19 October 2015

TRADOC lays groundwork for multimedia, mobile classrooms

Adam Stone, Contributing Writer October 14, 2015

Hand in hand with its drive to create enriched electronic versions of its core documents, the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) also is moving ahead with efforts to make those documents available on mobile devices.

An ongoing wireless push will give students access to basic Army documents while also opening up access to multimedia, interactive classroom materials.

In recent months, TRADOC has built out wireless infrastructure at eight sites representing a total of 227 academic buildings. This encompasses 28 of 36 TRADOC schools. After a bit of further testing, TRADOC says, these wireless networks should go live by year’s end. (The remaining eight schools either have a wireless backbone already or have no programmatic need for wireless.)

The advent of wireless academics responds to changes in the way younger soldiers interact with study materials. “There is an expectation today that people will be able to access content when and where they need it, and there is an expectation that it is more than just textbooks, more than just the written word,” said LTC Joseph Harris, TRADOC Capability Manager (TCM)-Mobile, Fort Eustis, Virginia. “That is what we are trying to achieve.”

Program managers already have converted many Army doctrinal publications from static PDF format into the more flexible EPUB format, making these fundamental documents easier to access via mobile device. Among other things, EPUB allows readers to bookmark, highlight and insert notes on the publications, and the format is compatible with Android, Apple and Windows devices.

The recently converted EPUB publications offer the Army’s basic rules of the road in areas such as conduct and procedure. They cover such topics as Army doctrine publications, Army doctrine reference publications, Army technical publications, graphic training aids and field manuals. TRADOC has called these documents natural first candidates for conversion to digital format: The information contained is essential, unclassified and nonsensitive.

Educators have taken an active hand in developing materials for mobile use. “We do integrate them into the program from the beginning,” said Matt Maclaughlin, applications developer at TCM-Mobile, Fort Eustis. “They bring that good idea to us and we have a nomination board that [evaluates] those ideas so we are not getting swamped.”

Instructors typically propose not just the content but also the potential format of course materials, program managers said. Many teachers are looking to leverage wireless capabilities to enhance their coursework with video, animation and interactive content. Organizers help instructors to think through the possibilities, proposing ways in which materials might best be formatted for use on a range of mobile devices.

“So, for example, these documents will talk about an ‘enveloping maneuver’ — but what does that mean? How do you understand that in a hostile environment?” said Helen Remily, TCM-The Army Distributed Learning Program. “Today’s soldiers are going to being able to visualize that through animation, to look at 3-D objects and open them and see inside them.”

Remily envisions such content covering a range of study materials including student handouts, graphic training aides, homework assignments, briefings, case studies, audio podcasts, lecture video and interactive multimedia instruction. All these cutting-edge formats would help to round out the student’s classroom experiences, outside of the actual classroom.

Delivering information this way “allows the soldier to interact with the content beyond just the text,” she said. “We know this helps people to retain that information longer, which then enables them to transfer that information into their job situation when they are going to war.”

In addition to holding extended conversations about content, program managers have been working with instructors to determine what devices will eventually be put into play. So far, early trials have focused on tablets, but no one is wedded to the form factor.

“We have had meetings with the commandants, the instructors, everyone who has a vested interest in what is going on in their communities to ensure the right devices are selected and to make sure the wireless devices will eventually be integrated into the process of instruction,” Harris said.

Flexibility is necessary in the migration to mobile, since the number and form of available devices today varies almost as much as does the course content to be conveyed. “Each school has its own specific requirements, its own needs,” Harris said. “The infantry school might need something more ruggedized than the quartermaster school. So we don’t want to limit those options.”

Whatever devices finally go into the mix, this much is clear: The wireless backbone that supports these tools will be tied into the NIPRNet, the Unclassified but Sensitive Internet Protocol Router Network. Owned by the Department of Defense, this network of Internet protocol routers already underlies the wired networks at TRADOC schools. For purposes of both security and simplicity, emerging wireless efforts will remain under that umbrella, planners said.

A commitment to NIPRNet should help ensure that students encounter a familiar environment as they move from their wired studies into a wireless academic environment. “They will see the same thing as they are used to seeing, without having to be in the classroom,” said Glenna Dobie, program manager of the Enterprise Classroom Program.

Planners say they have undertaken a thorough process in developing their wireless plans. It should hardly come as a surprise to hear that implementation of a wireless component within TRADOC would require the approval of multiple offices, as Army leaders are eager to ensure that security remains intact, even as pedagogy goes uninterrupted.

To that end, TRADOC planners have drawn input and approvals from a range of bodies including the 7th Signal Command at Fort Gordon, which gave the nod to the wireless documentation and the overall implementation plan, as well as Program Exectuive Office Enterprise Information Systems and also the 93rd Signal Brigade.

All this oversight helps ensure a smooth rollout, but it cannot help TRADOC to overcome some of the fundamental challenges of a wireless implementation. For example, at the eight initial sites planners have come up some basic construction issues.

Despite such bumps in the road, planners say the overall deployment will be a boon to soldiers. As Remily noted, some students today are spending their own money to buy basic Army publications from online services, while others are finding out-of-date Army publications on the Internet. Wireless access to basic documents should curb such practices.

At the same time, TRADOC is looking to enhance educational opportunities by providing access to a range of materials outside the classroom, so students don’t have to be tethered to a desktop via landline. Some additional testing is expected before the wireless sites go live, likely by the end of the year.

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