VIEWS AND OPINIONS
Modernizing Language Education and Training in the Canadian Forces
by Rick Monaghan
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Where are we?
Canadian Forces (CF) language programs are dysfunctional. In civilian post-secondary studies throughout Canada, on-line learning is routine, virtual classrooms are commonplace, computerized assessment is the norm, client-based and student-centred learning are enforced by provincial policy, and multiple paths to learning are simply advertised and encouraged. In colleges and universities, and even among private providers, research is actively supported and more effective learning methodologies and technical support for learning are actively pursued. In the CF, on the other hand, Second Official Language Education and Training (SOLET) still applies the ‘one-size-fits-all’ model of training. Courses are predominantly teacher-focused and based upon 30-year-old training curricula that are designed to resist change. On-line support for learning can be accessed by some, but the learning management system, Autonomous Language Learning in Interaction with Elements in Synergy (ALLIES) is a replication of the aged curriculum and designed to complement classroom teaching, rather than foster independent learning. There is next-to-no pedagogical direction for CF members who wish to grow a proficiency in their Second Official Language on their own. Virtual classrooms, which would allow students at similar levels to work together from several locales over several time zones, simply do not exist, so learners who have acquired proficiency levels at great cost to the CF slowly lose that proficiency awaiting selection for courses at their next level. Assessment of Second Official Language proficiency in the three skill sets of Reading, Writing, and Oral Proficiency (listening and speaking), though available online through the Public Service Psychology Centre, is still predominantly paper-based and highly susceptible to compromise. CF policy on the delivery of SOLET is as outdated as the curriculum itself, relying upon directives and instructions issued in the ‘mid-eighties,’ and made largely irrelevant by changing attitudes and expectations in current practice. Custom and policy restrict access to training severely: only CF delivered courses are supported, and these courses are based upon an outdated curriculum design. Selection for courses is limited, and with fiscal restraint, will become even more limited. Access to second language education and training outside the CF-delivered course is neither encouraged nor supported. Even if someone were to take courses to improve their language skills offered by a private provider, or a local community college or cégep, being re-tested before the five-year expiration of an official profile is a challenge.
In business and industry, professionals are expected to maintain currency in acquired skills on their own, or through regularly scheduled professional development activities. In the CF, members expect maintenance of their linguistic proficiency to be provided to them at their convenience, and at enormous cost – this expectation and support is mandated by outdated policy as well. In terms of policy, management, design, access, and assessment, there is little to recommend current SOLET to CF members except for two things: it is the ‘only game in town,’ and the teaching and assessment staff are dedicated and extremely knowledgeable professionals, getting positive results in spite of the outmoded training model they work within.
How did we get here?
Language Education and Training has evolved slowly in the CF. Language courses began to be provided in earnest after the Second World War. Air force courses in English were established to train technicians. The army followed suit, and collaboration became inevitable. The longer history of operational and occupational bilingualism had bubbled beneath the surface since long before Confederation and somehow seemed to resolve itself in Upper and Lower Canada – strategies and operations found expression tactically in both English and French, as well as in Scots and aboriginal languages, to effectively preserve us from incursions from the south. Officially, a directive from the head of Canadian forces in 1899 reminds anyone who has aspirations of advancement to learn French, lack of which is characterized as a defect. By the 1960s, lower-level courses (roughly equivalent to our current A-level courses) were provided at bases, and upper-level courses (roughly our B-levels) became centralized, delivered initially by teachers from the Public Service Commission, who, only much later, were integrated into the Department of National Defence (DND). Courses in French took root in the 1960s as well. Assessment was based upon an internationally recognized numeric standard for four skills: proficiency in listening, reading, writing, and speaking. That numeric standard, still used in the US and in NATO, was superseded in 1996 by the Public Service alpha-standard in three skills: reading, writing, and oral interaction. Since the 1970s, the greatest challenges for language education and training have been the selection of candidates, and in meeting legislated requirements. In spite of the Official Languages Act (OLA), meeting legislated requirements in the CF generally meant that French-speaking members were expected to learn English to advance in their careers. Selection was based upon several factors, the most dominant being the availability of personnel.
On a strategic level, attempting to efficiently resolve legislated requirements through selection of the right people at the right time at the appropriate proficiency has led to some interesting contortions and inefficiencies: byzantine occupational quotas were established for non-commissioned members (NCMs), for whom language was considered nothing more than a skill that can be trained; mandatory residential courses of up to 33 weeks for incoming officers (with downwardly mobile expectations of success, and no follow-up); ‘one-on-one’ learning and maintenance programs for general and flag officers at their convenience; and contracted Second Language Training (SLT) for members with no sanctioned requirement to learn a second language. Until 2001, there were two levels of training attainment, two profiles that were routinely assessed. Then, things changed. By 2005, it was clear that all members were expected (really) to use their second languages to lead, to manage, to communicate with the public, and to train. Senior officers were encouraged, and then ordered, to acquire and maintain a high level of second language proficiency, or to leave the armed forces. Over three decades, the training establishments had failed to evolve systematically to adapt to higher standards and more stringent demands upon students, and DND regularly received damning reviews from the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages and the Standing Committee on Official Languages for its inability and perceived reluctance to comply with the ‘law of the land.’
