Government Forges 21st Century Training and Education Network

January 2000
By Henry S. Kenyon

A common framework for learning software lays foundation for deploying sophisticated knowledge management technologies.

A program designed by the U.S. Defense Department will provide the military and federal government with the latest online study techniques by developing software standards and promoting the use of new technologies. Known as advanced distributed learning, the initiative aims at offering the highest quality schooling that can be tailored to meet individual needs and delivered cost-effectively wherever and whenever required.

If U.S. military deployment and commitment experiences in the 1990s serve as an indicator, the 21st century will see continued overseas involvement for U.S. forces, either individually or as part of joint multinational operations. Speed is a growing factor as units must deploy more rapidly to trouble spots. U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, USA, told Congress last year that in the near future, the Army will be able to deploy a medium-sized combat brigade in 96 hours, a division in 120 hours and five divisions in 30 days. However, the increased tempo also means that traditional ways of honing individual and unit skills for such operations become impractical.

Launched in November 1997, the goal of the advanced distributed learning (ADL) initiative is to accelerate large-scale development of dynamic and cost-effective learning software and stimulate a market for these products that will meet military and national work force education and training needs in the next century. Part of a wider government drive that includes efforts such as the federal training technology initiative, these programs all seek to use the power of learning technologies to extend the reach of educators and trainers.

According to Michael Parmentier, director of readiness and training, Office of the Secretary of Defense, when the groundwork was being laid for the program, the possibility of privatizing government and military education was examined; however, merely swapping a private sector instructor for a government one would not save any money, he says. Instead the Pentagon-based organization decided to look at the large number of technologies that the private sector was using for education and training.

The strategy that evolved has a number of targets: exploit existing network-based technologies; create platform-neutral, reuseable courseware and content to lower costs; promote widespread collaboration between participants to satisfy common needs; enhance performance with emerging and next-generation learning technologies; develop a common framework to drive an off-the-shelf product cycle; and establish a coordinated implementation process. The most important short-term goal is to produce a set of standards for developing educational and training software. "We feel we are on the verge of something really, really big," Parmentier says.

The ADL initiative involves the cooperation of major private sector firms such as Oracle, Microsoft and Lotus. The challenge is in developing a set of specifications that will benefit all of the participants. Parmentier is quick to note that the government is not imposing a set of guidelines or standards on itself or industry. The product is the effort of collaborative work between industry and government.

Version 1.0 of the guidelines is now available on the ADL World Wide Web site. The specifications stress several major functional requirements for educational and training software to be used by the military. Another important aspect of the guidelines is access to learning and knowledge content and objects that can be developed, built into libraries or repositories, aggregated, reused and applied to specific needs.

Philip Dodds, consultant with the Institute for Defense Analysis, a nonprofit think tank located in Alexandria, Virginia, points out one current difficulty with learning content on the Internet. "You can't reuse learning content that was generated in one environment in another, something rather basic. It is as though everyone had their own version of a word processor," he says.

A number of organizations were trying to solve parts of this overall problem, but no one was trying to stitch the efforts together into what Dodds refers to as a common learning content model. To address this issue, the ADL developed a sharable courseware object reference model to get the various players working together, he says.

The guidelines serve as the heart of all future ADL efforts because the standards for the learning portion of the infrastructure must be in place before the Defense Department can begin to see the type of scaling and growth in online learning as has occurred on the commercial side of the Internet, Dodds maintains. The standards themselves went through a comment process where all of the participating bodies added their input into the document prior to the version 1.0 release.

Though the current version of the guidelines is now available, interim versions have been up on the Web for much of last year, notes Dodds. This preliminary effort is important because the vendor community will need some time to work with the specifications--some of which they developed themselves--and implement them. He expects that it will be mid-year before this work actually manifests itself in products.

An important promulgator of additional standards is the ADL co-laboratory, established by the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA). The co-laboratory is intended to develop and test the compliance of ADL products with the specifications as they evolve. The laboratory exists as both a physical space at the IDA and virtually on the Internet. Data and lessons learned will be shared at no charge with Defense Department components, government agencies and the private sector. The co-laboratory will act as the backbone for collaborative, consensual development of guidelines, certification procedures and shared learning objects.

