Small Wars Journal

We Built a Culture MOOC…for Soldiers Everywhere (and Marines, and Airmen, and US AID personnel and others)

Sat, 06/27/2015 - 6:35pm

We Built a Culture MOOC…for Soldiers Everywhere (and Marines, and Airmen, and US AID personnel and others)

Robert R. Greene Sands

The Department of Defense has stepped gingerly in exploring the utility of recent technological advances in learning made in civilian institutions.  In the last two years, higher education has exploded with the development and deployment of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) as a means to stretch the learning capability and capacity of institutions.  The jury is still out as educational journals and publications debate their efficacy.  On one hand 215,000 students sign up for an introduction to computer science, on the other hand less than one percent complete the course. MOOCs enable democracy of learning to reach far corners of the world, while language and cultural diversity of the students can intrude on learning.  But with resources for education and training reduced in the DoD, it is the many facets that come with MOOCs that make it an attractive and pragmatic alternative to learning.  This article highlights the development of one such MOOC and program designed to reach across units, organizations, Services, and agencies and provide common learning vested in a highly interactive chassis.

I am an anthropologist and with help from my creative course designer Jessica DeVisser, we just built a culture MOOC (massive open online course) within a multi-media iBook.  Sounds like a 12 –step confession.   In fact, the Institute I direct has developed a program to house this first one and later MOOCs at the university where I teach at.  I am sure someone building a MOOC is not surprising, even if I told you that I am not a professor at any of the MOOC clearing houses such as Stanford, Harvard or MIT, or partnered with the platforms such as Coursera or EdX to build them.  Perhaps the fact that we built the first with more to follow to provide the Department of Defense (DoD) and other United States Government (USG) agencies that interact in uncertain and culturally complex environments knowledge and skill that are critical may cause an eyebrow to raise.  If I added that at one time I was an anthropology professor for the Air Force that may cause a second eyebrow to raise.  If I further said I continue to teach and be a part of the mission to make those who serve in conflict, peacekeeping, international development, and crisis response especially when agencies and organizations find themselves collaborating in country, some heads may actually shake.

My teaching rests on providing knowledge and skills for understanding others and building and sustaining partnerships.  Many of my students are senior enlisted in Special Forces (SF) getting their Bachelor of Science degrees.  I also present and lecture around the country and reach many in the US military and other agencies’ civilians who work in culturally complex situations.  My SF students provide rich experience that when promoted collaboratively in a learning environment, creates opportunity for further development for student and professor alike.  It is ironic that for many in the DoD to get the knowledge and skills in culture in a sustained and useful way, stepping outside the military learning system is often necessary, but seldom utilized.

We built a MOOC entitled Operationalizing Culture:  Thinking Differently about Behavior in the Human Domain - we fondly have come to call it Op-Culture.  I appreciate distance learning and its promise for Op Culture for obvious and personal reasons, but especially in a learning climate within the DoD (and perhaps other government agencies) where the opinion that only good solid training takes place in a classroom is prevalent. This opinion overlooks that DL saves money - no need to bring military personnel to a central location.  DL development and delivery forces a pedagogically-sound product and offers a better assessment process.  It also offers some pretty critical and necessary student reflection on knowledge and skills offered in the course.   But all DL courses aren’t necessarily a MOOC to me.  It is the intent, openness and potential that makes DL feel like a MOOC.

So what are the objections I hear all the time about DL (doesn’t even include the MOOCs) from educators and trainers in the DoD?  For one, many say that DL “is just like all the other PowerPoint trainings we have to do, from force protection, security and operational awareness to Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) and Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR).”   However, some of those trainings, like sexual assault prevention are becoming more effective.  The second largest objection is that face to face/instructor to student relationship is lost in DL and that this relationship is necessary for learning.  No argument there, face to face is absent or minimized to a cameo over a video in most DL.  I think that is a big plus with the populations I teach.  I arrogantly used to think my real time gyrations in the classroom were what sunk in learning; not any more.  Success in DL requires a well-built course and that becomes a turn off for classroom instructors who can get by on personality and discussion.  In a Norwich “classroom” (hosted on Moodle) of Special Operations Forces (SOF) taking a culture-general course, I have some of the most illuminating discussions in chat rooms and papers that would be lost in a brick and mortar classroom.  Discussion and writing revealed honest and probing recollections about their cross-cultural experiences and each of them became learning opportunities for students and professor alike.   Like any non-traditional student, taking learning and applying it immediately to their situations where they are at doesn’t require a physical classroom.   But for what and who I teach, for today’s military or other deployed agencies, DL allows my students to actually be in country when taking the course – tell me that doesn’t open up new levels of real time cross-cultural learning that would make any educator salivate over application – real learning takes place in novel and “natural settings” outside of the classroom. If the students are deployed in multiple locales, even though some students cannot provide location, you have the chance to take culture-general concepts and apply them in a culture-specific manner.  One other benefit.  DoD professional military education (PME) has seen a reduction in budget and corresponding residence attendance.  PME also features a standardized sets of curriculum that doesn’t allow much that is considered “extra” muscled into the course, and culture has always been at least an extra if not a nice not to have.  DL allows for a kind of continuing learning across the PME stops. 

