Byte-Size Learning

  • Published
  • By J.M. Eddins Jr.
  • Airman Magazine

Since before cyber was even called cyber, the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio has been the center of gravity for research and education about warfare within the digital realm. Ironically, that education in operating on the digital battlefield has largely been administered within a brick and mortar schoolhouse.


The Center for Cyberspace Research, or CCR, a graduate level research center for faculty and students which is part of AFIT’s graduate school of Engineering and Management, is endeavoring with its partners, Air Force Cyber College and U.S. Air Force Academy CyberWorx, to create a platform for cyber education, that would reside in the domain that it researches and about which it educates.

The Cyber Education Hub would be an online site, accessible with a CAC card and populated with bite-size video courses on all things cyber; not just for those in the cyber career field, but also for those in career fields where cyber is becoming an integral component; which is pretty much everyone.

The CCR online education platform would enable cyber education for the entire force without the cost and manning issues associated with temporary duty to a schoolhouse.

Lesson videos would be available in an interface similar to Netflix or YouTube that would track a student’s progress, build a user profile and make recommendations on further content to explore based on their viewing history, career field and command directives. The result would be an education experience tailored to the student.

The platform would engage students in a manner conforming to Air Education and Training Command’s Continuum of Learning which is shifting education and training from an industrial-age learning pipeline to a learner-centered model. That model allows for Airmen to learn on-demand, on- or off-duty, in short, easily digestible “chunks” that apply directly to their career field.

“The Air Force provides a lot of cyber training and relatively little education. The education portion is primarily limited to what we provide here at AFIT through the graduate program or through the Cyber 200 and 300 PCE (Professional Continuing Education) program,” said Lt. Col. Mark Reith, CCR director. “There are a number of smaller courses that touch on cyber, but they are kind of scattered all over the Air Force. For the most part, most Airmen only get the DoD Cyber Awareness Challenge, and that’s it.

“The education hub is both a platform and a philosophy. From a platform standpoint, it’s a place where we can start to put cyber-related content from all around the Air Force. You can see what else is out there and you don’t have to be a cyber expert to view it. As a philosophy, a lot more cyber learning occurs when we have Airmen learn basic cyber concepts, then talk about their cyber experiences with respect to their specific functional community.”

Reith also believes that non-cyber Airmen posting comments to the site or even uploading their own videos documenting how cyber concepts apply to their career field can educate cyber experts to the real-world effects of cyber operations in other career fields.

“It is actually a two-way street,” said Reith. “Not only does the graduate program inform the content at the PCE level, but folks that passed through the PCE program also provide examples back for the classroom. That information is where we think the hub will also come into play from a cyber operator’s perspective. I will start to understand why a logistics officer is so concerned with a particular system that they interact with daily. Why blocking this particular firewall port impacts them. Today when I put a block up as a cyber operator, I don’t really have a good understanding of who it’s impacting or the how and why.”

The Cyber Education Hub will certainly have a large initial pool of education and research content from which to draw within the halls of AFIT.

The Professional Continuing Education Cyber 200 course is targeted towards company grade officers, NCOs, and civilians. The breadth of career fields, experience and expertise within the student population testifies that cyber has become an integral component of, well, everything.

Students not only come from the cyber career field, but also intel, logistics, engineering, space, medicine, finance and acquisitions, according to Master Sgt. Michael Rich, Superintendent of Cyber Professional Continuing Education.

“In the 200-level course, we focus on ME3C-PC squared (mission, environment, enemy, effects, capabilities, plan, phasing, contracts and contingencies), the process to identify all the planning considerations that might come into an operation,” said Rich. “Then we have two capstones in the class, one offensive and one defensive. The students have to fully plan the mission, execute, and then debrief the mission and produce a decision brief for a commander.”

Cyber 300 students are primarily Field Grade Officers and senior NCOs and higher-level GS civilians taught at the highest level of classification and focused on strategic objectives, such as cyber deterrence, rather than mission execution.

