Small Wars Journal

Going under the Hood: Transitioning from Literal to Virtual Teaching at the Command and General Staff College

Tue, 11/17/2020 - 2:25pm

Going under the Hood: Transitioning from Literal to Virtual Teaching at the Command and General Staff College

Lt. Col. Richard A. McConnell, DM, U.S. Army, Retired *

Lt. Col. George Hodge, U.S. Army, Retired

Lt. Col. Thad Weist, U.S. Army, Retired

Any pilot will confirm that flying straight and level in clear weather with unlimit­ed visibility is prefera­ble. However, most of those same pilots will also admit that they obtained a higher level of proficiency once they learned how to fly under instrument con­ditions in circumstanc­es where the weather was bad and visibility was limited.


Figure 1
(Composite image provided by Dr. Richard McConnell)


Parameters and Constraints

Due to COVID-19, curriculum delivery meth­ods had to be adjusted to support force protection by preventing further spread of the virus. These protective measures initially created challenges but ultimately resulted in opportunities. The obstacles were numerous in a learning situation that was as difficult as building an aircraft in flight. Here is just a short list.

First, faculty were, in general, unquali­fied for telework and had to be processed through the five-mod­ule certification in a reduced time frame while mostly working from home. Second, most faculty mem­bers were unfamiliar with DL platforms that had to be established with little preparation or any chance to test the systems before execution.

This process was made more complicated by the fact that A304: Decision Making for Commanders included a computer simulation known as Decisive Action Brigade Level (DABL). Previously at CGSC, classes including DABL had always been conducted in actual classrooms face-to-face, on a closed network, and not in a virtual environment. Consequently, the necessary adjustments that transformed the curricu­lum into a DL format created a steep learning curve.

Nevertheless, faculty members were able to both qualify as DL instructors and swiftly bring systems into place to deliver virtual, simulation-based instruction to students. This unfolding situation yielded some best practices that should be considered for future instruc­tion. What follows is a brief description of some of the discovery learning instructors experienced that ulti­mately resulted in opportunities for improved future instruction.


Going under the Hood

To clarify for nonaviators who are unfamiliar with pilot instruction, one of the tools used for teaching pilots to fly under instruments is a hood worn over the face that restricts the pilot’s ability to see outside the aircraft. The pilot’s vision is limited only to the instrument panel. This is referred to as “going un­der the hood.” For most pilots, the first time they go under the hood is an uncomfortable experience because it is intended to test the limits of fear and the temptation to panic, and to encourage them to trust their instruments. Many faculty members at the CGSC resident course at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, experienced similar emotional experi­ences as they confronted the necessity of adjusting their courses to meet the constraints resulting from COVID-19.

Instructors were re­quired to change quickly from a familiar teaching meth­od to one that was unfamiliar and uncomfortable. In many ways, instructors felt like they were flying blind. However, after their initial discomfort, they discovered that their ability to fly under these conditions was a skill that they improved upon through practice. Moreover, what was at first thought to be a debilitating and over­whelming challenge for the faculty turned out to be a tremendous opportunity to exercise their own critical and creative thinking skills. With their students, in­structors gained experience managing uncertainty and ambiguity. In other words, in the same way they seek to train field grade officers to deal flexibly, creatively, and decisively with unexpected and unfamiliar problem sets, CGSC instructors were able to display their own adaptability in the face of adverse circumstances.

Instructors developed primary and alterna­tive platforms to collaborate and facilitate learn­ing. Additionally, they discovered that the current Blackboard system was more than adequate to facilitate several adjustments made to the curriculum. While instructors expected adjustments to detract from the overall quality of instruction, they found instead that some adjustments resulted in even better results than face-to-face instruction.

Figure 2
Low ceiling clouds and fog clear enough to reveal the runway for landing as Richard McConnell (left) and his father H. James McConnell complete a low-visibility instrument approach in 1980. The successful flight and landing were made possible by hours of preparation “under the hood” to enable operating under actual instrument conditions.


The first adjustment was to adapt the course sched­ule to maximize the number of repetitions each student would get as the commander. The pandemic necessitat­ed a different modality and the adjustment developed a creative way of facilitating more effective learning outcomes. This process was initiated by a brainstorm­ing event with the instructors. While few, if any, deliv­erables were expunged from the course, faculty used several functions within Blackboard (e.g., blogs, wikis, discussion posts) to meet learning outcomes more effi­ciently with outstanding results. Furthermore, the quality of analysis and subsequent commentary to each post/discussion topic was generally better than the discussion during the face-to-face class sessions. In the end, the virtual environment al­lowed each student a repetition as the student commander with direct feedback from the instruc­tor(s) to the entire group.

