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E-Learning on the Job

E-Learning on the Job

As the Australian Defence Organization rolls out the first phase of its $3 million e-learning initiative, the Defence Online Management and Instructional Network, the ADO is looking to content libraries, learning objects and content reuse to fulfil its vision of technology-supported training.

Most people know the old Chinese proverb: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you will feed him for a lifetime.

But when it comes to the Australian Defence Force, the logic works a little differently. In the ADF, the saying might go: Teach a man to boil an egg, and he can feed his colleagues on base for a meal. But it is going to take specialist training for him to be able to boil that egg in a battle zone, or aboard a minesweeper.

“How you boil an egg is how you boil an egg, and so the general skills required to do that are fairly well the same across the Army, Navy and Air Force,” says Brett MacDonald, director of Flexible Learning Solutions for the Australian Defence Organization (ADO). “But then you also need to do some service-specific training on how you do it on a ship, or in the field, or that sort of situation.”

Until a few years back that meant Defence Force caterers went to one of three specialist catering schools — Army, Navy or Air Force — to learn how to cook for their unit, how to order and receipt food stores, manage rations and plan and control catering functions such as formal dinners.

Now they all go to the same school, where they learn the basics common to all three forces and then are initiated into the service-specific skills they will need during their ADF career. As e-learning takes increasing hold with rollout of the first phase of the ADO’s Defence Online Management and Instructional Network (DOMAIN), Defence is increasingly looking to content libraries, learning objects and content reuse to help it meet an increasingly urgent commitment to providing all Defence personnel with greater and more flexible access to training and development materials.

Defence’s Flexible Learning Solutions area is learning a few valuable lessons of its own along the way, like the importance of cultural change in achieving successful e-learning solutions, particularly when it comes to reinforcing the use of learning objects — packages of content and related activities addressing a single idea or topic to support a particular learning objective.

Content reuse — the practice of using existing components of content to develop new material — is one of the true glories of e-learning. The e-Learning Guild says content reuse continues to be a hot topic, but the complexities involved in implementing a Learning Content Management System across multiple business units, and moving from traditional course development to learning objects, can be overwhelming. So far, though, Defence is mighty happy with its mighty labours, and looking forward only to further improvements as time goes on.

“We initially planned a ministerial launch of DOMAIN for December this year, and we’ve brought it forward by 10 months,” says MacDonald.

“We’ve now got a base level product that delivers e-learning based on the business requirements of the services and the groups. We’ll be growing the system in functionality to look at all the automation processes that may be required to support flexible delivery of training within the organization, and the ongoing development and growth of the amount of e-learning content within the system.”

DOMAIN — at a cost of some $3 million one of the largest e-learning projects ever undertaken in Australia — is an integrated learning management system (LMS) and learning content management system (LCMS) for technology-supported training and educational opportunities. Implemented by Deloitte partnered with THINQ Learning Solutions, DOMAIN is giving civilian and military personnel access to online Legislative Required Learning, a series of NETg courses from Thomson Corporation as well as a limited number of custom developed courses.

The first phase went live at the beginning of November 2003 to approximately 9000 civilian and military members across the Defence Materiel Organization (DMO) and the Army. When completed, it will service more than 200 content developers and 91,000 users, with remaining rollout phases for Navy, Army, Air Force and 11 Defence Groups scheduled for completion by December 2004.

“The ADO is committed to providing all Defence personnel with greater and more flexible access to training and development materials,” Deloitte director Craig Coster says. “The system we have implemented allows ADO personnel to access training materials and customized learning content as required. Defence personnel will now be in a better position to enhance their overall knowledge as well as their individual skill sets.”

As organizations become more sophisticated in their adoption of e-learning, employee retention is increasingly being seen as a major goal of an effective e-learning strategy. Defence is no different. The government knows there is a strong link between support services for personnel and Defence capability. In these turbulent times, when national security is more important — and perhaps more difficult to achieve — than ever, providing all Defence personnel with access to the latest technology and education opportunities not only directly contributes to Defence capability but also enhances an individual’s career development and can therefore boost retention.

Hence the Defence e-learning strategy, a White Paper undertaking that will deliver common standards for a whole-of-Defence e-learning system. The strategy recognizes that providing key opportunities for Defence Force personnel and recruiting and retaining high-calibre people by providing them with improved access to training and education are both key requirements for the government. It also provides a huge boost to military and civilian staff based in regional and rural areas, by giving them greater and more flexible access to training and development opportunities.

“Providing all Defence personnel with access to the latest technology and education opportunities directly contributes to Defence capability,” says Mal Brough, Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence.

“At the same time, this access also impacts on an individual’s career development and quality of life, boosting retention.”

However, Coster points out that although learning management systems and learning content management systems have been around for a while, both the size of the Defence deployment, in terms of numbers of users, and the diversity of the audience the e-learning will be deployed to, combine to make it unique.

“Being able to increase the amount of learning opportunities and training opportunities to people in a centralized repository, or centralized system, that integrates back to their HR system, will provide long-term benefits for the Defence Force,” Coster says.

Consolidating on Mergers

Defence has run numbers of rationalization exercises right across its training programs over the past few years, recognizing that centralized purchasing, content development and service delivery is a way to save substantially on training costs.