“We talk about, what is cyber deterrence and how do we achieve it? How do we organize, train and equip our force?” said Rich. “In the past three years, the curriculum has really changed into being more operationally focused. When I first came here it was very tactical and concentrating on the technical stuff. Now we’re trying to emphasize war fighting.”

The evolution of cyber education and research at AFIT to solve real-world Air Force problems has informed the coursework and now an evolved delivery system to engage AETCs new learning paradigm.

Beginning in 2002, the successful collaboration of faculty and students at the CCR gave birth to AFIT’s master’s degree program in Information Assurance, which, in turn, led the secretary and chief of staff of the Air Force to designate AFIT as the Air Force Cyberspace Technical Center of Excellence in 2008.

Under the AF CyTCoE charter, AFIT works with the Air Force leadership to develop and maintain the cyberspace workforce via cutting-edge graduate and continuing education, according to Matthew Dever, assistant to the Director of the Cyberspace Technical Center of Excellence at AFIT. Dever is responsible for cyber program coordination and outreach for the entire institution.

“That brought on an Air Force level mission of connecting the dots across the Air Force on cyber education and training topics. For years we operated that function out of the CCR, but there are a lot of cyber dependencies within and between all these other specialties, whether it’s medical or civil engineering or acquisition. So for that reason, nine months ago, the chancellor decided to move that function under his level rather than the graduate school,” said Dever. “Now we provide the CCR with contract engineers to provide continuity on long-term research as students come and go. We try to provide resources and visibility for them on what they need.”

Dever created a rapid development team to elicit cyber need-to-know requirements from various fields within the Air Force, with the goal of quickly developing a course to answer those mission-specific needs. If it is determined that a sustained need for the course exists, AFIT will go through AETC’s process to create an official course.

“Kind of our flagship was when we took an Air Force Research Laboratory manual about doing cyber vulnerability assessments on aircraft and weapons and we turned that into a two day workshop. That had a much greater need than we had expected in the acquisition community. That was about two years ago, and that workshop has now become an official course. That was quite innovative,” said Dever.

The next step is to make that kind of cyber education available to an even larger audience through platforms like the Cyber Education Hub.

“We’ve added a videographer for that rapid development team to help produce that content. We could upload snippets from that two day workshop concept,” said Dever. “That’s the type of content we see putting on the Cyber Education Hub. ”

AFIT’s School of Systems and Logistics graduates 16,000 continuing education students from the acquisitions field each year, teaching a variety of courses, ranging from a couple of hours online to three weeks at the schoolhouse, according to Richard Sugarman, head of the Department of Systems and Software Engineering Management at AFIT/LS.

“We reach a huge population of the Air Force each year, which is why I’m partnering with the other schools here. We can deliver short, very focused education to a very large audience and we’re looking to create content through a Continuum of Learning model, which is something that our school actually has been doing for years now,” said Sugarman, who is an AFIT representative on AETC commander Lt. Gen. Steven L. Kwast’s task force on implementing CoL across the Air Force.

AFIT/LS, which creates everything from very introductory courses and intermediate journeyman-level courses all the way up to practitioner level courses, now has the opportunity to expose that content to an even wider audience online.

“We’re excited to leverage platforms like Cyber Education Hub to get content that we have out to the entire acquisition community and even beyond the acquisition workforce. We also teach operators as well; pilots, MAJCOMs, even Combatant Commands. This really gets into cross domain education,” said Sugarman.

All of that content could potentially be produced and then populate the Cyber Education Hub allowing everyone from Airman Basic to CSAF to not only get smarter on cyber, but to really see how it relates to and is interconnected with every career field in the force.

“This was the chancellor’s vision,” said Dever. “I can draw from the graduate school expertise to help feed AFIT’s other schools when they need cyber injected into their courseware. With the civil engineering school and getting into ICS, industrial control systems, civil engineers don’t generally have a lot of cyber expertise. We’ve created a course for them. You’re putting air conditioners in on bases that are controlled by program logic controllers that are interconnected. Right? And you’re asking civil engineers to go out and defend it.”