The second adjustment was to re-create the Commander Operations Process (understand, visual­ize, describe, and di­rect-lead and assess) in the DL modality. In a face-to-face modality (common in-class instruction typically used at the resident course) of instruction, one student would provide the acting commander a visual description of the simulation after each iteration. The designated student commanders would go through the operations process using products developed during planning and make decisions. However, the virtual environment enabled the entire planning staff to give their view to the commander that, unlike face-to-face environments, forced the commander to sift through relevant infor­mation that led to a commander’s decision. This change to student behavior during the class was not something the instructors set out to accomplish. Nonetheless, it effectively replicated a real-world environment where members of a staff provide a plethora of information to the commander from their respective staff perspectives. The outcome was that student commanders in general learned far better to distinguish and prioritize relevant and exceptional information from what was merely inter­esting in their decision-mak­ing process.

The third adjustment was to execute the simulation to account for the virtual modality (over Blackboard, something never attempt­ed previously at CGSC).

During in-class instruction, there is a time-cost for students to learn how to run the simulation. That cost was cut and repurposed to gain another class session to allow for an additional iteration, which allowed another student to be a student commander. In the virtual environment, instructors displayed and manip­ulated the simulation in accordance with the students’ decision support matrix, high-payoff target list, and staff directives. The additional repetition that allowed each student to be a student commander was an invaluable experience. While the students did not get the opportu­nity to manipulate the simulation, the benefit of each student getting a simulated repeti­tion as the student commander was well worth the cost. Hence, our initial impression is that the virtual environment may be the most beneficial mo­dality of delivery to maximize engagement, facilitate learning, and achieve desired learning outcomes.


Figure 3
(Composite image provided by Dr. Richard McConnell)


Main Challenges

The above said, the experience of adjusting to the constraints imposed by the pandemic was not with­out challenges. The first challenge was how to use the simulation in a DL format. In the face-to-face context, the students learned the simulation using the established closed-system network. The advantage was that the hardware and software were already in place. All that was needed was about one hour of class time to teach the students enough of the simulation to execute the upcoming tactical scenario problem sets. The instructor could personally engage and lead the simulation tutorial on the front classroom screen in a face-to-face environment, and if needed, walk over to the student’s screen and visually watch them perform the necessary simulation tasks.

As CGSC transitioned to the DL environment, providing effective oversight over the simulation became obstacle number one. The instructors discussed several options and consulted with instructors in the Department of Distance Education. They decided they would not attempt to require the students to load the simulation program on their home PCs. Instead, instructors loaded it on their home PCs. CGSC devised a process to communicate the inputs and results of the student plan for students to process information and make any necessary decisions. Since the students were not physically collocated and could not see facial ex­pressions or body language of their team members, they were completely dependent on voice communications and their own individual maps. While this approach was a change from the normal protocol, it actually better replicated conditions expected in a live environ­ment. It had the effect of emulating and reinforcing the importance of precise doctrinal language, brevity, and clarity in communications.

The second challenge was to train and equip the instructors to lead the students toward the learning objective, run the simulation, share the results, and make student command decisions and changes in a timely manner. All of this was designed to reach the learning objectives supported by the simulation. While this sounds like a list of simple sequential tasks, the tasks were in fact continuous and mostly simul­taneous, which could easily become overwhelming. Just like a single pilot in a cockpit, the instructor was having to multitask but without the aid of a copilot, navigator, or air traffic controller. At times, the instructor often had to pause the class to reduce task saturation. This instructor overload became a key after action report (AAR) point of discussion between seminar leaders at the conclusion of each class and a key rehearsal action prior to the next vignette.

The AAR discussion points and rehearsal practices helped to prioritize instructor tasks but also helped refine what visuals became essential for the lessons. Some of the visuals were screen shots of the simula­tion terrain with respect to the intelligence prepa­ration of the battlefield as well as course of action planning for the students. The instructors download­ed the simulation map background, converted it into a PowerPoint or PDF document, and posted it to the shared drive so students could have easy access. After each turn of the simulation was executed, the instruc­tor had to convert the turn results screen display into a word-picture narrative. This took the form of an intelligence report and/or spot report depending on what action had occurred during the turn.

