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Wild Blue Yonder on the Air - Ep. 15 - Dr. Mehmed Ali on new DODI on military education

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  • By Dr. Mehmed Ali

Opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the Air University, the United States Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any other US government agency.

Dr. Margaret Sankey: Welcome to Wild Blue Yonder on the air, Air University's podcast and blog. The long-awaited Department of Defense Instruction, the DODI, is out on military education. Today we're talking with Dr. Mehmed Ali, the Director of Air University's Academic Services, which oversees the whole spectrum of Department of Air Force support services for military education here at Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base. They support all of these learners through the library, the Teaching and Learning Center, AUiX, the innovation wing, all of our research task forces, including VR/AR, and Dr. Ali has served with six federal agencies, including tours as a Marine, back in the 1980s and early '90s, and as a diplomat in Iraq and Afghanistan while also working at several civilian institutions of higher ed over the years. So he has a big perspective on the new approaches in the document. One of the first things I noticed is an emphasis on the shared experience and renaming PME, so Professional Military Education into ME or just Military Education. How is this a different approach and why is that important? 

Dr. Mehmed Ali: Margaret, thanks for having me on the podcast, first of all, and I think I've decided to call this presentation, what's in it for “ME”? What's in it for ME: The continuing shift in the DOD's military education thinking. So yes, there's a new instruction out DODI 1322.35, was published in late April, and it comes out of the office of Secretary for Personnel and Readiness office. And I don't consider myself an expert in interpreting instructions, but I feel it's important for me to present some thoughts about this as the duty affects so many individuals across the national security spectrum. So first, a little bit of background. Why is there a new DODI? 

Well, there's been some running criticism that military education has not been as effective as it once was or it has been. And I don't know if you've seen, there was a very pointed sentence in the 2018 National Defense Strategy which famously stated that military education, "Has stagnated, focused more on the accomplishment of mandatory credit at the expense of lethality and ingenuity." In 2020, the Government Accounting Office conducted a study on PME, again, requested by Congress, leveled several critiques in that report, including the fact that certain services weren't sending the required mix of officers to other branch institutions, and that OSD was limited in a way in its ability to even assess PME's effectiveness.

So, those kind of editorials are hard to ignore. And as I looked over the DODI, first a few overarching ideas, first is the renaming with new terms like ME, Military Education, MEIs, Military Education Institutions and others. I think the intention of this renaming, and my read is to better incorporate and integrate the entire learning process, the entire learning continuum. These new ME standards would synthesize so many different strands out there. There's a focus on intellectual leadership and strategic and critical thinking, there's a call in the document for ensuring a diverse group of professionals with different perspectives and expertise are involved.

There's a directive to ensure the priorities of the SecDef and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are embedded into the ME curriculum. And there's a number of others. Probably the biggest shift that's present in the DoDI is that it fully embraces outcomes-based learning, that was sort of teed up in the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Instruction from the Spring of 2020, May, I believe. And it's referenced here in its own section as OB ME, Outcomes Based Military Education. And so what does that mean? Well, traditional learning was primarily input-driven. Objectives based, they used an objectives-based approach, and some have critiqued these methods as being solely driven by the statutory requirements.

The new document has three major directives to alter that in a way. One is the development of outcomes which need to address three items, three items listed in the instruction. Outcomes focused on the cognitive, what do the students know? Outcomes based on the effective, what do students value? And psychomotor, what are the students actually able to do? So once these outcomes are developed, they need to be invested into the curriculum. And in turn, one of the Deputy Assistant Secretary Offices, I think it's force education and training, they'll work with the Joint Staff to actually review the curricula of the military education institutions periodically. With this, the assessment plains need to be created and the DoDI is very specific that assessments must be authentic, that's the quote in there, "Authentic," meaning that student performance is at a level that would be expected out in the operational realm.

