Saturday, January 2, 2016

NPS Distance Education After Action

I spent about 4 years working on my masters.  During that time, I worked at two different duty stations, added a child to my family, promoted to O-4, and probably aged just slightly more than the average person my age.  My degree required a lot of effort on top of work and family commitments, and I'd be lying if I said that I didn't occasionally invent new swear words to describe my feelings of desperation at times.

I had a lot of positives experiences though:

- I'm way smarter about electrical engineering, a good thing for someone in my field.  NPS' MSEE degree is top notch, so when I do eventually end up leaving the Navy, I'll feel like I have something to show for it.

- I made an impact with very little money.  I spent 10K dollars of the government's money on TDY travel, plus somewhere on the order of 100K to conduct the experiment, which is super cheap compared to most experiments.  Heck, it's significantly less than the cost of an F-35 helmet!  In return the government got a ton of data that we can analyze and reanalyze in the future, and we positively showed real geolocation enhancement, much more than anyone expected. 

Meanwhile, in other parts of the Navy...
- I networked with people I would have never met short of being detailed to work with them, which significantly increased my professional development.

- I had people that understood the Navy lifestyle.  I had to submit more than a few things late because I was flying on an airplane, on TDY travel, had an internet outage, etc.  NPS faculty always gave me more time.  They never questioned whether I was telling them the truth, and they were always fair.

- NPS wanted you to succeed.  Dr. Fargues worked magic to fix any paperwork problems I had.  Dr. Loomis derived equations late on a Tuesday night so I could submit my thesis on-time.  Sue Hawthorne patiently guided me through the checks that needed to be made before my thesis was good to go.  I never felt like NPS purposely erected roadblocks, and while they are bureaucratic, their people bent over backwards to guide me through the process.

What probably half of the NPS staff must feel like
In all, this degree was a success all around.  But then that begs the first question: why does the Navy consider NPS an "easy" tour?  The Navy mandates that NPS slots are filled at 90-95%, so at least Big Navy places value on it.  But NPS doesn't issue competitive FITREPs, so it is essentially "time off" for officers.  If someone had done what I did in a year, it wouldn't have been easy.  We talk about operational tours having impact.  What I did has impact, but had a student at NPS done it, they would have received the same non-observed FITREP as someone who spent their time on the golf course.  My thesis is not a fluke either.  I've come across plenty of good writing by many other Naval Officers who made real contributions with their research.

The Navy is smart to demand investment in a masters degree, but we need to take it one step further and grade people according to their output, because you only get results from what you measure, and non-observed FITREPs are not measurements.  A good thesis and research that has impact needs to be rewarded by the Navy.  That is why we have NPS in the first place.  While civilian institutions can ignore the Navy, NPS faculty pay heed to the challenges facing our Navy today and in the future.  NPS is also one of the few places you can conduct classified research and write a classified paper.  We shell out a lot of money every year to maintain a SCIF there.  On top of facilities, we have a top notch faculty here as well.  Yet if someone comes in and is allowed to slack off, we do nothing to punish that person person wasting government resources, and on the other side, we do nothing to incentivize hard work.  That setup only promotes mediocrity, and it needs to change soon.

I do have a lot of complaints on the thesis writing part of NPS, a bureaucratic process that I feel needs some overhaul.  First, changes to the thesis templates are made way too frequently and for silly reasons.  You can't use Microsoft equation editor, even though MathType isn't any sort of big step up in the world.  For all the programming, the templates lack some basic things like reference inserting, which means you do reference notations by hand, and if you reorder your references, you have to manually go through your whole paper making changes!  The templates should be more robust and simple to use so that more time is spent on the content than on the format.

Secondly, for any poor soul writing a JWICS thesis, there is a massive lack of online content to help walk you through the process.  There should be a website that is your one-stop shopping for classified theses.  I built a website for our IDWO program without using any actual programming skills, so I don't understand how a college with a computer science program can't do the same.  This would help promote more people writing classified theses that are directly focused on our Navy's needs.

Also, why on earth does NPS require you to put your abstract in the paper, then send a separate document with just the abstract on JWICS, as well as a paper on NIPR that says "Abstract classified."?  Really?  Can't we generate that automatically from one of the thousand other forms I had to fill out?

Lastly, how do we not have an automatic checker for simple errors?  When I took C++ in college, I submitted my code to an online system that tested it and then spit back a report saying what tests I had passed and failed.  I could submit as often as I wanted, without any work done by the faculty or graduate student instructors.  Why do we not have this for a Microsoft Word document?  It won't catch everything, but it would certainly streamline the process.

Why isn't NPS using distance education to reach into Navy commands and find opportunities for research?  When I sat down with Dr. Loomis and described many of Pacific Fleet's operational issues (as I saw them from the N2/N39 side), his brain started dreaming up all sorts of experiments and possibilities of papers that would impact our theater.  NPS is a force enabler if we use it correctly, and distance students can give NPS a glimpse behind the curtain into what the Navy needs.

My last complaint is funding.  If NPS is to have a truly good distance program, we should find ways to ensure there is some funding for travel and experiments.  My experiment was cheap but had a big impact.  If you provide the same level of funding to others, we could get a very good return on our investment.

If I went back in time, I'd still do the degree.  The benefits outweigh the negatives.  I think with some tinkering NPS can be the leader in superior distance education, and I think the Navy should place the right value on this capacity.