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Editor’s Note: Here is a classic adaptation of best practices in distance learning to a real world environment. Security concerns, geographic distribution, and budget play a key role in shaping this global program. The learners are Air Force Officers who, by virtue of their rank, have substantial education and training. This enables a relatively small team of trainers to support a large number of trainees.

Peer learning and study groups complement learning from interactive multimedia and video. There is purposeful redundancy between online and CD delivery to adapt the program to a broad spectrum of learning environments. A powerful feedback component supports specific student needs and provides data for continual program improvement. The distance learning program continues to seek and adopt technologies that will improve quality and performance.

Distance Learning at the
Air Command and Staff College
A Discussion of Several Distance Learning Best Practices

Donald A. MacCuish


The Air Command and Staff College is the Intermediate level Professional Military Education institution for the US Air Force. It has had a distance learning program since 1948. This paper discusses several contextual factors that inhibit the adoption of best practices into the Distance Learning Program. The author shares six of the best practices currently in place at ACSC in hopes that others will find these of interest and useful in their program. He also identifies best practices that are currently being evaluated for adoption.


The Air Command and Staff College (ACSC) is the United States Air Force's intermediate school (ISS) of Professional Military Education (PME). Ideally every officer in the Air Force would come to Maxwell AFB at the mid-point in their career (12-14 years of service) to attend an intensive one year graduate level program of instruction covering topics such as leadership and command, national and international securities studies, military strategy, evolution of air power, joint and coalition military operations, and other topics related to the military profession. The method of instruction includes lectures, seminar discussions, practical exercises, and research electives. Although the majority of students are Air Force officers from all career specialties, the sister services (army, navy, and marines) are all represented. Each seminar includes a Department of Defense civilian, either an Air Force reserve or National Guard officer, and one or two international officers. Sixty-five countries are represented in the class of 2004.

As we all know, this is not an ideal world. Not every student has the opportunity to complete his or her ISS PME requirement by attending the resident program. Since completion of the ACSC program is a virtual requirement for promotion to Lieutenant Colonel a potential problem area exists. The Air Force has mitigated this problem through the creation of a distance learning (DL) program. It is worth noting that the ISS PME requirement has existed since the inception of the Air Force as a separate service in 1947. The DL program was established a year later in 1948.

Program Inhibitors

Issues impacting the DL program are many. They include, but are not limited to, curriculum matters, security, the current Air Force operational tempo, worldwide disposition of Air Force personnel, and our students. Every decision we make as a staff is influenced by these factors and must be considered. As with all decisions there are trade-offs and we take great pains to minimize the negative consequences of our actions. Learning from past mistakes, identifying best practices and incorporating those that would improve our program, and adherence to sound educational principles has enabled us to become a program to emulate.

Curriculum content is based on the needs of the Air Force, guidance from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Congress, the Air University Continuum of Officer Professional Military Education, faculty expertise and student feedback. Since both the resident and DL programs must parallel each other we in DL build our program from resident program materials. This means that the DL program actually reflects the previous year's resident program. In other words we are out of step with the resident program by one academic year. Curriculum content and learning materials change annually because of changes in the international climate, laws and treaties, the National Security Strategy, military doctrine, and so forth.

Many of the best practices used by corporations and civilian universities cannot be adapted to our situation because of a number of factors. For example, currently there is debate about appropriate class size at civilian universities. Listservs, such as DEOS, have had discussions on class size ranging from 7 to 35 per instructor. With a typical annual enrollment of 11,000 students, we do not have the faculty or staff to support these types of numbers. Nor are we able to employ a more traditional organizational methodology. Instead our concept utilizes a student lead 'seminar' (study group) or more traditional 'correspondence' format. Although this is not an ideal methodology, it works. As a result we are not able to offer threaded discussions, or other types of best practice activities used in more conventional environments. This is unfortunate as these practices can improve the learning experience of students and establish bonds between faculty and their students as well as between students themselves.

