The challenge

Career-long development of the RAF’s staff is actively encouraged, allowing personnel stationed around the world to progress within the RAF and to take on responsible civilian roles when they leave the service. All officers graduate from the RAF College Cranwell with a certificate in leadership and management from the Chartered Management Institute, whilst many airmen and women earn NVQs by completing their professional training.   However, with a target audience of 30,000 staff, achieving this is no mean feat.
The RAF Division at the Joint Services Command and Staff College, Shrivenham, provides training for some 5,000 RAF junior officers (pilot officers, flying officers and flight lieutenants) and squadron leaders, in command and leadership, welfare and media skills, information management, and a range of management training as it applies to the military sphere. Training also covers areas such as the Geneva Conventions and how they should be applied in a conflict situation.

RAF-wide collaboration

In March 2009, Andy Perkins, the RAF Division’s squadron leader for Online Learning at Shrivenham, asked specialist training consultancy HowToMoodle to design an online tutoring course. Andy was keen to make this available to trainers involved in all courses for commissioned and non-commissioned personnel. They had investigated and trialled an open course run by a university’s Department of Continuing Education on ‘how to be an effective online tutor’.  However, they felt a bespoke solution would better meet the RAF’s needs, which do not fit the ‘ideal’ 1:15 trainer to student ratio. HowToMoodle’s five week course involved Andy’s team plus trainers from the Airmen’s Command Squadron, RAF Halton, who are making inroads into online learning for non-commissioned personnel, and staff from large RAF bases like Lyneham which have their own training squadrons for their local units. The online course was also an opportunity to evaluate how the 18 trainers could work through the issues of one-to-many learning as a ‘community’.  The trainers took part in the online tutoring course from locations around the UK for five hours of online training per week.

Andy says, “The course was extremely useful – we reckon it took forward our own internal dialogue by a year.  People were willing to express, engage and cajole through the facilitated forums in a way that they were reluctant to do face-to-face.”

 

Previously, management training for officers was delivered in a series of disjointed courses spread over the first 10 years of their career.  With a rapidly increasing task and a teaching staff of just 25 plus five admin support workers, the RAF Division needed a new way of training. To make it more complex, the situation isn’t static: an additional 150 new graduates from the RAF College Cranwell enter the pool every two months, along with new joiners from the Army, Navy or overseas forces.  These numbers pose a huge challenge to the trainers and the RAF was keen to investigate new online learning technology to make one-to-many training as effective as possible. Coinciding with the introduction of elearning is a new Junior and Senior Officer Development Programme which will ensure coherent training during an officer’s career.

Introducing elearning for Officers

In 2008 the RAF started looking at the options for elearning and chose the Moodle learning management system for its flexibility and the cost benefits associated with open source software.  In September that year RAF trainers took HowToMoodle’s two-day Course Creator course, which aims to give delegates sufficient grasp and confidence of the Moodle functionality to make informed decisions about the design of their own courses and to think strategically about the implementation of Moodle.

Andy says, “While we were on the first two-day Course Creator course the consultant was listening carefully to the interchange of the 10 of us from RAF and asking us questions as well as offering some little gems. We were able to spend about an hour towards the end of that time discussing how to develop a whole site, bearing in mind that none of the trainers had had to develop even a bit of a site before. We were given some really good early ‘don’ts’, which I think are probably more useful early on that the ‘dos’. If you can strike certain areas off your to-do list, that’s very constructive because you can see where positive development should happen.

Andy and two colleagues went on to complete HowToMoodle’s Administrator training later that year, learning how to configure Moodle to their exact needs. They then put the reference material and knowledge gained to immediate use to map out two early courses: designing the online equivalent of book-based material that they had used for many years. These ‘quick wins’ were useful in terms of putting the information learnt on the Moodle courses to immediate use and transforming relatively dull material by introducing tools such as formative quizzes.

Andy says, “Skills do get rusty if you don’t use them but we used HowToMoodle’s hard copy manuals regularly to refresh our memories and these have served as a fantastic adjunct to the practical training in Moodle. After so many years of battling with online help, actually having a physical product is so useful – I keep the Course Creator reference manual on my desk.”