So there's a lot to unpack here. There's several new reporting requirements in the DoDI. Providing evidence of the development and efficacy of the program outcomes to include showing evidence of compliance and improvement, which is a big thing. There'll be annual compliance reports. I think those are... And I'm not sure they've come up with the format for that yet. There's effectiveness reports due every other year, there's biannual program reviews, there's significant data collection. So this is not platitudes, right? 

There’s a lot of work to be done with this instruction. It's interesting to note that this DoDI was just published less than a month ago, and just last week, I saw Congress... Actually, the House Armed Services, one of the sub-committees held hearing about the continuing issues with military education. So I was reading a story the other day, and I think it was in the Air Force Magazine, and some of the testimony talked about tracking the utilization of graduates. One of the reps, I think it was a congressman from Wisconsin, even asked whether the military is sending their best and brightest to these schools. So there's a lot still to be looked at, there's a lot that needs to be discussed. There's a lot more analysis and dialog, and I'll say that I'm hopeful the military education community doesn't view these questions as a condemnation of their work. I mean there's a huge amount of innovative teaching and a top-notch research coming off of both faculty and students' desks all throughout the different MEIs. But undoubtedly more would be welcomed.

Sankey: Along with that shared experience are our sister service and inter-agency colleagues. Why is Joint, with a capital J, critical to any military success in the future? And how does having all of those people together at military education achieve that goal? 

Ali: Yeah. I mean, joint-ness is essential, right? The Vietnam conflict, even World War Two has so many instances where the inter-service rivalry led to severe problems in basic operations. And it really took over 10 years after Vietnam for the government to significantly address that in the Goldwater-Nichols Act of '86. I've been looking at that instead of trying to connect it with the new DoDI, it calls attention to education as a key facet of joint-ness. And it mandates today, that in order for officers to be eligible for certain specific assignments or promotion categories, they must graduate a joint education program.

So I haven't read that much about Goldwater's views, where he was driving at, the leaning towards further synchronization of command, that's embedded in the act, or why he thought joint education was important. But he was an Army Air Forces pilot during the Second World War, and he's written about the rivalries, inter-service rivalries and how they negatively impacted him and the war effort. Goldwater was very much a maverick as we know. I mean, he's sort of the boogeyman of so many of the progressives with his threats of use of nuclear weapons, etcetera. And yet he's a Republican and supported abortion, medical marijuana use, the rights of gays to serve openly in the military and so on.

One of my favorite quotes from Goldwater is, "You don't have to be straight to fight and die for your country, you just have to shoot straight." [chuckle] So I think he had a very blunt and common-sense outlook on how things should be, and realized from his experiences in the war right up to the acts passage in 1986, that serving in joint... Serving in a joint capacity was indispensable. 

He doesn't write enough about his thoughts, but my impressions are, it's the basics, breaking down the barriers between individuals. Yeah, the different services have different purposes, but everyone in the armed forces knows how to communicate with each other as professionals and as human beings. Yet, there's often a contrasting set of organizational values and language and mission sets which occasionally make that communication difficult. And this is where joint acculturation comes in. And the DoDI specifically mentions joint acculturation. In its basic sense, it's to help people realize that whatever differences the services have are relatively minor, and the need to synchronize efforts is imperative in the new contested security landscape we face in 2022.

Understanding the different roles and identities that, say, the space force has vis-a-vis the Marines or the Army, or how the military works with our foreign service Corp, with the department of homeland security, or our international allies. It's a complicated and complex business, so why not... Let's try and figure out much of that while we're in a learning environment, ahead of the operation, ahead of the crisis. This is what education is all about, the ability to take a pause and travel that longer road of deep thinking which would provide better decision-making when it's game day. That's my thoughts on that.

Sankey: Well, another crucial element of this cooperation and mutual understanding are many international students. How is their presence in military education a two-way street for their learning and our students learning? 