Computer and Internet security are not only of concern to the military, but to universities and corporations as well. However, our security requirements are typically more stringent than those of either universities or corporations. We are not only required to meet Department of Defense standards, but Air Force and special community standards as well. Local firewalls can often further restrict our use of technology. These factors are one reason we are still trying to improve our responsiveness to student needs by offering online registration and online testing. Although we have identified a technical approach to both of these our need to verify that an individual is authorized to take our course would require us to have a certain degree of access to the records at the Air Force Personnel Center (AFPC). For obvious reasons such access is quite restricted. In addition, by regulation our tests must be proctored and not all of the Education Centers, which are available worldwide, can, at this time, support such an effort. Then there are those on deployment who are not located near an educational center. Our regulations do provide 'work around' guidance so we can service individuals in these types of situations.

We at ACSC DL are also dependent on outside agencies for critical support, and I do not necessarily mean contractors. Although we develop a lot of our learning materials there is a large amount we must obtain permissions to use in our program. Copyright costs in many cases are fairly reasonable, but in other cases they are quite unreasonable. Sometimes copyright issues preclude us from incorporating some excellent practices into our program. In addition to copyright issues we are required to have our printed and CD-ROM materials produced through the Government Printing Office (GPO). Neither the GPO nor its subcontractor are always responsive to our needs or schedule. Yet, if we could independently contract locally this would no longer be an issue.

We are further required to use the antiquated learning management system operated by another Air Force agency. As a result, ACSC DL is dependent on an outside agency to accommodate procedural changes in its business model as well as incorporating the software changes necessary before we can implement many of the best practices we have determined will improve our effectiveness, efficiency, or responsiveness to many issues raised by our students.

These factors help define our situation. They provide the reader an understanding of our operational context. Universities and corporations may have some or none of the inhibitors I just described. Accordingly, we may or may not have the same or similar inhibitors facing a university or corporation.  Even when the same inhibitors challenge different organizations the situational context might be such that the degree of impact is quite different thereby changing the equation all together. My point here is that there are some best practices that are universal and then there others that are only best practices in a specific contextual environment and this is an important consideration when evaluating a practice for adoption or when trying to determine why someone rates a practice as highly as they do. If it solves their problems, or improves the educational experience of their students then it is hard to question the value of the 'best practice'. Even I am sometimes guilty of such judgments. If it works, it is probably a 'best practice', but that does not mean there is no room for improvement.

Six of Our Best Practices

The first best practice we use that I want to share pertains to media balance. We deliver course materials to our students using three methods. All reading materials are distributed by course books and when allowed by the copyright holder on both CD-ROM and on our password protected Internet site. Exercises, video lectures, and other learning materials are distributed by CD-ROM and over the Internet. Several years ago all learning materials were distributed only on CD-ROM. Our students were not very happy with this experimental arrangement so we quickly adopted, what has turned out to be, a well balanced approach using several media sources. Admittedly this approach does have some redundancy, but it gives our students options when faced with TDY, or business travel, and deployments overseas.

A balanced use of media does not necessarily mean you must duplicate what we do. Quite the contrary. I have had the opportunity to review other distance learning programs. One of the things that has struck me time and time again is the over reliance on one type of media. Another common error is inappropriate use of media. My advice to other practitioners is to carefully evaluate your courses or programs with a jaundice eye to a better use of media. This does not mean change your use of media types to become more balanced or to add another type, but match your media selection to the learning outcomes you want to achieve.

Also consider the learner. You do not want to bore the learner with uninteresting learning activities, and you do not want to have so much variety that the learner is more focused on what you will do next. The ISD process has it right. Select your media based on your instructional goal. Do not use a different type of media simply to use a different type of media. Also, be realistic. Time, money, and system (yours as well as the learner's) capabilities must be part of the equation as well.

Our second best practice I want to share is the use of video lectures accompanied by a slide presentation. This is sometimes referred to as the 'talking head'. In the old days sound slide presentations were extensively used, and they were very effective in presenting learning materials. The talking head accompanied by slides is a modern day version of that sound-slide presentation. It too is a very effective way to engage the student and improve his or her learning, provided the lectures are not too long. We have found that presentations that are 15-20 minutes in length tend to be the ones that receive the best feedback. We believe that after 20 minutes student interest significantly diminishes.

I like this approach because the student can print out the slides beforehand so he or she can take notes. The student can pause the presentation, go back or go forward. This capability gives the student a lot of control over his or her own learning. In our case it also serves as a means of bringing our distance learning students into contact with our resident program faculty. With a student body of over 11,000 students who are dispersed all around the globe, anything that helps them feel closer to the institution adds to the learning experience.

