September-October 2020 DEFENSEACQUISITION

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Self-RegulatedLEARNINGThe Contracting Specialist’s Super PowerJoni Dowling, Ph.D.nWilliam A. Schleckser, D.Mgt.EACH YEAR THE DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE (DOD) SPENDS BILLIONS OF DOLlars to develop, produce, and field its weapon systems. If you are reading this article,there is a fair possibility that you play a role in this process and a near certainty thatyour employer hired you based on your unique talents.The recruitment process that places people in their roles centers on fulfilling organizational skills gaps. Organizational skills gaps change over time. Advancements in the present digital age have created the need for new skills in our acquisition process. Speed in acquisition now isindispensable if we are to successfully prosecute the DoD mission tomorrow. The way we work,the personnel we recruit, and how we develop people to fill these new skills gaps are central torapidly fielding relevant weapon systems required by our National Defense Strategy.For decades, strategies for acquisition workforce development have been competency-based.This has aided acquisition community employers by identifying candidates with the skills, training, education, and experience that will support their successful performance of predictabletasks in a specific acquisition position. Changes in organizational requirements and technologicaladvances have compelled a review of the DoD’s desired workforce competencies. In supportingthis idea for a change in competencies, the National Contract Management Association (NCMA)along with Management Concepts interviewed senior leaders within the GS-1102 career fieldand found that there is a risk-averse culture within the contracting community. This risk aversionlingers, and at times festers, as an organizational barrier to our innovation, speed, and agility anda hindrance to accelerating acquisitions.NCMA’s and Management Concepts’ findings are insightful and align with the direction of thisarticle. However, we go beyond the observations of these senior leaders and incorporate perspectives of academic thought and evidence-based research to reveal an essential characteristic,particularly in today’s rapid-paced environment, for a contracting professional to succeed—selfregulation.Successful Contracting Professionals Are Self-RegulatedAs Defense Acquisition University (DAU) faculty members, and lifelong learners, we have foundthat acquisition professionals, especially successful ones, consistently display the super powers ofself-regulated learners. These make up a category of learners who take responsibility and are activeparticipants in their learning, and tend to leave each course with a deeper, reflective understanding.Dowling is a Learning Director for Contracting at Defense Acquisition University (DAU). Schleckser is a Professor ofContract Management at DAU.DEFENSEACQUISITION September-October 2020 3

Self-regulation enables them to deal with complex issuesby thoughtfully reallocating time and resources to areas ofgreatest need in order to achieve desired learning outcomes.“Superman” possesses a number of super powers, suchas flight, superhuman strength, x-ray vision, heat vision,cold breath, super speed, and enhanced hearing. Similarly,self-regulated learners control a number of super powers.Self-regulated learners possess three interrelated superpowers—self-efficacy, exploratory behavior, and metacognition (or deep thinking).Although metacognition sounds most like a super powerthat one might find in a comic book, self-efficacy is at thecore of self-regulation. In other words, the degree of confidence of a learner in achieving a desired outcome determines how much time and resources they allocate to thetask. Self-regulated learners tend to have greater academicself-efficacy and therefore routinely invest more energyand time in learning new concepts. Nevertheless, just assuperheroes must have a reason to use their powers, selfregulated learners must have a reason to invest time andenergy in learning.Whether the reason is operational (gain new insight orskills) or a matter of consciousness (higher self-esteemor self-actualization), there must be a motivation tolearn. For previous DAU students, the reason has beenobvious—certification. Defense Acquisition WorkforceImprovement Act (DAWIA) Level III was an operant andconsciously important watermark for self-regulated learners within the Contracting field. Many contracting professionals, who also were self-regulated learners, investedthe time and intellectual resources to attain that definitiveLevel III certification in Contracting, whether or not it wasneeded for their positions. These self-regulated learners certainly were motivated by the desire to advanceto higher agency positions, as well as the opportunityafforded by a DAWIA Level III education to improve theirperformance in their present jobs. We should not losesight of self-esteem and/or self-actualization as motivations for contracting professionals seeking progressivecertification early in their careers. The ability to say “I’m aLevel III in Contracts” has been an important qualificationfor up-and-coming professionals.Progressive experience requirements coupled with thethree levels of training, most of them with college equivalencies, allowed learning to occur incrementally. This wasimportant because learning requires a degree of repetition and the investment of time and intellectual resources.Nonetheless, some observers, including the authors ofthis article, believe that these increments were too tightlycoupled within an overly compressed period and thereforemay have muted workforce development. This muting,4 September-October 2020 DEFENSEACQUISITIONcoupled with a lack of reiteration and reintroduction ofadvanced acquisition concepts, may have been a factor increating a risk-averse culture in the contracting community.This short learning schedule probably reduced learners’engagement with the material and increased their concernwith the Level III designation. If learners fail to engage inthe learning process, learning itself is hindered.Learner Engagementand Online LearningIf you ever read a Superman, Spiderman, or JusticeLeague comic, or saw one of the television shows ormovies based on them, you are familiar with the conceptwhereby a superhero team can only be effective whenengaging supervillains and using the right super powers inthe right amount. The same principle applies to self-regulated learners. As defined in Alexander Astin’s theory ofinvolvement, learner engagement is “the amount of physical and psychological energy that the student devotes tothe academic experience.” With additional engagement,learner energy and commitment are expected to increaseand improve learning outcomes. A lack of learning engagement leads to the learner tuning out instruction andthis reduces learning retention.Learner engagement typically is greatest in a physicalclassroom environment. But it also is present in other venues, such as online synchronous learning environments.Since engagement between the learner and the educatorand among learners is a vital element to the learning process, online synchronous learning is becoming prevalent inadult education. This is due to its ability to closely simulateFigure 1. The Qualities of theSelf-Regulating viorSource of figures: William A. Schleckser.SelfEfficacy

