FORT LEE, Va. (Nov. 1, 2018) -- Two Quartermaster School military occupational specialty courses are recipients of $4.6 million in funding earmarked to increase its footprint in the world of virtual learning.

The Petroleum and Water Department courses of study -- 92W water treatment specialist and 92L petroleum laboratory specialist -- will be allotted $2.9 and $1.7 million, respectively, under the Army Virtual Learning Environment contract awarded earlier this year.

They are the only awardees among the more than 40 MOS courses administered by the Sustainment Center of Excellence. Both will be revamped to accommodate course enhancements and are expected to come online within 18 months.

PWD also provides MOS instruction for the 92F Petroleum Supply Specialist Course. It is scheduled for a fiscal 2019 contract approval under the AVLE program.

José A. Hernandez, PWD director, said virtual training products are used for all three courses, but the contract award will dramatically increase his department's capabilities in the digital domain, and thus better prepare logisticians to execute their missions.

"We're going to be able to set up and operate water and lab systems in a virtual environment," he said. "These systems of learning will allow students to retain more information through ease-of-use and increased repetition, so when Soldiers complete the courses, they will be trained and ready on day one."

The courses' planned makeovers are centered on something called digital training enablers, which have been tested at PWD the past three years. DTEs are essentially software packages designed to train Soldiers on a particular MOS task, said Capt. Matt Johnson, PWD deputy director.

"For example, there will be a digital training enabler for each piece of equipment in the 92W inventory," he said. "So, every piece of equipment used to purify water will have a DTE to allow Soldiers to train on it virtually."

Similarly, DTEs will be designed for the various apparatus used by petroleum laboratory specialists to test fuel, said Johnson.

A total of 83 DTEs, Individual Multimedia Instructions and lessons will be produced under the contract, he added.

Additionally, the courses' new digital training experience will feature a student-centric learning platform, multiple levels of interactivity and cloud storage capabilities, which will allow Soldiers to refresh their training or learn new lessons long after graduation, said Hernandez.

"Whatever product they use in the classroom will be available on the cloud," he said. "Students will be able to download lessons to their personal devices or work computers and master those lessons through repetition prior to training in a field environment."

One of the strongest features of virtual training is its ability to provide learners the means to repeat steps, actions or tasks. It saves time and resources and builds confidence and technical proficiency, noted Hernandez. A more technically proficient logistician ultimately benefits those at the battle's edge.

"How do logisticians provide that timely support to those on the frontlines?" he posed. "Part of the answer is leveraging the strengths of virtual training to increase technical proficiency."

The planned virtual learning enhancements will be especially valuable to the reserve components, said Hernandez. The National Guard and Army Reserve units comprise roughly 80 percent of the total logistical force but are limited to 39 annual training days. The efficiencies yielded as a result of virtual learning enhancements can help units squeeze the most out of their allotted time.

"We want to provide tools that can support their readiness goals," said Hernandez. "For example, if units are called to mobilize and haven't trained in their MOS, they can accomplish it virtually, so when they do move out, they can rapidly improve their technical skills and be available to support the fight much faster than in the past."

The merits of virtual training have echoed around the Army for some time. However, there were many, including schoolhouse instructors and others, who are not sold on the concepts and who regard virtual training as nothing more than a gimmick.

"We had those exact types here in PWD," said Johnson, referring to the department's initial entry into virtual training a few years ago. "They -- some of the older NCOs -- were skeptical of virtual learning when we began exploring the concept. Once they saw the final products and saw how it was used in the classroom, they completely changed their minds. They couldn't believe it. Those 18-year-olds were picking up in a matter of hours what it would normally take all day to learn."

Sgt. 1st Class Derrick Lee, a 92F Petroleum Supply Specialist Course instructor, is one of those who were not particularly sold on digital training enablers. His buy-in did not take long.

"When I started to experience the DTEs firsthand with students, I would take note of how much class time we spent explaining the system, and it was effective in an extremely short amount of time," said the 16-year Soldier, noting his course uses an earlier version of DTEs.

"Watching the students interact with these digital training enablers, I would see the unlimited virtual repetitions take place; see the muscle memory begin to take hold," he noted. "(It was especially evident) when we took them out of the classroom into a field environment and set the system up in real time. Soldiers were ready to hit the ground running. They knew what was needed and where. They knew how it needed it to be set up. The instructor at that point was just there for guidance and feedback. It's kind of fascinating to think of that kind of effectiveness coming from a virtual trainer."

Lee said he is looking forward to the enhanced capabilities and portability of the new products.

"I'm hoping to see the same outcomes we're seeing now in the schoolhouse on the operational side of the Army," he said. "We keep Soldiers on the operational side so busy that many of them have never touched certain pieces of equipment. Petroleum supply has a lot of equipment. You may be in a unit specializing in ground refueling operations but won't have aviation refueling operations. So, to provide those DTEs to individuals who may be out of practice on certain equipment, I'm excited to see how that will help us keep Soldiers ready on day one."

It is yet to be determined how the enhancements will affect course length or instructor strength, said Johnson. PWD graduates roughly 8,800 students a year from its three MOS courses. It also provides instruction for Sailors, Airmen and Marines.