AF computer user (Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Chuck Walker)

Is the AF’s Digital University the future of IT training?

As the Air Force’s Digital University (DU) program gets closer to launching – either in late December or early January 2021 – it’s adding vendor partners to help train service members in core technology areas such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, cybersecurity and software development.

Anyone in the service with an af.mil email account -- government civilians, active-duty military or military reservists -- and any level of tech-savvy can access DU’s 7,000-plus classes. Since the end of June, almost 5,000 people – from novices to experts -- have completed about 10,000 hours of training.

Currently in beta testing, DU partnered with three private-sector digital training providers to create customized learning paths to help service members develop new tech skills. Udemy handles initial to intermediate levels, Pluralsight takes the middle range and Udacity covers the top group. That means service members working in Air Force technology labs such as AFWERX, Kessel Run and LevelUP Cyber Works can also benefit from the trainings.

“We knew there were different demographics that we had to tackle,” said Master Sgt. James “Guideaux” Crocker, CTO at the Business and Enterprise Systems Product Innovation, DU’s parent organization. “We knew we had some people that were like, ‘Hey, what is tech? How do I spell agile?’… all the way to people that were doing their Ph.D. in AI and ML that needed something a little bit more advanced.”

He likens the progression students can take to a subway map. From a starting point, they can see all the stops they need to hit along the pathway to their goal. Most classes are available on demand, but some are live, depending on the vendor and content. Either way, users can access them from any device.

Still, DU is structured so that it’s not dependent on any one vendor. “All of the training is broken up into small Lego-like chunks that you can actually stack and customize for anybody in the military so that we’re not locked into a vendor and it’s not locked into any specific course,” Crocker added. “It’s all based on the curriculum, so you can take one and interchange for the other. The assessment is what really validates that.”

Currently, each vendor has its own assessment engine. For instance, Pluralsight’s Role IQ lets users measure their proficiency and knowledge for relevant skills within their roles, discover skills gaps and receive recommendations for learning opportunities.

Udacity awards a nanodegree that Silicon Valley companies recognize. Since the end of June, seven people have graduated with those degrees, which usually take four to six months to complete.

DU is working to build an independent assessment engine, too. “We want an assessment engine where we can essentially feed in what the pathway looks like, and it will spit out what the assessment is going to be built like,” Crocker said.

Additionally, all the training is designed for jobs that have labs so students have access to what they need to learn. DU is working to set up 5,000 lab engagements from a cloud provider, however, so anyone can request a test cloud environment.

To determine the most needed content, DU worked with Air Force solution centers -- agile software development organizations -- such as Kessel Run, Kobayashi Maru and Platform One. Eleven pathways emerged as the most popular: cybersecurity engineer, data engineer and architect, data scientist, DevSecOps engineer, Kubernetes engineer, ML engineer, network architect or engineer, platform engineer, product designer, product manager or owner and user interface/user experience (UX) designer.

“These are things that don’t exist in the military,” Crocker said. “There’s no specific training so there’s a huge thirst for those.”

A major DU user is the Space Force. Established in December 2019, it is focused on digital literacy for all members, including those who don’t typically focus on technology. But by attending DU, those users can learn Microsoft Excel or robotic process automation skills that they can use to build efficiencies into their jobs, Crocker said.

DU onboarded about 6,000 Space Force members in a special section where the university is building out its curriculum using force multipliers, small chunks of cyber or digital training so they can understand the digital pieces they need in their day-to-day work. Additionally, DU handles digital training for Space Force members going through basic military training.

“You’re sharpening your combat skills as well as your digital skills,” Crocker said.

The DU effort began in 2019 at BESPIN, a modernization effort for the Air Force’s business systems and a center for mobile application development. Crocker and his team noticed that as service members came from base to BESPIN, many knew only old programming languages such as COBOL and Fortran. He studied how private organizations such as Apple, Google and Facebook handle digital training and decided to apply those techniques to the Air Force.

Although moving out of beta is the main goal, Crocker has an idea on other capabilities. In addition to test environments and an independent assessment, he said DU is looking to build out gamification and digital badging standards that could be published to LinkedIn.

“It’s weird. People are actually salivating for training,” he said. “If you can make people happy to work -- it’s an odd feeling because people don’t want to do more work -- but it’s actually impacting them in a positive way.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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