. just as superheroes must have a reason to usetheir powers, self-regulated learners must have areason to invest time and energy in learning.traditional classroom learning. Synchronous learning, properly executed, inspires learner engagement.On March 13, 2020, the DoD, as a result of the Coronavirus Disease-19 (COVID-19) outbreak, transitionedacquisition learning and training opportunities to onlinemodalities. DAU rapidly responded to COVID-19 byshifting from in-class instruction to synchronous onlinetraining. Interestingly, DAU witnessed learning performance outcomes of online instruction similar to thoseof traditional classrooms. This would not surprise adulteducation and distance-learning experts because seminalstudies in adult learning have reached the same conclusion. Research has found that learner performanceessentially is the same in virtually instructed real-timeinstructional settings as in traditional classroom environments. While levels of learner engagement may appearhigher in the traditional classroom, somewhat reducedengagement within synchronous environments permitsequivalent learning, and no negative impacts have beenfound on learning performance.DAU’s success in delivering synchronous online trainingwill result in more courses moving to such environmentswith their reduced expense and simpler delivery. So whydiscuss online synchronous learning in an article aboutFigure 2. Three Elementsof Transferring lated learning? Synchronous online training environments are intrinsically suited for self-regulated learners.When virtual-learning processes are appropriately applied, this online venue increases the learner’s control andresponsibility and provides more opportunity for reflectivethought. Increased control and reflective thought are necessary to go beyond simply remembering data and achievethe deeper understanding that facilitates higher-orderapplication and analysis.As organizations look to fill organizational skill gapsthrough employee development, they are likely to recognize that there is more to learning than a change in behavior. There is the transfer of knowledge from the interrelation of three elements—cognitive (internal process),emotional (feelings), and social (connection to others).Cognitive and emotional elements have distinctly individual effects; therefore, the learning venue, whether physical or virtual, probably has limited influence on theseelements. The social element in learning typically is seenas negatively affected by virtual environments. This socialelement involves active engagement with other learners,what we previously described as learner engagement.Although learners connect virtually instead of in person,research has found that a social connection still emergesand can be enhanced by synchronous online design anddelivery methods.Design and Delivery Methodsfor Collaborative LearningAs design and delivery methods evolve, so will theexpectations of the learner—the DAU customer. Adultlearners, especially those who are self-regulated, seekimmediacy and accessibility in their adult educationexperiences matching the experiences in their everyday,connected lives. Higher educational systems matching or exceeding learner expectations can be a disruptive force across the adult educational landscape. DAUis moving to align itself with learner expectations byincreasingly using suitable instructional designs thatalign with adult learning. Furthermore, DAU is reviewingits asynchronous online learning formats, also known asself-study, for opportunities to enhance the self-directedlearning setting with enlarged learner engagement. Thisis vital, as asynchronous online learning lacks learnerDEFENSEACQUISITION September-October 2020 5

