How the CIA is 'ramping up' its training

by Nick van Dam


CIA University Campus

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is an independent U.S. Government organization responsible for providing national security intelligence to the President of the United States and other senior policy makers. The challenging mission of the CIA is to act as the first line of defence in national security matters through the collection and analysis of information about national adversaries. The Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (D/CIA) is appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate. The Director manages the operations, personnel, and budget of the Central Intelligence Agency.

The CIA has had to change culture and focus to deal with global issues of increased complexity.
The CIA is organised into four basic components: the National Clandestine Service, the Directorate of Intelligence, the Directorate of Science & Technology, and the Directorate of Support. These four components work together to carry out “the intelligence cycle,” the process of collecting, analysing, and disseminating intelligence information to top U.S. government officials.

 

The CIA employs a select group of highly intelligent people with a variety of job experiences. Prior to working for the CIA, many officers have already established themselves in other private and public sectors. Once inside the CIA, CIA University is the organisation responsible for providing opportunities to help these individuals learn how to apply their skills to carry out the intelligence cycle.

 

While the CIA is known for the unknown, no one could have predicted the shift from the “obvious” state targets of the past to the “not-so-obvious” terrorist targets that have become the U.S.’ adversary. Gone are the days of the Cold War and the clear threat from foreign governments alone. Now, the target is often much harder to identify. In light of recent world events, the CIA has had to change culture and focus to deal with global issues of increased complexity. The shift in policy and adversarial targets required the Agency to increase the number and qualification of officers serving around the world. This in turn required CIA University to find ways to educate officers faster and more effectively then ever before.

 

How was the Initiative Aligned with the Business?

 

A collaborative online learning platform was designed to help experienced officers worldwide stay current without pulling them away from their missions as well as allow newly recruited officers quickly to learn the complexities of intelligence collection through interaction with experienced mentors.
In ramping up to meet the learning needs caused by the new realities of intelligence collection, CIA University identified two central challenges. Fist, taking an officer off mission for extended amounts of time to attend classroom training was no longer practical given the critical role that all officers play in keeping the nation safe. And second, the complexity and dynamic nature of the mission means that training programmes must also be able to quickly adjust to keep up with the realities of a changing world. These challenges indicated that traditional classroom teaching alone was not sufficient to meet the CIA’s learning needs. In addition, traditional self-paced online modules (known as computer-based trainings [CBTs] or web-based trainings) were too limiting for the complexity of the topics. Even if traditional online learning modules were used, the time required to develop them would create an unacceptable lag, as much of the information would be obsolete by the time the course was completed (Culatta, R. & Jackson, G. (2007). Agile Learning Network: A Mission Imperative. Galileo Award Finalist Papers. Washington: Director of National Intelligence. http://www.innovativelearning.com/people/Galileo-Paper-Final.pdf). Clearly a new approach for learning was needed.

The seal of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency inlaid in the floor of the main lobby of the Original Headquarters Building.

 

In 2006 an initiative was launched to develop a collaborative online learning platform. The initiative was designed to help experienced officers worldwide stay current without pulling them away from their missions as well as allow newly recruited officers quickly to learn the complexities of intelligence collection through interaction with experienced mentors. The collaborative online learning platform pulled together a combination of Web 2.0 tools (some existing at the CIA and some new) including wikis, blogs, discussion forums, live chat rooms, virtual whiteboards, student polling, streaming media libraries, and social networking tools. Collaborative online learning addressed the challenges by allowing learners to seek relevant and timely expertise from subject matter experts and participate in a more interactive community-based experience. Using this collaborative online learning approach allowed instructors to update the course content without knowing any advanced programing (such as complex actionscript) which is needed to build Flash-based CBT.

 

With this initiative, the CIA led the U.S. intelligence community in moving away from traditional online learning approaches to a collaborative approach that marries all types of learning methods and tools to address the challenge of training large numbers of new officers without pulling subject matter experts offline.

 

How was the Initiative designed?

