Advanced Distributed Learning Reaches Maturity

December 2002
By Henry S. Kenyon

Program creates template for interoperable, Web-based educational content.

The U.S. Defense Department has developed a software standard that permits organizations to write and share online courses and learning material. Representing the combined efforts of government, industry and academia, the guidelines are part of a larger program that seeks to provide federal personnel with high-quality training delivered any time, anywhere.

As U.S. forces continue to deploy across the world for extended periods of time, maintaining readiness becomes a challenge. Classes can now be delivered online to bases or front line forces through satellite links or compact discs. But this option is not available to all users when they need it because of incompatible proprietary systems and software. The government is addressing this shortfall by providing educators and organizations with the means to locate, share and reuse learning materials from different sources.

The Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) Initiative is a Defense Department-wide strategy to modernize education and training by developing standardized e-learning techniques. Launched by the department in 1997, the initiative has grown steadily through its partnerships, ADL Director Dr. Robert A. Wisher explains.

At the heart of the program is the sharable content object reference model (SCORM), which provides a series of comprehensive guidelines for developing e-learning systems so Web-based learning content will be interoperable, accessible and reusable. SCORM represents one of the initiative’s key accomplishments. Wisher notes that prior to the release of the first version of the rules two years ago (SIGNAL, January 2000, page 17), course material and other educational content developed for one learning management system could not be moved into another.

To refine the standard, the ADL initiative launched a series of biannual events called Plugfests. Wisher describes these gatherings as no-fault interoperability testing opportunities for vendors and government participants where they can safely operate their products across a variety of platforms. He notes that the Plugfests are very popular, prompting many firms to develop either learning management systems or the tools to create, exchange and tag learning content for use under SCORM.

Industry involvement also is driven by the expectation of a large emerging market for compliant products. This would signal a change from the current environment that is replete with stand-alone products. “Where once you had to build to many proprietary standards, now you can build across one,” he maintains.

SCORM version 1.3 will be ready for release this winter. Wisher notes that it will be more difficult to comply with the latest version because it emphasizes placing learning objects in specific sequences when producing Web-based training material.

ADL work takes place in three co-laboratories. The Alexandria, Virginia-based facility serves as the initiative’s headquarters and focuses on policy issues, advanced research, guideline and specification development, and procedures for testing compliance with ADL standards. The Joint ADL co-laboratory in Orlando, Florida, works primarily with the military services and promotes collaborative development of ADL prototypes and systems acquisitions. The University of Wisconsin operates the academic co-laboratory in Madison and serves as an academic partner to test, evaluate and demonstrate ADL-compliant tools and technologies to enhance teaching and learning.

Many partners are involved with the ADL initiative and share its facilities, including the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Office of Naval Research, the Labor Department and the National Guard Bureau (NGB). Both the Labor Department and the NGB maintain permanent staff at the Alexandria co-laboratory.

The ADL initiative is working with European partners such as NATO to develop training content. The opening of a partnership laboratory in the United Kingdom this April highlights many of the common interests the U.S. and British governments have concerning distributed learning, Wisher says. The United Kingdom is investing approximately $12 billion into various e-learning, infrastructure and content programs. The British government views the ADL and SCORM as examples for sharing content within areas such as public health training networks, the Department of Education and Skills, and the Ministry of Defence.

Although the ADL initiative does not endorse vendors’ products, the material must be SCORM compliant. To meet this goal, the co-laboratories serve as neutral players, encouraging industry to develop an environment in which organizations can exchange, create and reuse learning objects, he says.

To help establish this new marketplace, the ADL is participating in a number of Defense Department initiatives such as the U.S. Army’s University Access Online program, which permits soldiers to pursue a college education while on duty. The program is highly successful, and an important part of this popularity is the role played by 27 participating universities using SCORM guidelines for their content, Wisher explains.

The ADL initiative also is working with the Defense Modeling and Simulation Office in Alexandria to find ways to connect SCORM with the office’s high level architecture (HLA) standard for simulation objects. Software designers are trying to create a setting wherein users can move from a simulation to a learning environment, engage in SCORM-based activity and then move back to the simulation. “Right now there are some technical areas we have to address in terms of layers on the open source model that we need to make compatible. But that’s just a matter of hard work to put it all together,” he says.

Research is underway to find methods to measure how much is learned from simulations. For example, the Army has released a realistic computer-based game called America’s Army. Although young people like such games, the ADL is trying to measure the actual learning outcome—how well game-related knowledge transfers to actual equipment or a job situation, Wisher explains.

To create these metrics, the ADL is working with the Army Research Institute and the NGB to design a system of small-scale gaming environments where participants are monitored while playing. The developers will then conduct pre- and post-testing and transfer simulations to determine how an individual’s performance changes between environments. The America’s Army game, for example, includes a marksmanship test. “We would be interested to see if performance in that [game] can transfer to the actual use in an M-16 simulator,” Wisher says. He notes that a simulator is used because of issues involved in taking students onto a firing range. But the goal is to find out whether their performance on the simulator improves because of playing the game.

Intelligent tutoring systems are another area of research at the ADL. These applications will feature a built-in mentoring capability that is more robust than those currently in use. Wisher notes that while this gives students a significant learning advantage, the technology is not yet SCORM compliant. Designers are interested in building an intelligent tutoring capability into a future version of SCORM, but this may not happen for several years until SCORM version 2.0 is available. “But I think it’s one of the thresholds we’d like to cross with this,” he says.

The ADL also is exploring ways to use learning objects in embedded training systems such as simulators and software built into ships and combat vehicles to maintain crew readiness. The idea is to create interoperability among embedded training systems by installing software-based learning objects such as training courses, simulations and reference material into the equipment during manufacture, Wisher explains.

The laboratory is experimenting with wireless learning applications. One program currently underway with the U.S. Navy seeks to download training material onto sailors’ handheld devices. This method of distribution would provide training for personnel aboard ships who may not have the time for traditional distance learning applications.

Although much has been accomplished, Wisher sees more projects on the horizon. One area the ADL is exploring is developing online learning content clearinghouses where users could register sharable material that features metatagging for tracking purposes. These repositories will communicate with each other so users can discover an object, pull it into their own repository and either use it as is or modify it before inserting it into a series of lessons. He predicts that this would be used in the military before moving to the commercial sector.

Intellectual property rights are a concern with any kind of information sharing system. While this does not pose a problem with public domain information stored in a Defense Department clearinghouse, it becomes very complicated in the commercial sector. Wisher notes that a number of vested interests such as the publishing industry and academia seek the transportability of intellectual property. The Orlando and Madison co-laboratories are working to address different aspects of this issue, he says.

A major concern is that content owners be reimbursed for the use of their material. The ADL is developing a model clearinghouse, which it hopes to have operational by spring. The model would be a sample of sharable content objects created for the Defense Department. Users would register the content in their own data clearinghouses. This material would be linked to the actual learning object itself, which resides in a repository controlled by the military. Wisher notes that access to such systems may be controlled because of the material’s nature.


Additional information on the Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative is available on the World Wide Web at

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