Parts of the facility are already functioning. Other ADL initiative efforts also are beginning to reach the prototype stage, for example the maintenance mentoring system, virtual emergency response training system, the joint doctrine operations laboratory, and doctrine networked education and training (DOCNET).

The maintenance mentoring system was developed as part of a collaborative effort between General Motors (GM), the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the National Center for Manufacturing and Science. Originally designed as an electronic means of diagnosing and guiding the repair of GM's Cadillac brand North Star engine, the device is a portable, intelligent communications processor that responds to trouble-shooting and diagnostics queries using a strategy-based diagnostic methodology. Parmentier describes the tool as being roughly the size of a child's etch-a-sketch toy. It is driven by a Pentium II processor and is voice, touch and keyboard driven. The device responds in natural language to voice commands.

According to Parmentier, this is a good example of the program's emphasis on reuseability--taking something that is being employed by the private sector and applying it to military needs.

The maintenance mentoring system is currently being used for tube launched, optically tracked, wire guided (TOW) missiles and Hellfire missile maintenance. Another potential application includes battlefield triage because it can walk an uninitiated person through a medical procedure. He cautions that the maintenance mentoring system is a great tool as long as it is populated with the right data in a meaningful way. Devices such as the maintenance mentor begin to change traditional definitions of education and training, he portends.

"Technology has blurred the distinctions between training, education and performance aiding. They no longer exist today, and we have to learn that in order to take advantage of these things. We are going to have to re-engineer the way we do business, the way we use these tools," Parmentier says.

Another project that will begin operation early this year is the virtual emergency response training system (VERTS). Using a number of different technologies, this three-dimensional virtual immersion training apparatus was developed to support the National Guard's newly formed rapid assessment initial detection teams. The technology creates a simulated environment for either individual or unit training. Visual databases exist for a number of cities, including Los Angeles and New York. VERTS creates a virtual environment that allows the National Guard to train for specific missions and a variety of scenarios associated with nuclear, biological and chemical operations, including survey, detection, sampling, mapping, prediction, assessment, decontamination, medical testing, analysis, treatment and battlefield management.

The joint doctrine operations laboratory (JDOL) is another example of what Parmentier sees as reuse--taking something from the civilian world and applying it to military operations. In this case, it is the concept of online, multiplayer games. JDOL is an Internet-based, cooperative, interactive, multiplayer opposing force application. It is designed to facilitate decision making in operational exercises, experimentation and rehearsals in a variety of different environments and scenarios. The operations laboratory provides a distributed joint force training tool anytime and anywhere.

Parmentier offers the example of a commander tapped to lead a joint task force to a global hot spot. The commander has never heard of the location and is shipping out in the morning. He or she can call up the relevant doctrine relating to the specific mission and region. Four possible courses of action can be selected, and JDOL is designed to present information for four different user types. The resulting tutorial could be entirely computer-generated or could be from a link to live personnel. In this manner, joint force officers can meet on the Internet, acquire background data, begin working on how to form this specific joint task force, learn the doctrine, and become familiar with each other's moves and reactions, Parmentier notes.

DOCNET is related to JDOL. A virtual knowledge base of linked and related documents dictating joint force doctrine, the system features intelligent tutor technology to build tutorials into the doctrine base. Given the current national security environment, many officers become involved in joint operations before they ever get the training, Parmentier observes. As a tool, DOCNET automates the study of doctrine and includes a simulation paradigm that allows the DOCNET user to go though various scenarios. Students can apply a particular doctrine to a situation and see the outcome. If they fail in their simulated mission, the system allows users to go back to see what other course of action they should have taken. The beta models are almost operational, Parmentier says.

Perhaps the Defense Department organization that is the most advanced in applying ADL techniques is the Defense Acquisition University. By moving several courses to an online format, the school realized considerable cost savings, ADL Team Leader Donald B. Johnson maintains. For example, in just one course, the university was able to realize the equivalent of 215 man-years and 19,800 hours in work savings in one year. The course evolved from being a nine-day event to a three-day format, which cut temporary duty and travel costs in half. For an initial annual investment of $500,000, $3 million in travel costs were saved in the first year, a 6-to-1 return on investment, he notes. The Defense Acquisition University currently offers 14 online courses.