 

The CIA University moved from a traditional learning platform to a collaborative online learning platform.
With support from the Director of the CIA and the Chief Learning Officer, CIA University began planning to move from a traditional learning platform, where the majority of online took place in self-paced CBTs and classrooms, to a collaborative online learning platform, where a variety of technologies were used to connect learners and experts to each other. The planning led to the identification of three interactions that would need to be supported; learners interacting with content, learners interacting with experts, and learners interacting with other learners (Moore, M. & Kearsley, G. (1996). Distance Education: A Systems View. Wadsworth Publishing). CIA University then identified the functionality needed to support these interactions, and identified appropriate tools to enable them.

 

Regular “teach and learn” sessions provide instructors with a forum to show each other how they are using the collaborative platform to enhance learning.
The collaborative learning platform was then implemented leveraging existing tools as well as new open source and commercial products. The platform was built to deliver both self-paced online learning components and collaborative interactions to extend the learning experience. It was implemented with ease of use in mind. Single sign-on capabilities allow learners and instructors to move seamlessly between activities conducted across the tools. For example, during a single course, learners may be required to contribute to a wiki, participate in a video-enabled chat, and review related RSS feeds.

 

How was the Initiative Deployed?

 

The design was simple: combine self-directed online learning with collaborative components where the learners are part of a shared learning experience. The initiative started slowly with a few courses being converted to the more collaborative design. Additional learning experiences continue to be developed using a perpetual beta approach, meaning that the tools and design are continually evolving as the learning needs change.

 

At the heart of the deployment was the CIA’s instructional design team, which played a significant role in the development of each collaborative online course. The instructional designers (IDs) acted as ambassadors for the initiative. Instructional designers were equipped with knowledge of the capabilities of the collaborative tools and worked with their stakeholders to identify the best way to teach the topic and also foster a collaborative experience. These experienced Ids partnered with subject matter experts to bring the accessibility of online learning to traditional classroom courses and to add the interactivity and social connectivity of classroom courses to existing online learning.

 

Adoption of this new approach is slow, by design, and instructors play a significant role in user acceptance and capabilities identification. Regular “teach and learn” sessions provide instructors with a forum to show each other how they are using the collaborative platform to enhance learning. The modular nature of the platform allows capabilities to be added or removed and individual tools to be updated or enhanced without impacting the other parts of the platform.

 

What was the Business Impact of the Initiative?

 

While the initiative is still new, there are already signs of success. The delay in being able to attend courses that have moved online has decreased as the new courses can handle increased throughput. There are reduced travel costs and time off mission for the courses taught online. Perhaps most importantly, some of the courses that leverage the collaborative platform have enabled continuous learning to take place even after the course is over. Unlike traditional online or classroom-based courses, learners are able to continue conversations with each other well into the future. In one particular course, students who had participated before the collaborative platform was integrated requested access to the new version of the course because they wanted to participate in the increased social interactions that their new colleagues were experiencing. Another course required learners to participate in a wiki-style learning activity to complete assignments and contribute to the topic. After the formal part of the course is over and the learners have gone back to their missions, they often continue contributing since the tool is still accessible to them. This keeps learners in contact with instructors who monitor wikis and discussion posts for accuracy. Learners can choose to be notified via email whenever one of their classmates makes an update to the wiki or discussion forum.

 

Lessons Learned


  • Do not attempt to force blended learning adoption
  • Assist stakeholders in translating old ways, such as work flows and learning habits, to a new Web 2.0 approach to make the transition easier and increase the likelihood that wit will continue to grow.
  • Identify stakeholders who will have a passion for the blended learning approach and use them to implement the strategy.
  • Do not confuse social learning with informal learning.
  • Don’t force something to be collaborative. When something is over designed or cumbersome, no one will use it.
  • Analyse the functionality you need. Do not tailor your need to the functionality.

 

 


This article appears in 'Next Learning Unwrapped' by Nick van Dam, published by the eLearning for Kids Foundation, which will receive all royalties from the sale of the book.

 

 

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