledgeable subject-matter expert, an instructional designer will assemble objects retrieved from a courseware repository into a coherent course package. The courseware repository, which is a kind of database, might be restricted to certain communities or it might be universally accessible. As new material is developed, new objects are added to the repository. Eventually teaching establishments and even individual learners will have at their disposal software that can employ artificial intelligence to help assemble tailor-made learning packages for their special needs. One can also imagine large commercial enterprises that will profit from this approach to course development.

Course material available in these depositories can only grow. Intellectual property (IP) issues will, I believe, be a diminishing concern as time goes on. There exist today licensing agencies that provide access to materials at reasonable cost. With a little refinement, these agencies could facilitate even cheaper access to existing knowledge. For some purposes there is plentiful material in the public domain. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has recently announced that it will make all its courseware freely available on-line over the next decade.4 We see two competing trends in the IP marketplace. One is towards greater protection of intellectual property. The other is for greater freedom of access to intellectual material. Those who work in universities have long known that money is not the principal currency of scholars; for many it is recognition for their ideas, for others it is recognition by the academic or professional community, and for some it is fame. For these individuals, the Internet and the World Wide Web are made to order.

The protocol that assures that a courseware object is shareable is SCORM: the Sharable Courseware Object Reference Model. It is not hard to see that the successful implementation of a SCORM-based methodology can bring a leap in efficiency, particularly the capability to develop large numbers of courses and to develop them rapidly. These efficiencies may have little attraction for many residential schools, but they become vital for the mass delivery of learning in a rapidly changing world. They also offer considerable efficiencies to the world of military education. With this new methodology, the cycle from Operations to Lessons Learned to Instruction to Operations is significantly shortened.

There are two essential points here for the practitioner. The first is that object-oriented, SCORM-based courseware development requires a team approach. The smallest such team is a subject-matter expert who is also familiar with the contents and qualities of courseware depositories, and an instructional designer who is acquainted with the modern learning context. For more ambitious projects, technical writers, editors, graphic artists, audio-visual technicians, and so forth, may be added as required, but the essential components are the teacher and the instructional designer.

The second point is that while the semi-spontaneous classroom lecture may remain the most economical and attractive learning mode for residential students, good formal instructional design is essential for courseware developed for large numbers of students at a distance. Good instructional design provides standards-based structures for both teachers and administrators, but most important, it provides a reassuring learning framework for the student. Good instructional design cannot replace a face-to-face teacher, but it can substantially improve the learning experience with or without a teacher.

At the Paris meeting last June of the Partnership for Peace Consortium of Defence Academies and Security Studies Institutes,5 the Curriculum Development Working Group and the Advanced Distributed Learning Working Group (ADLWG) met together for the first time. This was a significant event. The Curriculum Development Working Group has been concerned with developing reference curricula in key areas and in establishing methods for course accreditation. The ADLWG is primarily concerned with the development and distribution of courseware using the most modern learning technologies. To this end, it has developed an open-source Learning Management System (LMS) for the use of members of the consortium, one that will be freely available to all. This LMS not only permits tracking of student progress, but has within it tools to assist course assembly. The ADLWG now seeks to engage partner nations in the development and offering of courses. This Working Group deserves special praise for transcending the purely technical elements of its mandate and investing considerable time and energy in building a community of practitioners.

At the joint meeting of these two, somewhat disparate Working Groups we saw the beginnings of a marriage between content and conduit. There were a number of “Ah, I see” comments on both sides that I hope presage the essential dialogue that now must take place. There is great promise here. I look forward to the day when groups interested in modelling and simulation, electronic libraries and others are included to create a truly powerful teaching and learning engine.

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Are we looking forward to a day when all courseware will be developed using a highly-automated object-oriented approach? Not at all, for that would inhibit the development of new and creative approaches to learning, and new insights on old material. Technology is at best a useful tool in the development of new knowledge. But for most purposes, there is not a need for many standard course objects in introductory statistics, elementary psychology, and so on. Time and energy can be expended elsewhere. The really interesting question is “What now is the role of the educator?” We have not yet seen the full answer to that question, but I am confident that intelligent and creative people will exploit these new technologies to accomplish things we have yet to imagine.

The new learning methods extend beyond technology. New studies explore the best techniques and methods for the use of the new technologies. It is indeed fascinating to see how studies of computer-aided communication are shining new light into the ways people learn.6 In the search for new techniques to best exploit a new technology, we are finding out some fascinating things about ourselves. Some of these findings will have a dramatic impact on how we teach, even in the classroom. Certainly we are coming to learn that the didactic disciplines are indispensable.