“Defence had quite a number of systems that either managed or administered training for the organization,” MacDonald says. “Whether it was an Excel spreadsheet, an Access database, a full-blown learning management system, content development system or the software licences to develop content, every area seemed to be moving towards expending money and putting the same sort of fixed costs up front. That meant quite a major headache for the IT area as well, because they had to start supporting a whole range of different solutions and that led to increased maintenance costs for each of these solutions.”

So the e-learning system has been instrumental both in reducing duplication of effort and in delivering an enterprise-wide application, framework and grounding point that could then be used to build and deploy e-learning content across the whole organization.

Defence is also achieving substantial advantages by holding that content in a centralized repository linked back to the Defence HR system, to provide long-term benefits for the Defence Force. By feeding data between the HR system and DOMAIN, Defence is reducing duplication of data and making it easier for HR to update personnel records. And while many large organizations have integrated their e-learning and HR systems, the sheer diversity within Defence of the ways training is managed, and the secret nature of some of the training, means it faces far more complexity in doing so than most organizations in the world.

“We’ve provided that one central fixed software application that meets the requirements of the whole organization, so that all these areas have to do now is worry about their content,” MacDonald says. “So they don’t have to worry about putting proposals up to the IT areas to get extra bandwidth, or to get more server capacity to run their system or have performance tests to see whether this would run across the network.”

Education the Key

MacDonald says trainers remain free to decide whether to do content development internally, send it out to third-party providers or to buy commercial off-the-shelf products that meet their requirements, but all are expected to make increasingly heavy use of the centralized content library. The more people use DOMAIN, the bigger that library will grow, and the greater the efficiencies will be over time.

Now Defence is looking to increasing use of learning objects as a major area of enhanced efficiency. For instance, within the Defence organization, approximately a full third of the people within the organization move — to new locations and/or position titles — every year. Before DOMAIN, back when content was developed in isolation, that meant each time there was a personnel change trainers would have to go through their entire content to make the necessary changes. Now, replacing Brigadier X’s picture in the content library with Commodore Y’s picture can be automatically replicated through all training material.

The use of content libraries and reuse of learning objects also means that as e-learning within the department grows and the amount of content expands, Defence can grow its content yet minimize its expenditure on storage.

However, if trainers are to make consistent use of the content library, Flexible Learning Solutions recognizes it will need to achieve significant cultural change, and MacDonald says it is education — of its trainers — that is the key.

“We have governance over the system, and we have content development guidelines and content submission guidelines,” he says. “You have to pick your targets for where you enforce any standards. You don’t want to go over the top and enforce everything, because then people will see this as restrictive and may lead to not complying to the essential requirements. So you pick your real key targets, and this is one of the ones that we’ve targeted for organizational change.”

To this end Flexible Learning Solutions has set up a content group that meets regularly to identify potential areas of reuse and to discuss particular content under development. And since trainers need a licence to use DOMAIN, it has embedded education about the virtues of content reuse into its training system for trainers.

“Throughout the training we try to embed this way of thinking within the developers: that there’s the central library that is stored centrally within Defence so that you don’t have to go and search for your images through a plethora of ways; you go to the library, you look for the image that you need, or the content that you need, or the learning object that you need, and you import that into your course.”

Metrics embedded in the library make it easy to determine how well that message is getting across, and although it is early days yet, these look promising, MacDonald says.

However, there have also been difficult lessons to learn along the way, like that fact that in an organization as massive as Defence, the amount of lead time required to make any changes in infrastructure is enormous because of the number of PCs on desks all around Australia and parts of the world. Planning for future e-learning requirements is crucial.

“You can’t just simply make changes to the network or the software configurations across the organization, and you can’t just go and install sound cards on every PC. When it comes to installing speakers into every PC, not only have you got the cost of the hardware, you’ve got the time and cost involved to be actually going through and doing it,” MacDonald says. “That means we’ve got to really plan what e-learning functionality we want our IT area to support five years out, including what clearances we will need, what performance testing across the system we will need, how it is going to be operated, and what governance is in place.

“After all, virtual classrooms are not something new, video and audio streaming on the Internet is not something new, so you’ve really got to say to these people, well if you really need that, let’s look at realistically planning how we are going to get there with the IT area. Because it’s all, once again, money, and making sure and having good examples of good interactive e-learning content that doesn’t need all the bells and whistles.”

Which leads us to another lesson MacDonald and his team have learnt along the way: that those developing e-learning solutions must work with someone who understands IT. All the evidence suggests that e-learning projects that are run by the IT department are likely to run short on educational benefit, he says, but without IT input projects can easily go off the rails.

“We’ve always taken on board that we’ve run it as an educationalist project, but you obviously need IT input, especially in an organization as complex as ours. And what we did was bring in an IT project manager that was a liaison between the various IT areas within Defence, and our own project. He understood the forms that we needed to fill out, he understood what we could and couldn’t do and was advising us before we made any decisions about which direction we were going to go, or wanted to go in, and was able to go and meet and explain in technical terms to other areas within IT what we were trying to do.”

It might not be a Chinese proverb, but there is one more lesson Defence had to learn the hard way: that more haste very often means less speed. Flexible Learning Solutions started its e-learning project on May 26 last year and went live with its first pilot in November. “That was quite intense,” MacDonald says.

In retrospect, he says, although the work was completed in an impressively short period of time, Defence could and probably should have spent longer in design than development, since it found itself often having to redesign pieces once it saw them in operation.

“I think a longer design period would have probably alleviated some of those ongoing problems,” he says.

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