This year we have purchased our own mobile digital video system. The system includes a computer, monitor, video camera, and software cost something in the neighborhood of $6,500 to $7,000. We are no longer dependent on the Air Force Television System for studio time, so we now have a great deal of flexibility. This is very important because we like to use resident faculty as lecturers, and their time is very important. In addition, the software gives us limited studio capability so we can add a few 'bells and whistles' to the presentations thereby enhancing them quite a bit. These enhancements also help us make the presentations more interesting to our students, but again moderation is key.

As noted previously, we provide our video materials to our students using CD-ROM and on our website. With our new mobile system we can quickly change the focus of a lecture to reflect changes in the world system, doctrine, or update important information. Although we will not be able to make changes to the CD once it has been mailed to our students, we can post an errata notice on the website and substitute the revised video for the old one. When we were dependant on AF TV making such changes to materials was too difficult to accomplish.

The large size of our student body and the small number of faculty members prevents us from using threaded discussions, which are widely used in many training and educational settings. Our compromise, and the third practice I want to share, is an online bulletin board system. Initially we instituted the bulletin board system so students could ask our DL faculty questions about the learning materials, concepts being taught, and other things as well. This is still the primary objective. However, more and more students are answering each other's questions and creating their own discussions. We believe these student-generated forums not only facilitate learning, but also help build camaraderie.

Students also ask technical and administrative questions using the bulletin board system. Our policy is to respond to each question within 24 hours during the week and within 48 hours on the weekend and during holidays. We have been able to pretty well maintain this standard, and student feedback acknowledges our success in this area.

One of the best technology practices we have recently adopted is the liquid screen. With technology automatically adjusts the text in the viewing area to conform to the available space. Without this technology the viewer has to expand the viewing area to accommodate the text or has to move the scrollbar laterally to read across the page. Having to do this line after line as you read soon becomes an irritant and inhibits learning. By using this technology students can easily scroll down the page as he reads.

Next time you are reading materials online pay particular attention to the screen display. If you have to both scroll across and down take note of how irritating it is and imagine how you would feel if you were trying to learn something.

Today's Air Force is experiencing a high operations tempo. A large number of our students are operationally deployed outside the United States, just returning from overseas deployment, or preparing for overseas deployment. This 'reality' is not limited to active duty personnel. It includes our reservists and National Guard members as well. This places a 'professional development' burden on our students because they typically have a four-year window in which to complete their PME educational requirement prior to being considered for promotion to Lieutenant Colonel. In addition, almost all have family responsibilities that required their attention. Members of the two reserve forces (AIR FORCE Reserves and National Guard) also have fulltime civilian jobs, and their employers. Most of their employers are supportive of the deployment schedules and the impact on their business, but you can only go to the well so often before the employer's support becomes less enthusiastic. Thus, we take due diligence when designing our lessons and begin levying requirements on our students.

Our approach is to identify the best balance between PME requirements, expectations of the Air Force, curriculum (including course and lesson) objectives, and the students. Our goal is to build a realistically rigorous graduate level program based on these primary factors. I believe this is an approach more graduate level institutions should adopt as well. In other words what is the best curriculum model for use in an asynchronous environment? Perhaps there are many. I think it is obvious that the fifteen 3-hour session model adapted for distance learning is not necessarily the answer.

This is what we do. We publish two recommended schedules, one for those who have organized student led study groups that meet once a week and complete the program in slightly less than eleven months, and one focusing on the correspondence student with an eighteen month time line. Many of our correspondence students do not want to take 18 months to complete our program, so we have written a program that allows them to enter start and projected ending dates and include time for holidays and vacations too. The program then provides them with a schedule that the student can print to help them complete the program on their schedule. This software program takes into consideration reading, watching the videos, exercises, and other requirements so that demands on the student’s time are relatively constant.

This best practice works quite well for us. It is important for the reader to remember that our DL program is asynchronous. Several years ago we tried several synchronous approaches and none of them worked for us as very few of our students have a time schedule that permits them to complete an entire program in this fashion.

