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Monday, January 17, 2005

Leadership in Difficult Times: Informal and Formal Online Courses

Formal and informal internet-based courses and information sharing are helping military and civilian personnel deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, and now the tsunami-affected countries to save lives as well as improve operational efficiency and develop human resources.

On the formal side, graduate-level online courses such as one entitled "Leadership in Difficult Times," and on the informal side, troop-developed websites and weblogs. These were recently described in Dan Baum's recent article in
The New Yorker ( and in articles and weblogs listed in Blogs of War ( and other military blogs.

The Formal Course: Leadership in Difficult Times.

In terms of formal online courses and education, one particular example perfectly illustrates the intensely high demand for useful information and training that meets urgent current and future needs encountered by military personnel and dependents. This example is an online leadership course offered by The University of Oklahoma's Human Relations Department, entitled "
Leadership in Difficult Times." The course can be viewed at

Developed in response to needs assessments and surveys of active-duty military and their dependents, it broke new ground in terms of core content and orientation. While other courses developed after 2001 incorporated the issues involved in the various conflicts, they did so with the mental stance that the issues were new, and the wars would be over soon. By the summer of 2004, it became urgent to address leadership and human relations within a context of conflict with no foreseeable end in sight. As a result, the emphasis changed and individuals wanted a way to deal with what they were experiencing first-hand. Instead of short-term solutions, they were looking at long-term deployments, and seeking solutions to new longer-term problems.

Active-Duty Military, Civilians, and Military Families.

Three major focal points were identified by the military personnel who were taking the courses. Individuals surveyed included officers, senior non-commissioned officers, drawn from the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, as well as civilians working for the Department of Defense, and dependents. A large proportion of the individuals surveyed were in Special Forces or Special Operations, while another large contingent were involved in medical support.

The individuals responded online, sometimes while on base in the U.S., but more often, while at their permanent duty station, deployed or on temporary duty, in Asia, Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.

War Stress, Conflict Resolution, Team-Building.

The three focal points identified as areas of urgent interest were
1) war stress (including post-traumatic stress syndrome);
2) conflict resolution (particularly in times of dramatic change, gender issues, ethnicity issues, culture clash, and environmental pressure;
3) team-building when times of shortage (resources, time, personnel).

Course Structure.

The course structure included:
a) Lecture, learning objectives, topics for discussion
b) Journal articles and web resources - for reading, analysis, and review
c) Guiding questions to facilitate reflective thought and making connections
d) Discussion questions guided by a facilitator, but with flexibility to allow students to pose their own questions
e) Methods to encourage collaborations (problem-solving, planning, strategies)
f) Instructor feedback and personal guidance with respect to papers and journals

Dynamic Discussion Boards. In the discussion boards, it became very clear that this method of problem-solving and sharing lessons learned was helping to fill a huge gap. Individuals from different units, different branches of the military, but all dealing with similar challenges were able to ask each other questions, to offer suggestions, share experiences, and to recount lessons learned.

In addition to being a place to share stories about how active duty military and their family members prepared themselves for deployment, and how they endured the long separations, very valuable information-sharing trends started to emerge:

a) Individuals sharing "success strategies" for communication while deployed;
b) Recommending additional resources and websites to help address specific issues (post-traumatic stress, places to purchase necessary items, etc.)
c) Field experiences - what you discover while there that no one warned you about.

One could feel the relief of individuals who had been quietly battling in isolation. The course - while grounded in theory and concepts of leadership and human relations - quickly became a place where theory merged with practice.

As a result, "situated learning" was taken to a new level, and it was exciting to see some of the discussion as they emerged. A few follow.

Team-Building After Mortar Attack. One particularly moving discussion thread dealt with how one NCO looked at the morale and esprit-de-corps of his troops after a mortar attack killed 5 individuals and injured 28, in a company of 80 troops. He described the difficulties of team-building and confidence-building after that experience, and described the steps taken to restore morale, build teams with people experiencing shock from the attack, and how to integrate in new troops, while compensating for the lack of key team members and their skill sets.

Cultural Awareness for Young Enlisted. One senior NCO, deployed two times to Iraq, described how he taught cultural awareness for young enlisted in charge of checkpoints, and who had to interact with Iraqi families as well as potential booby-trapped cars. One of his dilemmas was how to help keep young NCOs from over-reacting, and to maintain a balance between caution and hyperviligance.

Convincing Central Services to Approve Necessary Equipment. Several individuals described their multi-pronged approach - human relations, strategic planning, analysis - in identifying / pinpointing key equipment shortages and projected needs, and then building a case to convince central services to approve them. These were success stories shared by many, and several class members suggested that the knowledge gained from the discussion board could save lives.

War Stress. The war is impacting many families of deployed military, but not always in the ways that one might expect. For example, many individuals discussed the impact of long deployments on children, and described strategies and intervention approaches. They also described some of the experiences - children with nightmares, separation panics, depression, even self-mutilation. It was encouraging to see the way the classmates participated with enthusiasm in order to share what they could - articles, insights, experiences.

Gender Issues in Combat. Women pilots - including a gunship pilot - described their experiences in combat - implications with the team, trust-building, and impact on working with foreign nationals and their military. Many of the experiences shared help eliminate misconceptions and opened lines of communication on a topic many were not able to discussion in face-to-face settings. It also brought together people with similar experiences but who were separated by time and distance.

Dealing with the Loss of a Brother in Combat. One of the most heart-rending, yet heart-warming threads was that of an individual who had lost her brother-in-law in Baghdad. Both she and her husband (it was his brother) were taking the course. Both brothers were in the Army, and it was amazing to see how compassionate and supportive the discussion group was, and the way that they made connections between the articles (psychology and medical articles on post-traumatic stress, grief, loss, and neuroscience) and the problem at hand.

Although this was a formal course, with a starting and ending date, with the pressure of performing for a grade, the energy and enthusiasm transcended the typical formal online education experience.

Dan Baum's article in the January 17, 2005 issue of
The New Yorker, describes the way that weblogs, websites, and e-mail have been used in an informal way to help support and provide strategies for waging what has become a very unique war. Entitled "Battle Lessons," Baum recounts the evolution of the approaches, the reasons for it, and the lessons shared and learned. It is very encouraging.

In addition, many lessons learned, first-hand experiences have been shared and further disseminated via weblogs. A good example of this is
Blogs of War, which provides highlights of news likely to be of interest to military and affiliates. It also serves as a resource for other weblogs and repositories of information by linking to dozens of sites.

The new needs are resulting in a "sea change" in the way that online education is envisioned and deployed, particularly in the area of situating learning so that learning takes place, objectives are achieved, and scaffolding is prepared for new levels of learning. At the same time, it rehumanizes the learning space and makes us realize the interconnectedness of individuals who can overcome isolation and distance to potentially save lives.

This article was first published in

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