Ali: Yeah, absolutely key. And the DoDI references international students in one of the ME standards. So obviously, while the US has a lot of resources to share in the education realm, our international partners always bring a lot to the table as well. Often they have a different vantage point, which we're blind to, not because we're the ugly Americans, but because we have cultural layers that distinguish us from others as they do, from us. And like joint acculturation between the sister services, we need to learn about our international guests that come to school here. It's sort of a must if we're going to have mutual understanding, cooperation, and it's a definite must if we are to conduct more integrated military exercises and operations. With the growing security threats around the globe, we should all be shouting "allies" more than ever. The war in Ukraine has certainly shown what can be achieved in solidarity. It's certainly brought a new spotlight on NATO, but even that, there's so much more work to be done. I don't know if you've heard, but they're going to double the size of the international officers coming to Maxwell over the next few years, and that's really heartening to hear.

There are lots of opportunities for us to increase our understanding of some of the big players around the world. Asia, for example, we need to do more closer work with India, with Indonesia. How can we help bring South Korea and Japan closer together? With this pivoted to Asia, let's not lose sight of the importance of Latin America or Africa, or even the Arctic, where a lot of international activity is occurring. I always say literally, the world awaits.

Sankey: And that's certainly been the case. It enhanced my regional studies class tremendously that we had officers from India and the Philippines on tap to tell us about things that we were reading and discussing. So firsthand intelligence is always better than filtered through me, I can tell you. 

In the DoDI, I really liked the phrase, "Knowledge, and habits of mind required for operational success." What are some of those habits of mind that can best be practiced in that academic pause environment? 

Ali: Well, I believe rigor in the classroom is essential, but self-rigor, especially after class is over, is perhaps even more important. Without trying to sound like a sales pitch, we encourage students to explore further learning all the time with all the offerings and academic services. The library is open on Saturdays during most of the academic year, we have the Teaching and Learning Center’s Writing Lab to help the students become better communicators. How about the free publications at the Air University bookstore? We have loads of resources online with the different teams.

When you invest in your own success by taking advantage of this time that you're in military education, you're investing in the nation's defense. And the US might not have the largest standing force in the world, but we definitely have the smartest. But that edge, however, it can't be taken for granted, and this is why I believe the leaders have analyzed ME and have issued the new DoDI in order to keep refining it. If you get into the practice of continual learning also, you'll carry that mindset with you to your next assignment. And that's key as well. So aside of applying yourself to take on those extra learning opportunities, I would say another habit of mind is the exact opposite of flying full thrust.

That's sort of how to ensure you're balancing the dedicated studying time with some downtime. I always think of the brilliance of elementary education, remember when they used to let us out for recess in the third grade? Well, the teachers knew what they were doing. A healthy break allows your mind to absorb a little bit more of what you're putting in there, so practicing mindfulness, going for a run, having an adult beverage with your fellow students at the end of the day, spending some time with the fam, getting that stress out, those are necessary balances for the learning and working environment. And being in school allows for some time to consciously think about what's right for you, to plan a program which opens up time to calibrate what works for you. Again, something the student can take with them when they graduate.

Sankey: Among those new things in the DoDI that probably raise the anxiety of people planning curriculum, is that outcome-based learning. You've been on some major military education assessment committees, how and why is it important to be doing constant program improvement in these systems, and how will this new structure allow for some better assessment and vectoring? 

Ali: Yeah, I've had the opportunity to participate in a few PAJE site visits, the Process for Accreditation of Joint Education, which is out of the J7. And I visited one of the programs at NDU, their College of Information and Cyberspace. We assisted in that review that launched their, I believe it's called the National Security and Cyberspace Studies Program, to be fully accredited, fully certified. And that was the end of a four-year process for them, and it was an intense, and I mean that in a positive way, moment of completion for them. So I was happy to assist them with that in their achievement. Right before COVID hit, I had also reviewed another program at the Army's Command and General Staff College, again, another great experience. So I know institutions are always better coming out of that certification process, and that is the new-ish DOD term, certification, not accreditation. And Joint Military education programs are usually certified for up to a six-year period, and I believe that's a reasonable time to ensure that you have the ability to adjust fire and while also working at your continual process improvement. So lots of tracking going on there.