The sixth and last best practice we at ACSC DL use concerns our emphasis on student services. We have assembled a highly motivated staff of competent individuals who truly function as a team. The administrative group addresses all student registrar functions such as enrollment and disenrollment, getting records to promotion boards, responding to student queries, and all administrative issues. Two women in this section typically handle 40-50 telephone calls from our students each day. It is not uncommon, however, for former students to ask for help. Last year, for example, a student who completed the program during the Vietnam War sought their assistance in obtaining a copy of his diploma, a task that they were successful in accomplishing. The technology group not only helps students with technical matters regarding the CDs and the website, but they also help students to problem solve their own computer problems. In addition, they identify and evaluate new and emerging educational technologies (the mobile digital video system, for example), and implement technical enhancements to our program such as online registration and testing.

Prior to my arrival and the establishment of this department the ACSC Commandant was routinely receiving emails and telephone calls from commanders of Air Force units complaining about the ACSC DL program, particularly over reliance on CD-ROM, lack of course books, the workload we expected students to carry, and lack of administrative and technical support. These six 'best practices,' particularly the one focusing on student services, have literally transformed our program from one of ridicule by both students and our sister service equivalents to one that is considered by all to be the model for Intermediate Level Professional Military Education. But there is always room for improvement and that is why there are a number of 'best practices' we have seen that we intend to incorporate into our program or are currently evaluating for adoption.

Several Best Practices We Are Considering

One of our ongoing efforts is to identify and evaluate other people's best practices to determine whether or not a practice is appropriate for our program. If a practice is not, why is this the case? Sometimes a practice that does not suit our needs spawns an idea to help us improve our program. There are also practices for which the timing is not right, that can be incorporated in the future. As a result, we periodically re-evaluate practices we once determined to be unsuitable for our purposes.

The Army War College (AWC) has two best practices we recently considered. We hope to implement one of these when we release the new version of our program in early 2004. The War College's Distance Learning department has color-coded the borders of each course differently using the color schemes of various NFL teams. When a student opens the web site of a particular course, Strategic Leadership for example, the borders of each page follow the color scheme (blue) of the Dallas Cowboys. The borders contain navigation and other important information. The main headings are in bold print and in the other color (white) of the Cowboys colors.

Why did they decide to use the color themes of the various NFL teams? Well, the NFL has invested a lot of money on imaging. Team color combinations is one example of the research NFL teams have conducted. We agree with those at AWC that the NFL has mastered the use of color as a means of communication. We believe that we can leverage what the NFL has done with color to enhance the learning experience of our students.

The Army War College had a second idea we will spend more time evaluating. This practice deals with sound, an audio introduction. When a War College student opens the website to a particular course he not only is stimulated by good use of color, the scheme of an NFL team, but also with a 5 to 10 second musical bite that creates a theme for that particular course. This audio stimulation helps set the tone for the learning session, not only for the student but for his or her family members as well. Children soon learn to 'chill' when they hear that special sound because mom or dad has gone to school or their parent is now studying.

When the student begins the next course, both the color scheme and sound bite are different. It does not take long for an association to begin. The two cues, one visual and the other audio, mentally prepare the student to learn or, as War College folks say, 'prime the pump'. This type of technique, preparing students to learn, is a well established educational practice. Initially the audio might be a detractor, but over time, according to the War College's DL staff, the students come to expect it and they enjoy the associations the color schemes and sound bites bring.

A word of caution. When our Dean suggested implementing these two best practices everything was going well. After offering up the suggestion he decided to give an example of each. First he suggested a color scheme of green and silver, the colors of the Philadelphia Eagles. Our Director of Operations, an Eagle fan, was enthusiastic. Then our Director of Curriculum asked for an audio example. He paused and then suggested the William Tell Overture. Everything went down hill from there. The Curriculum Director started to laugh and said all she could visualize was the Lone Ranger and Silver galloping down and then up a hill. We are rethinking the audio part. There is a moral to this: consider associations you might awaken as well as those you want to create. You do not want your students to visualize Little Joe, Hoss, and Adam riding across the tundra of the Ponderosa either – so the theme to Bonanza is probably not a good choice.