DAU rapidly responded toCOVID-19 by shifting its modality of learningfrom in-class instruction to synchronous onlinetraining. Interestingly, DAU witnessed learningperformance outcomes of online instructionsimilar to those of traditional classrooms.real-time engagement between the educator and otherlearners, potentially reducing both engagement andlearning outcomes. Although the final verdict on thesechanges and enhancements is not yet in, initial reportsare favorable: There appears to be a higher return oneach training dollar spent, creating broad support forsynchronous online training.In their book, Interact and Engage! 50 Activities for VirtualTraining, Meetings, and Webinars, Kassie Laborie and TomStone identify synchronous online training pros and cons.They point out the disadvantages of providing instructionthrough lecture, and highlight the potential advantages ofsynchronous online training’s use of collaborative learning activities. In this new virtual environment, instructors are most effective when they facilitate reflectiveand collaborative dialogue with and between students.This methodology ultimately “teaches students to fish”intellectually and independently instead of merely “givingthem instructional fish” and continuing their reliance onthe instructor for knowledge.Referring again to Laborie and Stone’s synchronous onlinetraining pros and cons, notice that peer-to-peer and sociallearning occur naturally. This collaborative learning is contrary to the behaviorist theory of learning in which a learnercompletes a task and receives a passing or failing gradebased on achieving a desired outcome. In contrast, collaborative learning is more effective because adult learnersare expected to be self-regulated and have intellectual aspirations, internal motivations, life experiences, and a levelof independence. Self-esteem and/or self-actualizationneeds are more readily satisfied for adult learners, with theself-improvement realized in acquiring a new skill or abilityrather than receipt of a desired grade.Like Clark Kent going into a telephone booth and comingout as Superman, adult learners find a collaborative learning environment most effective in revealing their selfregulatory super powers. This allows them to simply turnon that proverbial “light bulb” in their minds as they graspor realize new concepts. This ability to go from knowninformation to comprehending a previously unknown orunfamiliar concept is due to the three functions mentioned earlier—confidence, intellectual curiosity, and deep thinkingFigure 3. Leveraging Three “Super Powers” in Learning(metacognition). Learners—especially self-regulated adult learners—use these three functionsinternally in dealing with complexMetacognitioncontracting subjects, such assource selections or cost analysis.CognitiveWe would suggest that self-regulated learners can enhance theirlearning by leveraging their powers of self-efficacy, exploratoryLearningbehavior, and metacognition in theSelfcognitive, social, and emotionalEfficacyfunctions of gLearner6 September-October 2020 DEFENSEACQUISITIONIt is imperative that these conceptsbe appreciated. They identifycore skills that organizations seekin recruiting future contractingprofessionals. These also are theskills that existing contracting

professionals should endeavor to improve. In today’s postCOVID-19 environment, the intellectually curious contracting professionals will have a greater probability of success,especially as more training moves to online synchronousenvironments. They must not only be self-regulated in theirlearning, they must leverage these skills to address thegaps their organization seeks to fill. One of the most necessary skills contracting professionals must strengthen is theself-regulated learner’s power of metacognition.such as inferences, concepts, and premises. Acquisitionprofessionals who critically think are essential for successfully operating our complex acquisition system anddelivering positive outcomes. Candidates who have notalready acquired deep-thinking skills will face a potentially insurmountable disadvantage in the new onlinelearning environment, even greater than what they facedin a classroom environment. An organization that canidentify individuals with the deep-thinking skills requiredfor critical thinking will reap a strong crop of contractingprofessionals who will lead their organizations boldly andconfidently into a future where speed of acquisition willbe vital.Deep Thinking Skills—Mandatoryfor Future CandidatesIt is no coincidence that new entrants in the contractingcareer field must have successfully completed a 4-yearcollege degree. This prerequisite identifies an accomplished student who has shown a level of diligence andresourcefulness in completing college-level studies—a selfregulated learner. But we need to look beyond collegiateaccomplishments to seek the personal traits that matchorganizational needs. As stated earlier, the best candidateswill be those who are not only diligent and resourceful butalso display a high degree of confidence, intellectual curiosity, and deep-thinking skills. An ability to think deeply, alsoknown as metacognition, is the most desired and probablythe most difficult of the three characteristics to identify incandidates. Deep thinking goes beyond using intellectualheuristics (or learning by experience) and challenges thelearner’s thoughts and beliefs in a way that simpler strategies or mental processes cannot.ConclusionAs organizational and operational requirements change,so will the way we recruit and develop future contractingprofessionals. The evolutionary process allows organizations to stay current, nimble, and resilient to challenges.Successful future candidates must be self-regulated learners who can harness their super power with high learnerengagement within new online learning environments. Educators of these candidates must recreate delivery methodsof learning in a more collaborative form that allows thesenew candidates to utilize their super power of self-regulation. Having a desire to self-develop, these candidates willfurther develop an already existent critical thinking abilityto bring a capability that supports rapid fielding of relevantweapon systems and meets our National Defense Strategyhead on.Deep thinking directly correlates to a person’s ability tothink critically through a problem and create knowledge.This thinking is reflective and creates high-level outcomesThe authors can be contacted at [email protected] [email protected] .E XPAN D YOU R N E T WORKAcquisition Tools and ResourcesWhere the Defense Acquisition Workforce Meets toShare Knowledge Available 24/7More than 40 different acquisition-relatedCommunities of Practice and SpecialInterest AreasAccess to policies, guidance, tools, andreferencesAutomatic notification of new content (bysubscription only)Ability to tap into the wisdom of thecommunityInteract, share resources, ideas, andexperiences with fellow practitioners acrossDoD and tDEFENSEACQUISITION September-October 2020 7

If you ever read a Superman, Spiderman, or Justice League comic, or saw one of the television shows or . movies based on them, you are familiar with the concept whereby a superhero team can only be effective when engaging supervillains and using the right super powers in the right amount