Education highlighted during Air Force IT Conference

MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- The professional education of thousands of Airmen and Air Force civilian personnel is on the fast track to change, according to a seminar at the Air Force Information Technology Conference on Tuesday.

"Air Education and Training Command's vision is to deliver unrivaled air, space and cyberspace education and training," Maj. Gen. Erwin F. Lessel III, director of Plans, Programs, Requirements and Assessments, and of the San Antonio Integration Office at Air Education and Training Command, told a room full of attendees during a seminar entitled The Future of Air Force Education and Training.

"Technology is changing daily," he said. "The newest Air Force recruits have different expectations and are familiar with the latest technology. Furthermore, the sheer volume of knowledge has increased. How are we embracing the technology available to us today in the classroom?

"This is not an issue unique to the military," the general added, explaining how the challenge is one common to all academic and commercial institutions.

The only limiting factor to implementing the most advanced learning methods, General Lessel said, is changing the education mindset and culture that still relies on a "19th century" classroom model.

"This is all about knowledge-enabled Airmen," he said. "For instance, when an Airman writes a paper [for a class], he is creating knowledge. We must be able to integrate, distribute and apply that knowledge force-wide."

Part of the effort within the Air Force to pool and coherently distribute such data is the "AF.EDU" project, an effort to facilitate and advance education and research efforts across the Air Force. This endeavor was addressed later Tuesday in a separate seminar.

According to Jorge Madera, a program manager under AETC's communication directorate, the project aims to further academic collaboration throughout the Air Force and with members' colleagues worldwide through a commercially hosted collaboration environment utilizing up-to-date academic and research tools used to accomplish the unique mission requirements found within all Air Force learning mission areas (recruiting, training, and education).

Although access to the AF.EDU site currently requires proper authentication via an AF.EDU account, follow-on efforts will include "AF.EDU Public," a "one-stop-shop" for Air Force learning Web content available to the general public and "Keesler Online," an open courseware initiative available via restricted access to all Air Force users. However, certain functions and areas of the site will remain private and accessible only to AF.EDU members.

According to a white paper prepared by General Lessel and his staff earlier this year and available at www.aetc.af.mil, Air Force leadership envisions the application of virtual learning environments within AF.EDU. Open courseware and knowledge management systems will give Airmen access to training courses and educational material anywhere and anytime it's required.

In an increasingly mobile force, efforts to educate Airmen on the move are becoming more common, including a role-playing simulation developed by Air War College and delivered to students worldwide on a CD. Lt. Col. James Carlin, Air War College Distance Learning chief of technology, demonstrated the simulation to an audience in another seminar room at the convention Tuesday.

The program immerses trainees in a simulated environment where they are cast as the contingency response commander and the senior U.S. military representative in a fictitious African country. Their goal is to establish airfield operations in cooperation with NATO forces to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid. The player must learn how to adapt to other cultures and build rapport with computer-animated characters whose personalities are pre-programmed with numerous responses to simulate real-life cultural distinctives. The array of actions a player can take will result in widely varied responses from their virtual counterparts and thousands of possible outcomes. Throughout the game, the player encounters multiple scenarios that require interfacing with virtual characters such as a French general, a Brazilian who is with the United Nations and a number of Central African nationals.

Character personalities and the storyline were built on advice from subject matter experts within Air University, feedback from prototype testers, and collaboration between Air War College and TaTa Interactive Systems in India, the company that designed the software engine.

"Although the scenario is built on a pseudo-mission in Central Africa, the concept of learning to assess a cultural situation can be applied in a real-life deployed setting anywhere," Colonel Carlin said. "Rather than focusing on the basic mechanics of a deployment in a foreign culture, this simulation leverages the expertise of our staff to create a dynamic, complicated mission."

Once students complete the mission, they can save their results and send them back to Air War College for evaluation.

The simulation is presently geared to train lieutenant colonels, colonels and civilian equivalents, but could be adapted to train Airmen at all levels, the colonel said.

The Air Force Information Technology Conference hosted more than 100 such breakout sessions and seminars, which gave vendors and government entities opportunity to showcase particular concepts, products and projects. Some seminars were part of the Air Force Knowledge Now conference, which was held in conjunction with AFITC this year.