Until very recently, there has been scant attention paid to the teaching skills of university professors. The university culture would have it that we are all gifted amateurs. While it is surely true that the cult of the gifted amateur better serves the university than a culture of teaching technicians, the time has come to give all our professors, gifted teachers or not, some modicum of technical skills in teaching. The new technologies, the new methodologies, and our new understanding of how we learn make this imperative, particularly for those who prepare courses for a distance-learning audience. I for one will rejoice to see the day when a course or two in modern pedagogy7 and instructional design are an obligatory part of every graduate programme. If the dissemination of knowledge is essential to survival of the human species, then those who create the knowledge must learn how to teach what they know.

DND Photo

Students attending a lecture at the Canadian Forces Command and Staff Course.


It has been fascinating to watch, over the last ten years or so, as universities and colleges struggle with a new and aggressive type of student: the adult learner who wants credit for prior learning, easy access to courses, and courses that are relevant to a complex and changing world. There have always been adult learners who have fit themselves more or less uncomfortably into the learning world of the young, but now there are lots of adults who want to learn. Driven by current ideas on lifelong learning and the learning organization, driven by lack of job security in the workplace, driven by the confusion of a world that has changed, driven by curiosity and increased leisure time,8 they come knocking on the schoolhouse door. The link with the need for Distributed Learning is obvious. Not all working adults are capable of coming to the schoolhouse for extended periods of residential study. The schoolhouse must now find ways of reaching the student.

Not every learning institution has yet understood, and not every one that has understood has yet accepted that it must now decide who its clients are. To embrace its new population brings possibly unwelcome change and new costs. To ignore it might bring the direst political consequences – after all, adults vote. It is not an easy decision, but I do not believe there is much choice. Lifelong learning is with us and – whether we will it or not – we will feel its impact. We may or may not like it, but we will not be able to ignore it. If we are wise, we will benefit from it.

One feature that has been largely ignored is that adult learners are adults. They bring to the classroom greater maturity and experience than the youthful students who populate most residential programmes. Because they bring their profound knowledge of the way the world really works they offer interesting opportunities to change the way learning is done. This is particularly true for professionals who undertake a formal study of their own profession. Such students have much to teach the theoreticians.

If we accept our new roles as purveyors of lifelong learning to the world, new and disturbing questions arise. When every learning institution in the world is accessible to every potential student, what is the role of our institution? Indeed, when all the study material a student could wish for is freely available, either on-line or otherwise, what is the role of the university?

I do not believe that all our learning institutions will survive the challenge implied by these questions. Though historians of 2102 might well be only starting to analyze the remarkably rapid – in historical terms – restructuring of education and learning that took place at the beginning of the 21st century, perhaps we can already see some of the key factors.

To thrive in the new educational economy, a university or college must first understand why it exists, who it serves, and what it does. For many institutions, including military institutions, these are complex questions, and for all institutions they are questions that must be asked continually. Any school must understand that its teaching responsibilities to the learner include:

  • serving as a guide and counsellor to shape course materials into a coherent and useful programme of study;

  • awarding recognized credentials that confirm that the learning has been completed to an appropriate standard; and, not least,

  • upholding the intellectual integrity and reputation of the school9 to sustain the value of the student’s credential.

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Not all course content needs to come from the school itself, though the better schools will contribute substantially from their own particular areas of recognized competency. This, I believe, is the bedrock. The institution that hews to these principles and is at the same time open to vigorous interaction and exchange with its students, with other schools, and with the larger learning community should do well.

I believe that it was W.H. Auden who said that humans have four basic needs: to love and to be loved, to learn and to teach.10 While this may be at least a touch simplistic, I do believe that no species could have evolved to our present state without in-built learning and teaching functions. If those needs and functions persist through life, then lifelong learning is fundamental to our being. We would be wise to design learning structures with that thought in mind.

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The Commandant of the NATO Defense College in Rome, Lieutenant-General J.P. Rafenne of the French Army, presenting a graduation diploma to a Canadian officer.


At the heart of the education enterprise is a search for knowledge, for truth and for understanding. Military education – and I will not engage here in any polemic on education versus training – is no different in that respect. It is not unfair to say that the span of military education closely approximates the span of human knowledge.11 However, education for defence and security is very definitely education with a purpose, which today might be broadly defined as the acquisition and application of knowledge to defend and enhance the security of the nation or, if your view is broad enough, the security of the world. The value of education for humans has been recognized for millennia. The value of defence education has been recognized for centuries. But the true potential of military education as an agent for both change and order has been grasped only quite recently. What may be new is the current understanding that in complex military environments better-educated soldiers make better soldiers. What certainly is new is the ability to deliver sophisticated and relevant learning to every member of an armed force. What formerly was impossible to contemplate is now merely expensive, and may not always remain so. What is also new, I think, is the increasing desire of nations to interact through a common education-based agenda, and the consequent application of education, educational instruments and educational technology to achieve national ends. In this sense, defence education can be viewed as an instrument of policy and an agent for order and coherence in an increasingly chaotic world. This is, I believe, a genuinely new phenomenon.

