MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. – Special operations culture takes pride in being agile and adaptable to any challenging situation. The same is true for educating Special Operations Forces. Responding to the dynamic and limiting situation of COVID-19, U.S. Special Operations Command's (USSOCOM) Joint Special Operations University (JSOU) quickly converted several in-residence and hybrid courses to online classes.
The Joint Special Operations Forces Senior Enlisted Academy, JSOU's Summit course, the Joint SOF Pre-Command Course and the Theater Special Operations Command (TSOC) Team Experience were modified to include interactive online instruction, also known as distance learning, as travel restrictions prevented students from attending live and residency courses.
"JSOU instructors and staff quickly adapted these courses in a matter of weeks," said Col. Scott Guilbeault, vice president, JSOU. "Because of them and in spite of COVID-19, JSOU is still able to fulfill its mission."
In response, online enrollment in these and other distance learning courses has significantly increased.
"From the beginning of the teleworking period, JSOU has seen an increase in enrollment in three distance learning courses of almost 200 percent," said Lt. Col. Eric D'India, director, JSOU education department. "During that time more than 2000 students completed one or more distance learning courses.
"That's already 40 percent of the total number of students who completed distance learning courses in all of fiscal year 2019," added D'India.
Joint Special Operations Forces Senior Enlisted Academy (JSOFSEA)
Class 38B of the JSOFSEA, which began April 15, was the first course to be held in the new virtual format. JSOU faculty designed this course with scalable online and in-residence periods to provide an opportunity for in-person instruction while taking into account the changing COVID-19 situation.
"When the stop movement order was extended to 30 Jun, we adjusted and continued to build the course out online," said Sgt. Maj. Richard Horton, JSOFSEA course director, JSOU Enlisted Academy.
The course concludes June 12, but JSOU is already applying the lessons learned to the next JSOFSEA classes.
"While the format for our distance learning has not changed, new techniques learned during [the first virtual JSOFSEA class] have benefited our distance learning students," said Horton. "For example, some briefings have used a voice over function within presentations, which we are incorporating into some assignments."
According to the JSOU course catalog, the Summit course educates SOF students for nominative-level leadership roles. Students learn mission-oriented leadership and strategic thinking skills to prepare them to effectively advise, lead, and mentor at the strategic leader level. Students also analyze and evaluate the impact strategic thinking, U.S. national policy, and global security has on USSOCOM.
"From notification of decision to [the] execute resident phase online, the Summit instructors had 10 days to prepare and adjust lesson content for a live online format. The goal was to have as much face to face interaction as possible while using asynchronous online tools to prepare for each daily session," said Mike Lundstrom, Summit Course director. "Transitioning from regular distance learning to a modified resident phase was no easy task. What the Summit instructors were able to accomplish with only 10 days of preparation is truly remarkable."
The IT department's ability to obtain and implement our videoconferencing platform was a critical factor to Summit's success.
"We absolutely could not have done this without their help," added Lundstrom.
Virtual Joint SOF Pre-Command Course
JSOU hosted the first virtual Joint SOF Pre-Command Course during the last week of April. This iteration educated 22 incoming SOF commanders and command senior enlisted leaders as they prepared to assume command. These students were stationed around the world in places such as the United Kingdom and The Republic of Korea. JSOU successfully facilitated instruction, networking and discussions with senior SOF leaders including the USSOCOM leadership team.
"Given that some service pre-command courses were been suspended due to COVID-19, this may be the only formal pre-command education these leaders will receive prior to assuming command," said Rick Boyer, director, JSOU center for leadership and ethics.
TSOC Command Team Course
With only a four-week notice, JSOU transformed the Theater Special Operations Command Team Course from a residency course into a fully virtual classroom. The course educates and orients new TSOC officer and enlisted command leadership teams to the priorities and challenges they will be facing in their new assignments.
"Using a combination of virtual classroom technologies, software and applications, course instructors were able to successfully connect with and educate command teams from Special Operations Commands-North, South, and Central to students in 11 time zones including Colorado and Afghanistan," said Boyer.
Face-to-Face Remains the Gold Standard
"The ability to have a residency portion has been the gold standard," said Horton. "I will say the proof of concept to conduct this virtually was a success, but in many situations face-to-face interaction between students and the instructors will continue to be the best educational environment."