And yes, PAJE visits create loads of paperwork always, and not just because the DoDI or the Chairman mandates, but for great purpose. In my view, it's necessary to take a pause, do some in-depth self-reflection with your friendly peers in the room. Leaders often get busy in the day-to-day work business, and it's important to keep the operation going, but in that mix the strategic review is sometimes put on the shelf. So certifications, these best practices that can be shared, these are key to keep an organization from becoming stagnant. When I go to these PAJE visits and what the new DoDI is looking for, it's also, it's shareable, right? So when I've gone out to sites, I take away best practices, I take away new ideas, not only reviewing specific staff college, but contributing and getting back. So each time I go on, I learn so much both from the organizations and from the J7 team that leads the effort as well. I said earlier, there's a running critique here, right, so that military education needs to keep current and needs to keep moving, and that's the purpose of this DoDI, so...

Sankey: One of the things in the DoDI that is really traditional and to the roots really of all military education going back to the 19th century is wargaming. This is one of the most traditional of all military education pedagogies, sand tables, forced decision kind of meetings, up to the really swanky, fancy virtual reality versions. How does the DoDI reinforce the utility of wargaming and practice for the 21st century? 

Ali: Yes, right up at the front of the DoDI in the first page or page two or three, it calls for the development of what they call a canon professional knowledge, and that includes wargaming. The DoDI also specifically lists wargaming as one of the nine military education standards that go along with the primary policy provisions in the document. So it's profiled there, and essentially it's a go-do. That said, there's a number of centers all across the DOD that do wargaming as a profession, the Lemay Center here at Air University being one. The Center for Applied Strategic Learning at NDU is another one.

So at certain levels, wargaming is very formal and specific, but how do you get the larger ideas on gamification to be accepted as another pedagogical tool in say, XYZ course at AU? Not an easy do. But actually, academic services is taking on some initiatives to help faculty address this. AUiX, for example, is working closely with the Acre Center on something called DAWG Developing Airmen with games, which will help the Airmen learn about Airman Leadership qualities and competencies. The library just created a website with all sorts of gaming resources. The TLC offers an instructor development module on utilizing games in the classrooms, so there's some work here that we're doing. It's still early and lots more of work to do to attract faculty and students to this, but it's needed. And I want to be clear, we're not attempting to get in the way of the professional wargaming business, but just adding opportunities to learn about it.

Sankey: The language of the DoDI repeatedly talks about warfighters, and they define that really as everybody doing military education, so all of our inter-agency partners, civilians, the faculty even. How are we all warfighters now? 

Ali: Well, whether you term everyone warfighters, we definitely need to emphasize the whole government approach. Just like I expressed earlier about the need for acculturation between the service branches or how we need to acculturate between... With and between our international allies. We also need to acculturate with our civilian agencies throughout the government. I mentioned the Department of State earlier, but other key players, Treasury, Justice Department and Homeland Security, there's a host of others. On the world stage, we need to be one voice and one united effort. I think it's... I think that's as straightforward as that.

Sankey: The DoDI also mentions acquiring and keeping a top-notch faculty in military education and making sure that they have academic freedom. Why is that very civilian higher ed concept vital for students cultivation of critical thinking and preparation for that real world operation? 

Ali: Yeah, another key component of instruction. There's been a load of work here at Air University towards valuing faculty. Dr. Bryan Selmeski who used to work for us was one of the spearheads of that initiative. Currently, there’ve been some changes the last couple of years, one of them includes having the Commander meet regularly with the Faculty Senate to see what their needs are. Your office, Dr. Sankey's done great work at showcasing faculty research on a monthly basis to all the commanders and other senior leaders at the stand-up. The library along with academic affairs, they're in the midst of launching the new faculty profiles platform Esploro, which will allow research and organize research, reports for accreditation, it'll help market the university, and it'll provide better networking capabilities between a faculty and external partners. So these are some of the initiatives that will let the organization level improve our faculty recruitment and retention in a big way, in my opinion. But in regards to academic freedom, that's essential to any university setting, as is non-attribution. And while we're accustomed to it, I realize that with some foreign students I teach, they're not used to it. Sometimes they even oppose it.