At first, the instructors vetted the reports to give students only the essential information, but later, they changed back to giving them the preponderance of all the turn-generated reports, which forced them to have to “sift the wheat from the chaff.” This reinforced the idea of clearly articulated priority intelligence requirements, exceptional information, and the issu­ance of a clear commander’s decision. In other words, students really had to think through their decision support matrix/template and develop a quality com­mander’s intent and guidance.

In the end, the distributed environment forced the instructors and students alike to better visualize, describe, and direct actions than had been occurring in the brick-and-mortar classroom. The instructors of A304 learned much while teaching and learned more through reflection, Advanced Faculty Development, Blackboard Help Desk, and the Digital Learning Instructor Course. What follows is a brief descrip­tion of those lessons.

Additional Tools for under the Hood Classrooms

According to the old axiom, necessity is the mother of invention. One aspect of that time-hon­ored saying is the learning journey of discovery. All of these additional tools discovered post-COVID-19 lockdown existed in CGSC’s capabilities prior to the pandemic. It required a health emergency to force their use and investigate new ways to improve rigor in instruction and its outcomes. For example, the quality of student reflection has historically been a key topic of concern and conversation at CGSC. The use of discussion threads, journal entries, blogs, and wikis have habitually been touted as great tools to improve reflection, with mixed results. However, during A304, the quality of interactions on the discussion threads was much higher than verbal interactions previously observed in a face-to-face classroom. Additionally, we found that the students were quite creative in finding new ways to collaborate in this distributed learning environment. Several groups of students used a vari­ety of applications to enable their collaboration and share files to great effect. The quality of their inter­actions in this virtual classroom in some regard was better than anything we would normally achieve in a face-to-face context.

Figure 4
(Screen capture of course tools provided by Dr. Richard McConnell)



Such observations have caused us to reflect on how we might take a blended approach toward learn­ing in the future. Face-to-face instruction could be enhanced by distributed tools. Feedback could be dig­itized for faculty-to-student, student-to-student, and individual student reflections. For years we have been discussing the possibility of introducing electronic portfolios in which students could keep track of and build upon their learning throughout their experience during the academic year. By enhancing face-to-face instruction with the tools resident in Blackboard, we would enable learning as well as keep a record of that learning for a student to take with them to their next assignment. In some ways, the pandemic forced every­one to go under the hood to further hone their skills and become better instructors.


The COVID-19 pandemic will be remembered as an extremely challenging and uncertain time for our nation, our military, and the educational institutions that support the military. However, as uncertain and difficult as this time has been, it has not been without its benefits. Forced to adjust to an emerging situation, CGSC faculty members were compelled to learn the full extent of capabilities inherent in the system. It is true that most pilots would rather fly in beautiful weather, but good pilots understand that they must be prepared for bad weather. Additionally, once pilots ful­ly master their instruments and return to visual flight rules, they are much better pilots, better versed in their craft, and much more precise.

CGSC’s capabilities have been similarly increased after adjusting to the challenges of the pandemic. These hard-fought lessons will drive CGSC to improve its abil­ity to continue to provide the highest quality and most rigorous professional military education to the Armed Forces. Perhaps because of these unexpected benefits, the COVID-19 pandemic might also be remembered as a watershed moment for CGSC when the faculty learned to overcome adversity and became better because of it.

*He is the primary author.

About the Author(s)

Lt. Col. Thad D. Weist, U.S. Army, retired, is an assistant professor in the Department of Army Tactics, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He received his BA from West Point in 1998 and served twenty-one years in the U.S. Army in aviation units in Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, and the United States. He received his MA in defense and strategic studies from the U.S. Naval War College at Newport, Rhode Island.

Lt. Col. George E. Hodge, U.S. Army, retired, is an associ­ate professor in the Department of Army Tactics, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He received his BS from North Georgia College in 1980 and served twenty-two years in the U.S. Army as an aviator in Europe, the Middle East, and the United States. He received his MS in psychology and counseling from Troy State University and has served as an instructor for over twenty-five years at the Army Aviation Center and the Command and General Staff College.

Lt. Col. Richard A. McConnell, DM, U.S. Army, retired, is an associate professor in the Department of Army Tactics, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He received his BA from the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee in 1989 and served twenty-five years in the U.S. Army in artillery units in Europe, the Middle East, and the United States. He received his DM in organization­al leadership from the University of Phoenix, where his dissertation was an institutional microeth­nographic examination of the staff group advisor role at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth.


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