At an appearance before the Standing Committee on Official Languages in 2003, the Minister of National Defence (MND) committed to raising the standards of bilingualism in senior ranks. In immediate response, more advanced programs of study were designed and initiated, and a process to identify senior officers requiring SOLET was established. The Canadian Defence Academy (CDA) was designated the training authority for all language programs in the CF (Official Languages, Foreign Languages, and International Programs for foreign governments), and began working with Canadian Forces Language School (CFLS), Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), Canadian Army, and Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) service providers to standardize procedures. In 2006, the Director of Official Languages instituted a strategic model to ensure that the CF complied with the legislated requirements for all national departments and agencies. The Official Languages Program Transformation Model: 2007-2012 recognized the uniqueness of bilingual requirements in the CF, in contrast to that requirement in other Government of Canada departments and agencies. The Transformation Model outlined a more realistic and accurate set of expectations within DND to ensure compliance with the Official Languages Act. As the expiring Transformation Model draws to an end, and as a new Transformation Model is being hammered out, it is quite evident that there is wider awareness in the CF of the value of bilingualism. The Transformation Model identified key areas where compliance to the OLA required change. Individuals providing leadership, services to the public and to members, and instruction were earmarked as priorities for SOLET. A Linguistic Audit of the Individual Training and Education System in the CF was conducted by the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages at the request of the CF in 2008-2009, and it recommended 20 changes be effected in the Individual Training and Education System to achieve compliance with the OLA. As one component of IT&E, SOLET is immediately affected by these recommendations. In 2011, Armed Forces Council endorsed a strategic plan for the modernization of the IT&E system. The IT&E Modernization Initiative identified gaps and inefficiencies in the broader IT&E system, most of which are easily recognizable in SOLET. Among these strategic gaps are the inadequate exploitation of modern learning methodologies and technologies; inadequate resources to support quality and quantity control; inefficient use of resources; inadequate performance measurement; incomplete evolution of the CF as a learning organization; lack of instructor and manager development; and a lack of synchronization within CF personnel generation.
Specific to SOLET as a line of operation within IT&E Modernization are the development of a CF OL specification; integration of SOL proficiency, and maintenance into individual members’ career-long learning plans; the tagging of OL requirements tied to rank, jobs, and positions; and the provision of expanded use of technology-based interactive methods to make available wider access to language learning, and an increased capacity to provide opportunities for learning.
17 Wing Publishing Winnipeg
Where to now?
At the beginning of this short article, the outdated policies relating to SOLET were mentioned. These policies are now under review. CF OL specifications, until now sporadic interpretations of the OLA and Treasury Board guidelines, will go a long way to synchronize understanding and efforts. The CF’s approach to education and training has undergone significant change in the past two decades, in keeping with the shift in emphasis from delivering training, to providing access to learning, from teacher-centric to student-centered learning opportunities that has characterized Canadian post-secondary education. The new policies will reflect this contemporary philosophy of education. In parallel with a shift to contemporary pedagogy is a shift in culture that will be difficult to manage: the social structures of a military community, with its emphasis upon command and control, are at variance with a client-based educational system. The process has begun through structural changes in IT&E and SOLET delivery and delivery policy. The transition will be bumpy, and judging from the timelines that SOLET has evolved through to date, slow to implement. SOLET touches so many aspects of IT&E and the Military Employment System that change has been necessarily slow – like transitioning from an oil-based to an electric-based transportation system.
From the point of view of a learner today, access to SOLET is a challenge. Selection for full-time courses rests in the hands of career managers, as it should be. Access to part-time courses, on base, is in the hands of the chain-of-command, as it should be. Access to self-directed on-line CF language courses is easy – one needs only to sign on, register, and then set aside time to explore the learning management system and begin learning the other language. French courses are delivered by ALLIES (the on-line version of the Canadian Forces French Curriculum) from St-Jean-sur-Richelieu. English courses at the lower level are delivered through the English version of ALLIES (the on-line version of the Canadian Forces English Curriculum), and supplemented at higher levels by a CF-licensed commercial package called Tell Me More, selected after a thorough study of several alternatives (including one package that is heavily advertised on television and in print media). Instruction on how to use the software to build linguistic competency is minimal. Courses in English and French are available through local educational institutions and private agencies – but are the financial responsibility of the learner. For those who have a base competence in their second language, courses of study in many areas (locales, as well as academic or professional subjects) are delivered in the second language, and they provide an immersive learning context; this is quite effective.There is no educational reimbursement for private or public language courses.