A third best practice is threaded or guided discussions. These are good, not only because they require student participation, but because it stimulates students to discuss concepts being learned. Thus, they apply them and integrate them into their vocabulary and thought processes. Many distance learning programs use discussion and dialog quite effectively. These are learning tools we would like to integrate into our program provided we can manage them well. If we cannot do it right and at the same time improve the learning experience of our students, we will not implement the practice. With a staff of twenty, and over 11,000 students, we cannot figure out how to make it work well. We have considered using AIR FORCE Reserve and Guard Personnel who have completed the program, but there are a number of issues that would have to be resolved. The current operations tempo does not lend itself to a solution, at this time. Why, then, include it in this section? Perhaps a reader might have a suggestion we have not considered.

It almost goes without saying that focused 'hands-on' activities, exercises, and simulations improve learning. The literature on this is ubiquitous. We have already incorporated several activities and a simulation into several courses in our program. Our students are required to complete a simulation before they can receive credit for our program. The simulation requires that they develop an air campaign and fight an enemy. They must generate Air Tasking Orders (ATO), select the most appropriate munitions for use against targets, and wage a successful air campaign. They have a limited number of weapons systems, targets can be regenerated, and their resources are finite. It is very realistic. Forget to task tankers or do not provide them with air cover and you can lose aircraft because they can not refuel, or your tankers can be shot down. After each round the student receives feedback on how effective their operation was. They are also told what they did well and what their mistakes were. Anecdotal feedback from our students has been very positive.

This is a good exercise. It is effective. We built it and maintain it without outside support.

We are evaluating how to leverage this technology to create a life-like scenario that the student enters during the first course. As the students move through each course in our program they would be required to complete modules embedded in the program long scenario that requires them to apply the principles learned to that point in this free-flow simulation. As their knowledge builds, so would the complexity of the simulation. It would all culminate in employment of the air portion of the military instrument of power in a world crisis.

There are a number of factors we need to resolve not the least of which is funding. There are a number of major design issues involved. Since the content of our various courses change from year to year, the design has to be flexible enough to make significant changes quickly with our existing staff. To accomplish the intended educational objectives, it must be robust enough to cognitively engage our students. Finally it has to be realistic.

This is significant to tie all of our courses together with a common thread. For some reason, we in education and training often do not do this well. Students take a course, and the next, until they complete a program. We leave it to them to pick up on the connectivity.

In this section I have identified four best practices we are evaluating for adoption for our DL program. There are others I could have added, but I wanted to depict a strategy that incorporates short, mid-term, and long range best practice objectives. We believe that a program cannot remain stagnant. It can only be improved and our approach is identify existing best practices, evaluate them, modify them if necessary, and implement those that will work well in our situation. We also seek to leverage our existing best practices in a particular course to improve the entire program.


Military officers of all four services have professional military education requirements at defined points in throughout their military career. At the Captain level, the focus is on the tactical level of war. As Majors, it is the Operational level, and when they are senior Lieutenant Colonels or junior Colonels, the focus is on strategic matters. All three levels of Air Force officers are taught at Maxwell AFB in Alabama. Ideally every officer would complete their PME requirement in a resident program, but this is not possible, ergo they complete a non-resident or distance learning program.

Over the past five years in particular the Air Command and Staff College DL program has developed a number of 'best practices.' In this paper six are shared – balanced use of media, video lectures, use of a mobile digital studio, a user friendly bulletin board system, liquid screen technology, and emphasis on student services. Each of these has resulted in significant improvements to our program. We are always looking to improve our program. We have a plan that calls for identifying, evaluating, adapting and leveraging best practices already in use. Four are discussed here, but there are others that could have been included

Unfortunately, not all best practices are transportable from one learning environment to another. I have identified several contextual factors that we have to consider when evaluating the best practices of others. How do those factors inhibit adoption of someone else's best practices for your program? This reality needs to be addressed early before too much time and effort is expended.

Finally, this article was designed to share our experience about several best practices that work well in our program and those we are considering for the future.

About the Author

Dr. Donald A. MacCuish is Associate Dean of Distance Learning at the Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell AFB, AL 36112-6426. He has extensive experience in design, development and implementation of interactive training and education programs, and has published many articles on training, curriculum development, and educational and psychological assessment.

Dr MacCuish can be contacted at ACSC/DLV Phone: 334-953-4936, Fax: 334-953-4003, email:  

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