But it's essential that they have conversations on issues that are sometimes inconvenient or controversial or uncomfortable and the classroom is the best level playing field to do that. Why do I say that? Well, because it creates a mechanism which teaches the... How should I phrase it? Honest dialogue, critical thinking between the faculty and the students and between the students themselves, and that can be used as a tool going forward. So for a long time, the best commanders out in the operational world are not the ones that are looking for the adulators [laughter] who agree with everything they state. The best commanders are looking for those members who inject new perspectives into the mix, maybe the ones that oppose and offer an opposing opinion or a bit of an alter-ego perhaps. Now this all has to be done in a respectful manner, and in the end, the commanders are the ones that make the final decision, but we should be offering then a panorama of information to help them make that decision.

Classroom environment, it's one of the best places to test all this out, to create a platform for respectful disagreements, touch on subjects that might be considered sensitive. Share multiple viewpoints. Academic freedom and non-attribution are two primary tools for that. It's more than okay to offer criticism and challenge assumptions, as long as those types of conversations are ones that translate into improvement for the organization. So, again, key to our learning environment is to have top-notch faculty. Key is also to have the ability for the students to be honest in their feedback to the faculty and contributing to the dialogue in the classroom.

Sankey: There's a lot of talk in the DoDI about innovative learning technology. Academic Services has been a huge proponent of the augmented, virtual reality, 3D printing, asynchronous delivery of content, but how can we assure that this is being used in a rigorous and academically productive pedagogy, not just, ooh, it's shiny and it's new and it's fun? 

Ali: Yeah. Again, in that canon of professional knowledge I mentioned in the front of the DoDI, immersive learning is specifically listed out. Its time has come. Some say maybe it's overdue. And yet, we're not there yet. There's been so many cognitive science studies that illustrate how knowledge retention is greatly increased through the use of digital, different digital platforms. So how do we take that information and get it into the hands of the professors so they can act on it? We have no compelling authority to change the schoolhouse's curriculum. I often say we rely on soft power and marketing to sell the ideas, and that does take time though. But to that point, we're in the process right now of realigning a billet in Academic Services to hopefully accelerate that process. We're going to hire an immersive learning agent, if you will, who can get around the academic circle and beyond, and be an expert advisor for the faculty member to help potentially rework the syllabi to include these technologies in the classroom. And I've always said we're not trying to promote the use of AR/VR headsets 100% of the time during any particular course; really, just one session during a course can do wonders to expose the students on what the tech can do.

And once they have that exposure, they can bring that back to their career fields after they've left the military education institution, right? And they can use some of those same platforms for trainings, for operation, sharing info, etcetera. A couple of years ago, 2018, the Library and the Teaching and Learning Center, we established the Innovation Lab, right? We have a host of equipment to gain familiarity on this immersive learning. We have a couple of 3D printers courtesy of the Air Force Agency for Modeling and Simulation. We have a pilot training Next simulator. We've got a helicopter SIM. We got all sorts of AR/VR headsets, gaming computers, and so on. We have decent foot traffic in there, but always looking for more. And we've had teams come in and they've done great things using the tech in the Innovation Lab. We had a group come in and conduct a virtual hazardous materials handling training, again, in some of the Oculus headsets. We had the Chaplains College come in and work with the team to create a 360-degree video to train students on how to conduct a dignified transfer of remains. There's just endless opportunities. Technology is necessary, and I believe that this is something that younger students, especially younger students, are looking for, even expecting it some measure in the classroom. The DoDI calls for it, so we're here to help.

