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On the Front Line of New Technologies: Behind the Scenes With the British ARMY, Radio 1 Newsbeat & 20 iPads

This post first appeared on the LINE website on September 2nd 2010.

Nick Barker, Project Manager, at LINE gives his personal slant on the launch of an innovative iPad learning programme for the Royal Artillery.

I’d just delivered 20 iPads to the Royal School of Artillery at Larkhill Camp in Wiltshire. On each of these was an app which LINE had jointly developed with Major Rich Gill of the Army’s Training Development Branch.

I felt a double helping of anticipation that morning. First there was the fact that a group of soldiers were about to use our iPad version of their Fire Control Orders training for the first time as part of user trials – What would they think? Would they be engaged with it? Would they really love it? Or would they want to stick it up against a wall and fire a salvo from a 105mm Light Gun through its beautiful 9.7 inch touch screen?

Secondly, later that week the BBC reporter from Radio 1’s Newsbeat programme was turning up to do a piece on the Army using iPads for training. No pressure then.

Sitting at the back of the classroom while the WO2 gave instruction to the soldiers about what the week would entail; why they were here; what was expected of them etc, it dawned on me that all but one of these lads and lasses had just returned from a tour of Afghanistan. Real soldiers, who had faced real bullets and who, through their training, had returned fire with artillery. Getting this training right mattered.

Previously the majority of training on Fire Control Orders was delivered from the front of class only. A ‘near-death by power point slides experience’ was a phrase that had been bandied around. The one or two times where the soldiers actually got to interact and take on one of the roles, was when the trainer picked a number of scenario cards from a pack and 2 or 3 soldiers would role-play these parts, going through a set fire mission in front of the others in the class. But this only engaged 2, 3 or 4 at most, while the rest had to sit and look on.

What we did with the iPad version was to take all the terminology which the soldiers had to learn and turn it into a range of immersive learning exercises that not only was far more interesting to the average soldier than staring at a power point presentation, but also introduced some friendly competitiveness by scoring and timing the soldiers’ responses. A printable high score table reveals which soldier is currently ‘top of the league’ and thereby encourages others to knock him or her off by scoring better…and the way to score better? Practice, practice, practice.

Soon enough the WO2 had finished his briefing and the soldiers were turning on their iPads and getting stuck into the app. Together with some instruction from the front of the class (this was always a blended learning solution), everything seemed to be going ok…at least I couldn’t hear a load of tutting and despondent sighs…the soldiers seemed to be engrossed.

A couple of days later I was back to see how they’d been getting on. And the BBC Radio 1 Newsbeat crew were there as well.

While they were interviewing Major Gill, one of the soldiers who had been using the iPad that week came up to me and just started saying how he’d been really sceptical prior to the trial. That he thought it was going to be just another gimmick; he’d seen this sort of thing fail before.

Then he launched into a 3 minute monologue extolling the virtues of what he had seen and experienced with the iPad app we’d come up with. He loved it. They all loved it. They all could see that this was going to transform their training. That ultimately they would be able to learn more, retain more, and do more in less time than before.

He also went on to explain that previously when soldiers came on a level 3 course they were given 13 A4 folders of paperwork (called ‘Pamphlets’!) – reading and reference material, that sort of thing.

We had put all that material on the iPad, as well as installing a free app called iBooks which enabled it all to be fully searchable.

For this soldier that was almost better than the app itself! It meant he and his comrades wouldn’t have to lug a day sack around with them just to carry the paperwork.

Also when the Newsbeat piece went out the following day it was really positive – another confirmation that we were heading in the right direction…

A few days later doing a search in Google for “Army iPad” revealed that the story had gone far and wide, across the globe. It really has generated a lot of interest. So far it’s been reported in around 15 countries from Thailand and Vietnam through to India, Canada and Brazil.

Still ringing in my ears though from the week’s trial are the words of Sergeant Major Nathan Stevenson who revealed to me that he felt certain that this new approach to the training would really transform things. It would mean that the number of soldiers needing to retake their Level exams would be drastically reduced. Thus, that soldiers could be trained faster to the level required and so be deployed quicker. Not only would this represent enormous financial savings for the Army, but it might just contribute in some small way, to fewer lives being lost.

That’s something I feel immensely proud to have been involved with.

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