In a five-to-ten year period, on-line self-study courses should be available in both languages, with instruction on how best to use the on-line resources according to one’s learning style. Links to learning materials directly related to ones trade would be introduced as basic competence grows. For instance, a medical technician could be linked to on-line courses in that trade in the target language as the language course progresses. Virtual classrooms could connect learners in different areas into a homogenous class with a facilitator to direct collaborative learning. Communities of practice to maintain levels of proficiency could be commonplace through the use of social media supported through the CF Campus. For each recruit, career requirements for SOL, if applicable, will be identified and access to learning opportunities posted to one’s individual learning plan well in advance.
From the perspective of a teacher, current options are limited. Teachers are insulated from the educational system as a whole. Today, there is no opportunity to work for a period in assessment, or in curriculum development, or professional development of peers, or program management. In the future, opportunities for professional enhancement should open up for those who are interested in learning more about their profession and for contributing to its improvement. Options to facilitate virtual classrooms, provide individual tutoring at several levels, conduct focused research, or engage in face-to-face classroom teaching will increase one’s ability to grow professionally. There is now no interaction among staff in training establishments, but in the future, joint professional development opportunities, mediated by technology, will open the doors to areas of collaboration that we see only dimly today.
Curriculum development is currently in the hands of two small teams isolated from teachers and assessors and program evaluators. IT&E Modernization, and therefore SOLET Modernization, sees development teams consisting of language education practitioners, program designers, knowledge management personnel, personnel managers, psychologists, and learning science experts collaborating with each other, and specialists from other areas (such as simulation designers) in curriculum and program design, development, implementation, validation, and maintenance. The expertise and experience of military language education and training establishments throughout NATO and among its partners, as well as current research and development in the knowledge sciences, already complement language curriculum development in the CF; collaboration will increase as funding for large-scale projects shrinks. An environment and social structures for collaboration already exist, but they are under-utilized.
Assessment of linguistic proficiency today is conducted at several levels. Certification of OL proficiency is conducted by means of the Public Service Commission Second Language Evaluation tests delivered in person, by telephone, on-line, or on paper at designated test administration sites. In time, all these can be delivered on-line. Current research in the USA has validated on-line listening and speaking proficiency tests. The SOLET assessment team in St-Jean develops and delivers assessment instruments for performance checks (summative) and enabling checks (formative) for both the Canadian and International language programs. They also develop diagnostic tests to assist in course placement and verification of profiles. As these instruments move to on-line delivery, more effort can be devoted to the development of computer adaptive tests and the refinement of other tests to produce more accurate results. And just as program development teams will have the ability to tap a wider range of expertise, so will assessment development teams. This ability to ‘tap’ extended expertise in testing and program development has been one of the strengths of SOLET; Canada’s long-term engagement with the Bureau for International Language Co-ordination (BILC), the NATO advisory body on language issues, has facilitated assessment and development expertise for over 40 years, and has done much to establish Canada as a world leader in language education and training.
For managers, ready access to online tools for learners to manage their own learning within the requirements of the CF will eliminate many of the roadblocks to language learning and assessment. Providers of opportunities for learning will be able to rely upon a learning environment that supports corporate requirements and individual interests.
The opening paragraphs herein provided a rather bleak picture of SOLET. But access to on-line support for self-directed learning is improving quickly, access to testing is becoming easier through policy change, and the professionalism of teaching and testing staff continues to grow. These are good starting points. SOLET has evolved slowly from a training activity to a learning strategy in order to meet increasing demands on CF members, and on the employment, training, and education systems that support them. Responding to greater demand with fewer resources is urgent, and it has begun. But it will take time. In the meanwhile, short-term changes to policy, to management structures, and to program design and delivery are needed. The longer-term strategy and goals are clearly articulated for IT&E in general, and the SOLET programs need to engage fully in IT&E Modernization in order to better serve the CF, and to meet legislated as well as employment requirements.
The need for change is urgent. Legislative requirements will not go away, and neither will operational and occupational requirements for bilingual personnel -- people who can work in both languages. Our current language education and training systems cannot support growing demand, and we cannot expect current levels of funding to continue. In the context of an employment system that requires mobility and responsiveness, the option of contracting all SOLET services is unrealistic and ultimately unworkable. Put simply, unless there is commitment to continuing to modernize SOLET, the CF requirement for bilingual personnel cannot be met.
Dr. Richard D. Monaghan is the Senior Staff Officer: Language Planning and Policy at the Canadian Defence Academy (CDA). He chairs the Bureau for International Language Cooperation, and has extensive experience in language education and assessment as a college and university teacher, manager, and administrator. He joined CDA in 2003.