A dangerous trend?
IG: Sailors trained on screens lack basics
By Philip Ewing - Staff writer
Posted : Tuesday Jun 16, 2009 9:38:29 EDT
The Navy’s heavy reliance on computer-based training is producing sailors who aren’t ready for their jobs at ships and squadrons, don’t grasp basic Navy concepts and could endanger the long-term health of the service, according to an internal report obtained by Navy Times.
The study, completed in March and prepared by the Navy’s inspector general for former Navy Secretary Donald Winter, was prompted by worries in the fleet that sailors are reporting from “A” school and “C” school with “a declining level of rate-specific knowledge.” In researching that problem, the inspectors zeroed in on computer-based instruction.
The report, begun in May 2008, includes a litany of problems that result from training sailors and recruits on computers, providing few instructors to answer questions and offering the sailors little hands-on experience.
Some of those problems include:
• Sailors arrive at the fleet without basic knowledge about their jobs or the equipment they’ll need to operate and maintain. And when they get to their ships, some sailors need twice as long as before to qualify to stand watches. “Many are unable to recognize and use tools, operate basic equipment, read schematics or follow basic electronics,” the IG found.
• Sailors don’t learn teamwork, long-standing Navy traditions or even basic military knowledge. Inspectors found that incoming sailors don’t know to “ask the chief” and noted “over a dozen instances” on a visit to Naval Training Center Great Lakes, Ill., when new sailors didn’t know to salute officers.
• Sailors take their courses on computers that are an average of six years old, and those machines suffer from regular freeze-ups, network hiccups and other technical problems. Trainees get no allowances in their schedules for time lost to computer problems. Inspectors found that even students who had no connectivity for two days weren’t given time to make up the material they couldn’t learn during the downtime.
• Despite older officials’ belief that 18- and 19-year-old sailors are instinctively facile with computers and technology, recruits don’t absorb computer training well. Sailors told inspectors they just clicked through their presentations as quickly as possible, gleaning only enough information to pass virtual tests, or just clicked every multiple-choice answer until the test registered the correct one. This produces a “snowball” effect: Sailors arrive at “C” school needing remedial training to learn what they should have learned in “A” school, and the need for make-up instruction continues when they arrive at their first assignments.All this adds up to a generation of undertrained young sailors who can’t assess the conditions of their ships, take longer to get qualified once they arrive at their commands, and could jeopardize the Navy as they advance.
“There are valid concerns about the possible long-term impact and how this will manifest in the fleet within the next eight to 10 years, when the seasoned, experienced sailors have retired,” investigators wrote.
‘A new modem’
The top two officials with Naval Education and Training Command, which oversees instruction throughout the service, both told Navy Times they welcomed the findings in the IG report. But NETC plans no major reforms beyond what it was already changing, they said, because the IG pointed out long-standing issues the command was already aware of and working on.
“Better governance, electronic classrooms, better [computer-based training], all those efforts have been in place before the report, but we have a big domain — we have 33,000 students in advanced skills training every day, with hundreds of lessons being delivered — it’s a pretty big challenge for us,” said Rear Adm. Arnold Lotring, NETC’s chief operations officer.
Besides, the real issue isn’t actually computer training, NETC’s two-star commander said.
“In and of itself, computer-based training is not bad, it’s not good. It’s just another way to deliver content,” said Rear Adm. Gary Jones. He called it “a new modem.”
However training is delivered, it can only do so much, Jones said. If sailors are taking longer to qualify or not knowing when to salute, it could be because they aren’t practicing the skills they’re learning.
“When they get off the bus at Great Lakes, many of them arrive there knowing that, OK, here’s the level of performance I have to pass the [physical fitness assessment]. Some did, some didn’t,” Jones said. “I get their physical fitness level up to a degree. That’s only 59 days. But it’s a continuum. You have to continue to develop. Is there an expectation that every single thing we deliver, we showed them at boot camp, they’re going to retain?
“You have to continue to practice it. I use the analogy of golf. You go out and you get one golf lesson. That doesn’t mean you’re going to be a PGA professional. You have to practice it. You have to read up on it, you have to think about it, for personal and professional development.”
Lotring identified one finding in the report that he hoped could correct a misconception among some Navy officials — just because today’s sailors grew up around technology doesn’t mean they’re better at learning with computers.
“There’s an insightful thing in the report about how students come to us — people think because they’re ‘millennials,’ they’re computer savvy — but they haven’t really learned in the high schools or even colleges [at] the level of the environment we create today. Most schools, although they say, ‘We have computers in every classroom,’ they’re really just projector carts with a PowerPoint,” Lotring said.
“When our kids sit in classrooms, they are sitting in an [Internet-enabled], full-up, I-have-two-monitors on some stations to simulate sonar displays, some are on classified networks for intelligence or submarine work, so we are at the high end, way beyond. So we do have to spend time with them to teach them how to learn in an electronic classroom.”
The ‘revolution’ continues
In the years since then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Vern Clark called for a “revolution in training” in 2003, computer-based instruction has pervaded the Navy at every level.
When asked what ratings have the least computer-based instruction, Lotring said there wasn’t much for special warfare operators at Basic Underwater Demoliton/SEAL training at Naval Base Coronado, Calif.
But almost everyone else — even ratings with a lot of physical work, such as masters-at-arms —get computer-based instruction, Lotring said. It makes up a third of instruction at “A” schools; 15 percent to 33 percent percent of training at Officer Training Command; and 100 percent of instruction for annual general military training, according to the IG report. About 10 percent of instruction in “C” school is computer-based, said NETC spokesman Cmdr. Dan Gage.
Navy officials prize the computerized instruction because it enables them to standardize lessons for thousands of students, update curricula quickly, and disseminate the latest lessons over the Internet to deployed sailors. As the Navy changes, NETC can rapidly customize sailors’ training, Lotring said.
For example, surface force commanders called for recruits to learn the Voyage Management System now becoming standard on warships, so NETC developed a computer course to teach them. Officials also could stop training electronics technicians to solder, Lotring said — although that decision hasn’t been made yet — because demand for that skill is flagging.
Above all, computer-based training has fulfilled the main goal of Clark’s “revolution” — to reduce the time and money needed to train a typical sailor. A typical fire controlman needed 89 days in “A” school using the Navy’s legacy methods, according to the IG report, but now needs 64 days with computers. Expanded to the entire service, that means sailors are getting to the fleet faster, at a lower cost.
But they’re being trained not by “instructors” but “facilitators,” the IG report found — people who don’t necessarily have any expertise in the subject matter at hand. Facilitators can run the computer equipment that’s training the sailors, but can’t answer their questions.
“Having a person who can answer questions and share a sea story that relates to the application of knowledge in the fleet helps reinforce the course content and is a proven means of effective training,” the report says — but too few sailors are getting that.
The bottom line is that, beyond anecdotal evidence, the IG investigators had no way to determine whether the computer-based training was as good, better or worse than the courses it replaced.
“We encountered difficulty in finding a valid metric by which to compare rating knowledge under legacy training systems and the CBT environment,” the report says. Inspectors wanted to compare sailors’ test scores, but “learned that other variables impact the design and scoring in each advancement cycle, rendering such a direct comparison meaningless.”