Perhaps surprisingly, the military defence community is among the first to seize on the potential of the new educational climate and the new learning technologies. Perhaps this is because the defence community insists on teaching strategic thought and its consequent action. Perhaps it is because over the ages military communities have developed a remarkably common language and culture despite their naturally adversarial context. Whatever the reason, defence education systems today are among the most forward-looking, the most interoperable (I can’t think of a better word), and the most steerable of any education system12. The shift in military agendas over the past several decades from a frankly war-fighting posture to one more focused on national and international security, coupled with the emergence of this powerful new tool for international exchange and interaction, offers great promise.

Clearly, to make progress with the security agenda, we must learn more about the management and control of violence. It is folly to imagine that this can happen without the full participation of those whose profession it is to control and manage violence. It is equal folly to imagine that there can be any truly meaningful dialogue between the defence community and the larger community without educated and thoughtful military officers. I am not suggesting that armed forces should refashion their swords into the learning equivalent of plowshares. I am suggesting that those whom we ask to undertake some of the nastiest and most dangerous work on the planet should do so with full knowledge of the impact and consequences of what they do on our behalf. I am also suggesting that it is from such people that we can learn more about the nature of human conflict.

It is here that the connective and interactive capability of Distributed Learning, complete with its e-learning technologies and methodologies, comes into its own. Though it is early days, we see emerging the concept of virtual learning communities where evidence suggests that cohesive groups can be created and sustained across distance and time, especially if the distance learning is enhanced by face-to-face encounters. This is the emerging concept of blended learning.13 What is most important about these groups is the vigorous exchange of ideas, opinion and knowledge among group members, and between professor and students. In groups composed entirely of mature and experienced adults, the distinction between teacher and taught becomes less distinct; all can learn.

If these features of extended reach and enhanced interactivity are exploited within coherent and focused programmes, it is possible to harness the resources of the larger learning community as an effective ‘force multiplier’ for our small defence education establishments. We can imagine a highly connected but loosely organized, multi-national and multi-disciplinary, military and civilian network for security and defence education. This is a network that creates knowledge, that understands the broadest security implications of current and past events, and is vigorously engaged in learning and teaching.

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Within this extended learning community, at the intersection of the military and academic cultures, we find the most natural and productive forum for the exchange of information and ideas about the world’s toughest problems. Here, the soldier’s experience will inform and challenge the scholar’s theories. Here, the scholar’s thinking will illuminate the soldier’s experience.

Paradoxically, it is perhaps here that we find the greatest hope for our future.

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Dr. A.J. Barrett is Director of Learning Management at the Canadian Defence Academy. He also serves as Vice-Principal for Continuing, Integrated and Satellite Programmes at Royal Military College where, until recently, he was Dean of Continuing Studies.


1. This is the text of a paper presented at the 5th International Security Forum (ISF), Zurich, Switzerland, 15 October 2002. Readers interested in the International Security Forum are encouraged to visit the Web site http://www.isn.ethz.ch/isf/.

2. More information on RMC Continuing Studies may be found at the Web site http://www.rmc.ca/academic/continuing/.

3. This somewhat controversial thought was expressed by Dr. Catherine McArdle Kelleher of the US Naval War College in the keynote address to the ISF. The text of Dr. Kelleher’s paper and other papers presented at the forum will be available through the forum Web site (see Note 1).

4. For more information on the MIT Open Courseware Project, visit http://ocw.mit.edu/index.html.

5. The official report of the 5th Annual PfP Consortium Conference, complete with the text of the plenary papers (an 89-page MS Word document) may be found at the Web site http://www.pfpconsortium.org under Events/Conferences/5th Annual Conference.

6. The paper presented at the 5th ISF by Pierre Dillenbourg and Laure Carles offers some fascinating insights on the importance of informal and peripheral activity to the learning process. This paper may be found on the ISF Web site.

7. Some would argue that the appropriate word should be androgogy: techniques and methods used to teach adults. Though the word pedagogy is now used to include teaching methods for all students, it is true that adult education is – or should be – profoundly different from the education of the young.

8. This applies primarily to retired people. We may never see the world of leisure predicted in the middle of the last century.

9. As institutions of defence education increasingly adopt post-graduate structures and culture, the questions of academic integrity and reputation offer some very interesting challenges.

10. This is my recollection of a televised interview with Auden. I have been unable to identify the exact quote or its precise source.

11. I owe this thought to Dr. John Cowan, who has expressed it frequently, most recently in an address to the Inter-University Conference on the Armed Forces and Society.

12. Relatively speaking, of course.

13. Blended Learning was an important and persistent theme at the 5th ISF.