Sankey: That leads me right into my next question. Certainly, this is more in the familiar realm of our younger, early-career folks, but to what degree do senior leaders need to understand these new technologies in order to include them in military education and in operations? Especially thinking about things like developing multi-capable Airmen. How can they keep current when they're not the ones using it, or in this curriculum? 

Ali: Yeah, obviously, unless they take it on as a sort of weekend hobby, most senior enlisted leaders or higher rank and field grade or general officers, they don't have the time to become expert practitioners in AR or VR. But I think it's imperative for them to be exposed to it and understand the basic concepts on it. Primary role, in many ways, is to allow the new technologies to be experimented with, to allow that third space, which is what innovation is all about. One of our teams, AUiX, the Air University Innovation Accelerator, they're always at the forefront of assisting the different school houses to embrace EdTech, educational technology, and they do a host of senior leader briefings on this. Many ways, the purpose is to educate them, educate the senior leaders and get them on board as advocates, of, say, immersive learning or whatever the specific element is. But in the end, like I said earlier, the ground game is really with the faculty members. We have to show them how different ways of learning can improve learning and retention, how we can get them to add a new exciting layer to the curriculum that, again, I think is warranted and again, almost expected by incoming students.

Sankey: These are great times to be at Air University with a vantage point on how all of this is being incorporated into all of our programs at every stage of a Department of the Air Force person's career. Do you have any concluding thoughts about the new DoDI? 

Ali: Well, as always, I'd like to encourage anyone in the military education institutions to do that extra reading, as I described before, take on that little extra bit of time to devote to studying. That's the purpose of your service branch sending you to whichever staff college you're at, and have that time allowed to do the deep thinking that doesn't always come when you're out in the field or deployed or whatever. I always like to plug our great faculty here at Air university, and there's a couple of books that might illuminate students on how to be a better officer, enlisted member, especially when they're thinking about issues of joint service integration or building connectivity with our allies. First, I mentioned, I believe I mentioned in regards to joint-ness, there's a couple of people around here that do wonderful work. Jeff Reilly at the Air Command and Staff College, he wrote a book called Operational Design, which is published by Air University Press. That's a great readable work that covers so much of the joint operational processes. Another one of our colleagues, the soon-to-be-retired commandant of the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, SAASS, Colonel Jeff Donnithorne, he'll be rotating out here in... I think it's next month. He authored an excellent deep dive on how a more integrated whole government approach is needed for the future. And the name of that book is Four Guardians, by Johns Hopkins Press.

Goes into great detail on the Mil-Civ relationships, and how they work or not. And it does a great job at analyzing a host of key issues regarding joint service interplay. It's really an exceptional read for anyone going off to a joint assignment, so encourage folks to take a look at that one. Who else is... Andrea Harrington, our ACSC faculty member, she's the Dean of Space Education for Air University, she's written a bunch of terrific articles about international security issues in space that people should definitely check out. There's also our esteemed Chief Academic Officer, Dr. Mark Conversino, he wrote a great book called Fighting With the Soviets: The Failure of Operation Frantic. This is about the US Army Air Force's presence in Ukraine, working with the Soviets during World War II. Another great read, so keep reading. There's so little time and so much to know, but again, if you're at this institution of higher learning, that's what we're here for. That's why they set up the Air Corps Tactical School in 1920, and they moved it here to Maxwell in the early '30s. That's why we need to continue to learn in 2022, so more to be done. And this DoDI will help, so I encourage folks to sort of read it, analyze it, come up with your own conclusions, but we'll be having to enact this business, and I think we'll have a better education institution because of it.

Sankey: Well, we've been talking on Wild Blue Yonder today with Dr. Mehmed Ali of Air University's Academic Services. Thank you for being here today, and we will watch and see how the DoDI unfolds.

Ali: Thanks for having me on the podcast, again, Margaret. I appreciate that.

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