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AFIT research project evolves into innovative training

  • Published
  • By Stacey Geiger
  • 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

To have an agile Air Force, Airmen readiness is paramount and a new revolutionary education hub that can deliver the most current, relevant and interactive training just might be the way of the future for the warfighter.   

“Created as a research project at the Air Force Institute of Technology, the genesis of the educational hub was born in 2017 at the Air Force CyberWorx located at the United States Air Force Academy when the task was assigned to come up with innovative ideas on how we can better educate our Airmen,” said Matthew Dever, Air Force Cyberspace Technical Center of Excellence, Assistant to the Director.

Retired Lt. Col. Mark Reith, who was the Center for Cyber Research director at the time and now an Assistant Professor of Cyber Systems, took that opportunity as a research project for his graduate students at AFIT.

Assembling a cadre of research engineers and pairing them with students, the research team started from mock-ups designs, user story and three-by-five feature cards. 

“Lt. Landon Tomcho and Capt. Seth ‘Data’ Martin, both graduate students at the time, were key leaders shaping the look, feel and functionality of the Cyber Education Hub,” said Reith. “They worked closely with our program manager, Rob Roseman, our senior developer, Rick Kroll, and our graphics expert, Stacy Burns, to fashion something that our newest generation of Airmen would find exciting and engaging.”

Dever said to his knowledge, the education hub is the first application in the Air Force that is natively built onto the cloud whereas others are moved to the cloud.

“In this case, we used Amazon Web Services to build the hub onto the government cloud,” said Dever. “And because the cloud is approved by the Department of Defense and is used for the Air Force, the information is safe and secure. We are serving as a pathfinder. Air Force and DOD say we need to move to the cloud but no one seems to know what kind of effort it’s going to take, what is the cost and what services can we legitimately use.”

“My students then fleshed out a research project to determine what would be the best way to improve user motivation and engagement,” said Reith. “In collaboration with Air Force Cyber College, we looked at existing cyber education content and found it too steep of a learning curve.”

Having a layout similar to Netflix or YouTube, Reith and Dever said the familiarity of the two makes it easier for a user to navigate and use the hub. The hub offers videos on a vast array of topics to view. And instead of making the hub organization specific, the hub is developed to be topic specific.

“In this case, because we are cyber, we created the prototype to cover cyber related information,” said Reith. “Cyber crosses across all the different organizations and career fields; everyone needs to know about cyber. And the more you think about it, acquisitions and leadership are that way too, so why are we not doing more to share across those stovepipes?”

“Unlike the Advanced Distribution Learning Service where the training is curated and information requires vetting before it can go on the site, the hub can provide up-to-date job specific information,” said Reith. “It creates a more flexible and agile workforce.”

Another benefit to the hub is that Airmen are empowered to contribute. Reith said Airmen have the ability to comment on videos and create their own topic specific videos.

“The hub gives Airmen a huge sense of discovery and autonomy,” said Reith. “They are really powerful motivators to learning and when you feel like you are in control, you actually learn!”

The hub also provides topic maps and a knowledge, skills, and ability (KSA) tree that helps Airmen navigate through the hub and find their required training. For example, if an Airman is new to cyber and not sure what to look for, the topic map will give a visual representation of the major topics, and there is a path between topics. Airmen can then work toward topics that makes sense to them and what they want to learn and builds them a portfolio.

The KSA tree is also customizable where supervisors can determine what their Airmen need and are able to go into hub and create a training plan.

Videos are short in length to keep a viewer’s attention and are typically 4 to 12 minutes in length. For one topic, Dever said there may be 30 different videos to get the same information and are just presented in a different way. 

“As long as you complete the task, you can choose and pick whichever video resonates with you the best, said Reith. “We all have different learning styles so why enforce a cookie cutter mentality?”

After the hub prototype was created and tested in select organizations, Dever said the hub was so well received that most of those organizations have since asked for one to be built for their respective organizations.

Dever said although they were surprised by the requests, it was also the evolution of the hub.

Currently, this team is now working to revise the architecture to promote representation of multiple topics on this technology. It would allow users to share and view not just cyber content, but that of acquisitions, leadership, recruiting, or any number of other topics. “We hope that if Airmen do not like the content, they will build new content,” said Reith. “Especially with our junior Airmen who are very engaged and motivated, the hub will allow them to show off their skills. We want you to participate, and that is the beauty of it; build something that you want to watch!”