Easily accessible education is also necessary when addressing cyber awareness in a proactive manner, rather than reacting to a cyber issue with existing systems and procedures.

In order to execute Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. David L. Goldfein’s priority to incorporate cyber considerations at the beginning of the development and contracting process for new weapons and platforms, there must first be knowledge of the language necessary to clearly define cyber requirements to a contractor.

“So we talk about designing for cyber which is great. Bake it in versus bolt it on. It’s a great bumper sticker. Right? But the problem is, okay, how do I bake it in? What do you mean by baking it in? That’s the stuff we’re working on right now,” said Dever.

One of the big issues with the acquisition community is how to write better requirements for weapons and platforms, according to Sugarman.

“Well how do I write those requirements? Am I smart enough to know what I need to write? How do I speak the cyber language? We’re working very closely with the CROWS (Cyber Resiliency Office for Weapons Systems) office. That’s a newly stood up organization and their focus is on aircraft and weapons systems. We’re the ones who are developing the curriculum to teach that workforce.”

Reith believes that not only AFIT’s knowledge base, but also the CCR’s research will play a significant role in advancing the AETC’s Continuum of Learning goals.

Dr. Scott Nykl has developed the Cyber Space Odyssey Game at the CCR in which his classroom of 40 students is divided into five teams, of eight or so students, that pilot virtual spaceships or man space stations in a contest to steal and protect data.

Each student assumes a role, from the pilot who operates the spaceship, to a packet interceptor who uses cyber tools to capture data from space stations or other teams’ spaceships to cipher analysts trying to decrypt collected data.

“It’s just like a first person shooter combined with a mystery puzzle — all the underlying traffic flowing back and forth is what teams have to reverse engineer in order to collect clues. These clues are collected using ubiquitous networking tools and techniques; however, the players must then assemble these clues and analyze them in a higher level context to actually achieve the human-level objectives within the game,” said Nykl. “This game is like when Sony called up Cyber Command and said, ‘Hey, somebody hacked our place’. Students need to figure out who did it, are they still in the network and how do they protect themselves in the future?”

Reith believes that game-based learning interfaces such as the Cyber Space Odyssey Game could also be integrated into the Cyber Education Hub and evolve over time.

“You could build on additional pieces to it. It’s extensible because it was developed by Dr. Nykl and understood within the CCR team, as opposed to the challenge of tailoring a commercial system,” said Reith. “Today it’s limited to within our walls, but I’d love to see this projected out to the much broader Air Force because when they start to understand the connections between the physical and cyber pieces is when great understanding starts to happen.”

Content could even be created from research into cutting edge technologies like Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning being conducted by graduate students such as Maj. David King.

“I think it’d be great to be able to have those courses, especially for anyone who doesn’t have the opportunity to come here to the school house,” said King. “We have some great instructors here who present very technical and difficult topics and they’re able to break it down very well for all of us.

“I think that having that out there in the cloud for anyone, even outside of the cyber field, to learn about topics such as neural nets; how they develop and what they can do for you, is beneficial. One can even use this resource to help explain these concepts at the big tables to senior leadership. When it’s like Netflix or YouTube and you are able to use that resource really quickly to get smarter on a topic…you have an awareness of how everything is connected and why it’s important for you to care that everything is connected. I do think that our education and training needs to evolve to include cyber as a foundation along with everything else you have to learn when you join the Air Force.”

While the Cyber Education Hub exists currently as a research project, it provides a working test bed for CoL concepts as applied to the world of cyber in an interface already familiar to the millennial generation.

“So a lot of it looks, from an interface perspective, like YouTube or Netflix. What we’re trying to do is get some feedback on what works for the military context and then feed that back to a vision of what should be,” said Reith.

“By doing the research, building prototypes, getting out in front of different communities across the Air Force and listening to feedback, I think over time we’re going to craft something very special,” said Reith. “There are aspects that look exactly like something people already know and the millennial generation really responds well to things they grew up with. This is kind of what they’re expecting as well.”