About two months after the first courses, Andy and the team started mapping out how the site would take shape, and collating the initial coursework. A follow-up two day consultancy session was scheduled.  Andy adds, “The consultancy was an absolutely brilliant follow-on.  I would recommend it to anyone.  We provided information beforehand on our strategic goals, tactical level activities and so on.  From the start of the first consultancy day we were presented with good and searching questions – and at an early enough stage that we could still incorporate the suggestions.  As the consultants work with organisations across the spectrum they’re bringing experience of the sort of problems that other people have come up against, but that otherwise you know nothing about or may have rejected out of hand as a possibility.”

The course was extremely useful – we reckon it took forward our own internal dialogue by a year.  People were willing to express, engage and cajole through the facilitated forums in a way that they were reluctant to do face-to-face

Andy Perkins

RAF Division’s squadron leader, RAF

Because the course was tailored to us it was designed around our IT options and facilities that would be commonly available to our learners. The course was also useful because it showed us the possibilities of virtual meetings and we plan to hold more online meetings to reduce travel costs and save time. The same consultants were involved throughout our training in the use of Moodle too, ensuring that they had a thorough understanding of our requirements.

Moodle in the Junior Officer Development Programme

The new Junior Officer Development Programme home pages on Moodle act as a central area, providing information about Moodle and elearning, explaining why students need to do the courses, who needs to do the training, timelines and information about the RAF Division at Shrivenham. Content about residential courses and the preparation officers need to do for these is also now available online. Modules cover areas such as study skills and reading to broaden learners’ understanding of political and global situations. A resource area has been developed with materials covering subjects such as how to carry out staff appraisals, how to write a report, how to give a briefing or a presentation, decision-making, and reinforce your English… with some content now also being used by Army staff.

The online courses include resources such as videos from serving officers reflecting on their experiences and video streaming of documentaries from the likes of CNN on air campaigns such as Kosovo, complete with live footage for student analysis.  It contains links to websites too – showing examples of propaganda as well as exemplars of sites which offer high quality information.

The officers’ first online course was launched on 18 December 2008, which coincided with a new batch of graduate officers.  Five cohorts of new students have now experienced online training.  The team has also redesigned the residential courses and further changes are likely as the trainers evaluate which aspects can only be taught in residence and which would be better adapted to an online medium.

Students are now expected to develop their own personal leadership action plan, post it onto the learning journal in Moodle. Over a subsequent two-week residential, course tutors develop the plan with them, and when officers go back to work they put it into action. Andy says, “We now try to ensure there are links between all our online and residential course work, which hasn’t been done before.  At the moment the online learning is being received very positively, but we’re mindful that this may be because it’s so innovative, so we’re making sure that we constantly update the courses to keep them fresh.”

Standardisation of training. A significant benefit of Moodle to HFRS is the ability to promote consistent courses and training throughout each station. Previously stations would carry out training (e.g. a ladder drill) in slightly different ways. With Moodle there was one standard of teaching.

Skills do get rusty if you don’t use them but we used HowToMoodle’s hard copy manuals regularly to refresh our memories and these have served as a fantastic adjunct to the practical training in Moodle. After so many years of battling with online help, actually having a physical product is so useful – I keep the Course Creator reference manual on my desk

Next steps

Andy’s projections are for around 1400 learners to be using Moodle by December 2009 and for 3000 to be using it by December 2010.  He says, “We’re not complacent: we’re constantly evaluating feedback and refining our courses. We’re also much better now at designing courses which are ‘tutor light’ and where the online element interacts seamlessly with the residential course. Before residential courses, we ask all delegates to complete a learning journal from which tutors can extract information for discussion in the face-to-face syndicates.”

Top Tips

  • When translating courses from a traditional to an online environment, look at topic areas which are essential, and tackle these early on so that you can put some of your early knowledge into practice.
  • Find a ‘critical friend’ or consultant who can offer advice on testing out and setting the site up – for example back-up policy, themes and enrolment strategy.
  • Assess your information technology lowest common denominator – all delegates need to access the same information in the same way.