From the beginning of our movement, it’s been clear that training is the key to success. Baden-Powell had a way with training, in that he believed that it was important to educate the soldiers he led in battle so they would learn to be aware of their surroundings. The philosophy carried over to Boy Scouting as he discovered that boys were using his military training manual to concoct their own games. He was known for saying that the most important object in Boy Scout training is to educate, not instruct, and eventually conducted the first Wood Badge course for training Scoutmasters in a practical manner.
Today we continue the training tradition. Council and district training teams work with volumes of material published by the Boy Scouts of America and conduct training courses ranging from a couple hours to a week or more. Much information is there for the learning, and throughout most of Scouting’s history, it was delivered to volunteers in person, in a collaborative environment where instructors and students could interact and reinforce their understanding.
As the movement and technology progress, however, and the realities of daily life start to affect us, the BSA has undertaken the step of putting many of the essential training courses online. This move makes training as easy as sitting down in front of your computer and making your way through an ever-increasing number of courses you can take, and receive credit for, without leaving the comfort of your home.
But is this really a good way to train leaders?
Indeed, online training has its advantages. New adult leaders, particularly in a high-churn program like Cub Scouting, need to receive information as soon as possible in order to start off on the right foot. Delaying training would mean a rocky start to a leader’s tenure and his or her den’s or pack’s program. And while district training teams have generally tried to make training conveniently available, it’s impossible to reach every adult leader with the training needed for them to be comfortable and succeed. It’s probably better to have a leader trained online than a leader not trained at all.
Online training is becoming ubiquitous, not only in Scouting but in business and education. Academia has a term for it – MOOC (pronounced “mook”) – and it’s becoming the buzz at institutions of higher learning. Massive online open courses have sprung up around the country. Close to forty colleges and universities offer a variety of courses that anyone can take, and some courses have over a hundred thousand students enrolled.
Major institutions realize, though, that online learning is not the panacea it’s made out to be, and continue to emphasize the benefits of interpersonal collaborative education in a residential setting. University of Michigan Provost Philip Hanlon addressed the university’s recent honors convocation on the subject of “What You Can’t Get Online” and outlined the many benefits of face-to-face education. The opportunity to interact with fellow students, to make and learn from mistakes, and to work together with instructors help to reinforce lessons being taught. Dr. Hanlon gave as an example of the value of in-person education the university’s theatre department class #371, Physical Theatre. The course description reads: “Exposes the actor to the dynamics of gesture, the physical foundations of character and interaction, the architecture of stage space and creating of original work. Techniques include commedia, chorus, dance, mime, neutralist and clown.” Yes, clown! Through performing as a clown in physical theatre, a student must learn to interact with others in the classroom, observe their reactions, and try to improve his or her performance based on their experiences. Dr. Hanlon related that the course provides many intellectual skills – analysis, creativity, learning how to fail and getting comfortable taking risks in front of others – that are generally applicable to situations that college graduates will encounter. While it’s not the university’s goal to turn out clowns as graduates, the course teaches valuable lessons that simply cannot be learned through online or correspondence learning.
The same element is missing from the BSA’s online courses. When we teach new Cub Scout leaders in their position-specific courses, we package the nuts & bolts with examples of how to get the message across. After a segment on den meeting planning, we’ll have the class stand up and do a round of “I’ve Got That Cub Scout Feeling” complete with all the hand motions and bending over. We sing songs; we put on short skits; we act like eight-year-olds. In doing so, we supplement the factual learning with fun and excitement that’s essential to keeping the boys interested. Just try that with an online course. How would you do it? Slide #37: “Now stand up at your computer and shout your den yell”. It just doesn’t work the same!
Online learning has its place in our training continuum. The advantages of uniformity of presentation and easy, anytime access cannot be understated. However, Scouting is a people business. Leaders work directly with others – Cub Scout leaders with the boys, Boy Scout leaders with the youth leaders, and committee members with each other and the chartered organization. We all need to know who we’re serving and how best to work with them, and it’s not something you can fully realize just by interacting with a keyboard and a mouse.
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