The Navy’s eSailor program will ultimately provide continuous training and life-long career education in mobile devices. MS&T’s Chuck Weirauch explains.

What the US Navy hopes will be the platform for its mobile training in the future was launched this April when recruits in 2 divisions of 70 recruits each at the Recruit Training Command (RTC) at Great Lakes, IL were issued a Windows-based tablet computer as a part of a pre-pilot study for the service's new eSailor program. The mobile devices, packed with RTC training videos, digital textbooks, an electronic version of the sailors' Bluejacket Manual and other non-classified RTC training materials, took the place of traditional hardcopy versions handed out at the start of recruit training. The pre-pilot consists of a six-month study that aims to obtain qualitative data about how the devices integrate into the RTC. When a division graduates, the tablets will be collected and redistributed to collect three cycles of data, about 450 recruits in total.

With its ultimate goal of putting a mobile training device in the hands of all of its sailors for continuous training and life-long career education, the e-Sailor program was spawned from the vision of Navy Master Chief Petty Officer Mike Stevens to provide such tablets as a “professional career companion” with which sailors can learn on, communicate through and better manage their careers. Stevens pitched the eSailor initiative to the Naval Service Training Command (NSTC), which oversees the RTC, in 2014. The two commands are now working together to help fulfill Stevens' dream and the goal of the Navy's mobile training future, along with other branches of the service.

"Our mission is to provide top-quality sailors to our fleet," NSTC Commander Rear Admiral Stephen Evans told MS&T. "By equipping recruits and their instructors with mobile training technology, an education platform from which our young men and women can easily absorb and retain information, we can accomplish that mission and meet the needs of our 21st century Navy."

According to Captain Wes Naylor, Commander of the Navy's Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division (NAWCTSD), the eSailor initiative is a subset of the service's overall mobile training strategy and enabler of the Sailor 2025 initiative. His command is helping NSTC develop the curriculum and organizational structure of the content residing onboard the eSailor tablet. Naylor also pointed out that the Navy's Mobility Integrated Product Team (IPT) considers the eSailor program as one of its five major areas of focus. The IPT focuses on providing greater connectivity to those sailors that rely on online Navy-related training classes, and this June conducted at-sea shipboard Wi-Fi connectivity tests with mobile devices.

"This is what the future of mobile is and training for the Navy," Naylor said. "We certainly see it as a key enabler for how we are going to do training as a part of the Sailor 2025 initiative, which is designed to take us out of the industrial model of sailor learning that we have been at for 50-plus years. For every recruit in training, whom we turn into a sailor, we have the responsibility and the obligation to get them up to a certain level of physical readiness, a certain level of knowledge and a certain technological level. We need to provide them with that enabling technology so that they can come up to that equal level. With mobile training, we are really going to be able to keep our sailors up with the level of technology they need to compete in today's environment and perform at the highest levels."

Early Development

The e-Sailor initiative is conducting its pre-pilot phase during the remainder of fiscal year 2015, with detailed analyses of feedback from RTC recruits. Subsequent phases of the eSailor program are designed to work through the basic logistics of how to implement an expanded version of the initiative, or as Naylor described it, "'finding the right business model for the program."

"What we really want to do is understand whether we can use mobile technology to effectively reach our students," said John Drake, Director of Strategy and Analysis for the NSTC. "The majority of our students are millennials. As you may be aware, NSTC is responsible for 89 percent of all personnel entering the Navy, and the vast majority of these students are millennials. We have found through our research that millennials prefer to learn and consume information via mobile technology, This initiative allows us to understand if we can leverage mobile technology effectively to reach those students, to engage them and to improve their performance, and to ultimately achieve the Master Chief Petty Officer's goals of improving quality of service -- which he defines as quality of work, plus the quality of life, aligned with the learning and consumption habits of the millennial."

Along with assessing qualitative feedback from the students concerning the tablet curriculum, content, and what applications would be useful, the pre-pilot phase will provide the opportunity to study such issues as tablet durability and eSailor program infrastructure requirements, Drake elaborated. Once these issues have been resolved, the program will look at opportunities to enhance and change the curriculum, adding some simulation -based games as well as tying in some testing and other student performance applications.