Consider preparation for Foreign Area Officers (FAOs), an extended learning program that consists of a master’s degree, mostly at the Naval Postgraduate School, language learning (we will address language learning as we close this commentary), and in-country immersion before finally being assigned.  FAOs are assigned to embassies to support many different missions.  In all that learning, culture-general and cross-cultural competence (3C) receive little attention and it is my own biased belief that those subjects are probably the most critical.  DL allows continuing and experiential learning described above, for especially in beginning FAOs when they are immersed and traveling in country. In some ways, the professor becomes a mentor that exists for the duration of the course (s) or afterwards, or for that immersion experience.

Finally, DL allows partnering with other courses, even residential programs that can provide extension and synergy of learning.  Language instruction in the DoD, Department of State, and other agencies is mostly in-classroom, at least the initial acquisition, which depending on the program can run from 10 weeks to 52 weeks.  Language sustainment learning can also be in the classroom, but of shorter duration.  No matter what is offered by the language programs “that culture is provided” (and supposedly is found in the upper language proficiency levels), the kind of foundational and commonly shared culture knowledge and skills that are necessary for my students are not found in the language curriculum.  Nor are they embodied in most of the instructors who are native or heritage instructors and develop and teach the curriculum.  But yet from policy makers on down, President Obama, the Chief of the Army, Special Operations Commander (and more) have identified culture as a critical enabler (along with language) for mission success.

Enter the MOOC, or the intent of the MOOC at least in this partnership.  In a ten-week language course, there are 300 contact hours of learning (three college-credits worth).  It boggles the mind to think what a 52-week course at Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC) represents in credit and or degrees.  Append the MOOC through the Learning Management System (LMS) to provide the culture content and the facilitation of a professor who can teach the material.  The professor can live anywhere.  Have the focused and limited culture-specific knowledge of the instructor dovetail with the culture general and with language instruction and watch language AND culture learning accelerate.  I am part of a team that has built such a language and culture enterprise at Joint Base Lewis/McChord and we are in the fifth iteration of it having done languages such as Korean, Japanese, Thai, Tagalog and Indonesian.  Our most recent iteration of Tagalog successfully concluded in early June.  A MOOC, such as Op-Culture, in conjunction with language instruction also offers the capability for assessment that extends beyond the limiting language measure of provided by Defense Language Proficiency Test (DLPT) or even the Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) to assess culture-related knowledge gain, and cross-cultural competence and aspects of cross-cultural communication (CCC).  In other words, utilizing the MOOC to enrich the learning experience and as well allow assessment measures in culture-general/specific knowledge and cross-cultural interaction skill-based competence development gives a much richer sense of proficiency across language AND culture.  This assessment model is also currently being piloted at JBLM.

In the end, we built a MOOC for reasons above but also for such components as the flipped classroom and the chance to bring students or cohorts together across distance, organization, service, and agency to probe common and unique experiences.  I love MOOCs for what they mean and allow, an educational democracy and accessibility to learning.  Harvard’s EdX has enrolled through their computer science courses have enrolled 611,564 learners between 2012 and 2014 a Harvard study reported.  I can have tens or hundreds in a virtual classroom and interactive “text” in manageable cohorts who are around the world, sharing theory and application, and learning – massive is relative, but the learning is equally powerful.  So, the MOOC is built, complete with a healthy dose of videos, engaging and interactive text and readings, an array of assessment.  It will launch mid-summer.  It encapsulates the foundational cultural knowledge (and 3C skills) designed to bring critical knowledge and skills to Special Forces, for humanitarian and disaster relief crisis responders, soldiers, Marines, sailors, airmen, US AID and Department of State personnel, or other agencies, for FAOs, for air mobility personnel, for Doctors without Borders, for NATO, for Red Cross, for a list too long to recount here.  Op Culture - Massive-online-open course.

About the Author(s)

Robert R. Greene Sands, PhD, is one of the foremost experts in cross-cultural competence (3C) and culture-general in the DoD and has worked closely with several DoD organizations to develop and deliver innovative blended learning programs in culture and language.  Several iterations of his courseware have been utilized by different Services, Special Operations Forces, US Army, US Air Force, US Marines, and Foreign Area Officers, among others. Sands developed the first-ever Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) in cross-cultural competence, Operational Culture: Thinking Differently about Behavior in the Human Domain.

Anthropologist Sands is currently CEO of LanguaCulture, LLC and adjunct professor at Norwich University.  His prior experience includes positions at Air University and Air Force Culture and Language Center, Defense Intelligence Agency, and Director and Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Culture and Language at Norwich University and adjunct professor in the College of Graduate and Continuing Studies Program.  Sands’s research and writing on the various aspects of culture and language is represented in seven books (with one in press), numerous journal and book chapters.  He is also a preeminent speaker and lecturer and is often delivering addresses to various organizations and learning institutions on his research and experience, to include TEDx and other television and video appearances.  His most recent book published by Joint Special Operations University (JSOU) featured a re-envisioning of the Special Forces language and culture learning program, Assessing SOF LRC Needs: Leveraging Digital and LRC Learning to Reroute the “Roadmap” from Human Terrain to Human Domain.  Sands founded and is co-editor of the Journal for Culture, Language and International Security.  Dr. Sands received his PhD in anthropology from the University of Illinois.