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21 May 2007

Re-creating the academy (in Second Life and beyond)

We have long been fans of distance learning for intelligence education and training. The highly mobile and highly dispersed nature of the workforce – the segment often most in need of accessible instruction in the theoretical and historical aspects of the art and science – essentially dictate that some sort of technology mediated approach be developed.

Regrettably, we have been less than satisfied by many distance learning options to date. Most lack the essential richness of interactions with fellow practitioners that occur in the sidebars of conference seminar and classroom format environments. In many cases this is not for lack of trying on the part of the host, but rather due to the essential reservation of most in our profession to revealing any sort of details about themselves, their interests, and consequently their thoughts on the substantive and methodological matters under discussion. Also quite unfortunately, in more than a few cases productive virtual conversation simply does not occur in online learning environments due to the over-reaching egos of some instructors, whose pontificating styles or dictatorial assertions effectively kill student interaction (and learning potential). While this may also occur in the real world classroom, the negative effects are amplified in the virtual.

Despite these drawbacks, the distance learning format is a necessity, and like the nearly samizdat quality of much of the intelligence literature of value, the materials are copied again and again to be passed from hand to hand among acolytes and their mentors alike.

Thus it is with great interest we have observed the attempts of a number of institutions to develop new online learning tools using virtual environments. The most famous of these is of course the persistent world of Second Life, and the intrepid virtual sociologists and anthropologists of Terra Nova have a posted a fascinating interview with one of the educators in the front line of this new form of education, from no less august an institution than Harvard University.

We find the substance of the comments most illuminating, but more-so we are intrigued by the levels of support from what one might have predicted could have been a very conservative and hidebound organization. Rather, we are finding it is the smaller universities – the ones with the most to lose should international level strong “brands” of education become more accessible through technology – that are driving much of the resistance to exploration of new learning environments. These smaller schools, with small programs that they have hoped to create as a flagship differentiator in the education marketplace, simply cannot compete on a name recognition level – and usually cannot begin to compete in quality of instruction (or educators). Instead, many schools rely on retired has-beens who have not been involved in the substantive practice of intelligence for years if not decades, and a support staff of adjuncts and TA’s that may never have been fully a part of the community in any but the most junior capacities. Unfortunately, many of these programs do not even realize the difference between what their staff are teaching, and what is normative within the profession – and most lack any meaningful mechanisms for feedback and reflective evaluation.

This however explains the astonishing vitriol these smaller programs (and their deeply threatened staffers) have displayed towards the online environment. Competition is a terrible thing for those who have come to rely on their sinecure – and even though the rapid expansion of the marketplace has meant intelligence education is far from a zero sum game, the widely held perceptions that programs need to be driven by “asses in seats” in order to be successful die very hard indeed.

Even when established players in the intelligence studies academy rush to build their virtual equivalents, they usually offer little more than a fig leaf of rigor. Many have not considered the longer term implications of the widespread adoption of their newly offered certification on the brand of their “core” resident programs – but we are finding all too often that even those brands are being rapidly devalued by poorly selected instructors, poorly designed curriculum, and lack of effective course design and delivery. These issues are among our strongest disappointments in most of the intelligence studies academy as they now stand – for they have essentially betrayed their own promise and potential at a time when the intelligence community needs them most. And these are not a matter of whether the schools offer a virtual distance learning program or not, but whether they are capable of delivering quality intelligence education at the professional level.

We strongly hope that the emergence of alternative tools and environments can spur the development of alternatives for instruction and learning, and can help drive the intelligence studies field in new directions. Otherwise, we fear deeply for the health of the profession and the longer term viability of the intelligence academy.

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