"Going forward, we are looking to move from a level one activity into level two or three, which are more interactive, where you can ask questions, get immediate feedback on your performance, overall making our content overall more interactive, and that will take time," Drake said. "But it will be in place for our pilot phase. During the pilot phase, once the system has been customized and aligned with interactive technology, to a greater degree we will look to see what the impact is on student performance."

Enhancing content  

As a part of the effort to develop an enhanced curriculum and aid in the means of its delivery, Drake noted NSTC has enlisted the aid of NAWCTSD in three areas: the development of a Navy Curriculum Dashboard that will be used to structure navigation of the content residing on the eSailor tablet and present it in a more immersive fashion; an application style guide so that as new apps are developed, they will have the same look and feel; and a Ship Visit, a 3-D model of various ship platforms that sailors can tour virtually.

NAWCTSD is eager to assist NSTC with the eSailor program, since the training organization had previously realized that mobile technology is where the Navy needs to go and has already been working in this direction, said Navy Cdr. Robert Salvia. He is the NAWCTSD Military Deputy Director for Cross Warfare Programs,

"We were just waiting for the right opportunity for where mobile should start," Salvia emphasized. "We are excited for the Navy, because this is a new great opportunity for the Navy to provide training -- and that's what we do at NAWCTSD."

While NAWCTSD will be building pieces of the eSailor program, they won't be working in a vacuum. Rather, the training organization will be working with curriculum subject-matter experts at the service's schoolhouses. That's because developers are taking the long look at the eSailor program, since plans for it are to play a considerable role in the Navy's efforts to provide the mobile piece of a continuous learning environment for its sailors.

"What we want to do is build a framework that is able to cross from recruit to the levels of Navy schools to the Fleet and back, where all of these apps can live in a continuous learning environment,' Salvia explained. "The eSailor content will have a consistent approach so that sailors don't have to relearn it. We also want to include some data collection apps so that we can get the metrics as to how effective the training is, and so that we can follow through as the sailor goes through the schools, and then start to leverage those trends as to what we need to teach and how effective is it -- or add more content. So as the new sailors go to the Fleet we are tracking those trends. We are working with NSTC to improve their courses and hang them on this Dashboard framework so that the data is going to go with the sailor wherever he or she goes."

Industry Opportunities

While no RFIs or SBIRs have yet been issued for industry and academia by the Navy for support in developing curricula for the eSailor program, Salvia expects that there will be such calls for input in fiscal year 2016.

"Right now we are putting the eSailor team together and working with NSTC as to what courses they want to do," Slavia reported. "We want to partner with academia and industry to leverage technology that already exists in the learning environment for the eSailor program. We also want to engage those in the industry that are building the best apps. All we want to do is provide guidelines so that the apps are easily navigable, and we want to bring the 3-D virtual ship tour developed for desktops and move that into the mobile environment so that people can access it on a tablet. This technology will allow particularly recruits to feel comfortable with the environment that they are going to be working in. It's a great opportunity for mobile in that they can navigate on their own to learn that environment."

Endless potential?

At the 2015 Training & Simulation Industry Symposium (TSIS), Naylor described the eSailor initiative as one of the Navy's major areas of focus, and the effort has the support of other service training organizations and commands as well. But while the Navy has developed and provided considerable online training and educational content that can be accessed via secured networks for the expansion of eSailor curricula, Naylor does not see the logic of keeping all that mobile content under such a lock and key.

"Our classrooms and curricula are packed, so it comes down to how do you expand the classroom -- how do you put more time for learning into a sailor's day", Naylor said. " One way to do that is mobile. If you can expand that classroom beyond that brick-and mortar-schoolhouse, and a student who wants to learn can learn at home on the device of their choosing in the environment that they want to on their time, then you have added three or four hours of learning onto their day without impacting the core curriculum."

"The challenge to us is how much content can we hang outside of the traditional environment that doesn't require a CAT card and a computer to get to," Naylor emphasized. I think that this is a lot more than we think. There is no reason why we can't hang something like how to make your rack on an outside server in the public domain --- or P-8 engine maintenance training, for example. You have to move to a risk-based approach to this and put the stuff that is not classified and not even for official use-only out there. What's the business case for putting that material on a private network and reducing the access to it? I think that I would argue that it is not a good business case."