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NEWSLETTER: Vol. 5, No. 5, February 15, 2000

UW System, Technical Colleges, and Department of Defense Create New Partnership for Web-based Learning

by Jennifer Smith

On January 10, representatives from the UW System, the Wisconsin Technical College System, and the Department of Defense signed an agreement green-lighting a unique project in Web-based learning. The fruit of this agreement, the Wisconsin Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Laboratory, will be housed in Madison. Space will be provided by UW-Madison's state-of-the-art Pyle Center, Madison Area Technical College, and Learning Innovations (a division of UW Extension). Known as the Wisconsin ADL Co-Lab for short, the laboratory will be a place for researching, developing, and assessing the latest in learning technologies. It will also be a center for devising standards for Web "learning objects," allowing for smooth transfer of information between computer systems, regardless of a particular user's hardware.

This is the first such partnership between the Department of Defense and academe, but not the first ADL Co-Lab. The primary focus of the Wisconsin lab's work will be "anytime, anywhere" learning -- Web-based teaching materials that can be accessed by users from any location, at any time of the day or night, provided they have an Internet connection. The Department of Defense's concern is adequate, up-to-date, and cost-effective training for its military and civilian workforce. Currently, the Defense Department spends about $14 billion per year on classroom education for military and civilian personnel. Web-based teaching modules could cut costs and make it easier to share training modules that are applicable to numerous departments, like the Departments of Justice, Education, Transportation, and so on.

So, one may ask, what is in the new partnership for Wisconsin higher education? As Ed Meachen, UW System Assoc. Vice President for Learning and Information Technology, stated, "Unquestionably, higher education will directly benefit from this." By joining efforts with the Department of Defense, Wisconsin's education community will be at the forefront of emerging standards for Web-based learning. This sentiment was echoed by Doug Bradley, UW Extension's Public Information Officer. As Bradley put it, "This is a wonderful opportunity for the UW System to provide leadership with the federal government and other partners."

The ADL project (albeit not the Wisconsin wing) has already released the first version of the Sharable Courseware Object Reference Model, or SCORM. SCORM provides specifications and guidelines for how the Department of Defense will use learning technology "to build, and operate in, the learning environment of the future," according to the ADL website. Meachen expects SCORM to set the prevailing standards for structuring and moving course content, standards that will be adhered to not just by the government, but universities as well. Companies that produce non-SCORM-compliant products may find themselves left behind in the marketplace.

Involvement in the ADL Co-Lab project may also strengthen Wisconsin's workforce through the development of high-quality Web-based teaching materials. As UW System President Katharine Lyall was quoted in Madison's Capital Times (1/11/00), "For employers, it's going to mean the ability to recruit and retain skilled workers and to regularly increase their productivity through accessible and cost-effective course work." Online skill-building can be especially useful to the non-traditional student population and other students with significant work commitments.

And, of course, whatever solutions research at the Pyle Center yields, results can be used to inform the course design of online UW classes. Several UW campuses have programs that can be completely entirely online, and many courses at all campuses incorporate some amount of Web-based learning. Madison's ADL Co-Lab will provide a focused facility to develop, demonstrate, and evaluate new possibilities for high-tech learning. Emphasis will be on the reusability, portability, accessibility, and durability of "learning objects" on the Web. The phrase "Learning objects" encompasses any type of learning material -- from downloadable reading assignments, chat rooms for discussion of course materials, illustrated audio presentations, and the like.

Doug Bradley of UW Extension summarized the Co-Lab project as "essentially, another iteration of the Wisconsin Idea," the 150-year-old conception that the boundaries of the university system are the boundaries of the state -- or, in this digital age, beyond all boundaries. Central to the Wisconsin Idea is making education available to all residents, regardless of where they live and work. Just as Wisconsin has been a pioneer in educational radio broadcasting and correspondence work, now the state is poised as a leader in the latest high-tech modes of instructional delivery.

Specific technologies that may be explored at the Co-Lab include sophisticated hand-held devices, electronic books, and a product under development called the Intelligent Tutor. The Intelligent Tutor has been used with success in remedial education and shows promise for being adapted for remedial math and writing instruction in the UW System. It may also be adapted for workplace training.

The initial groundwork for the ADL project was laid in 1997, when the Department of Defense launched a plan to implement ADL under the leadership of the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The DOD has been seeking to privatize part of its training and reduce educational costs. So far, UW System has not provided any money for the Co-Lab project; expertise and staff time have been provided on an in-kind basis. Eventually, some funds are expected to come from the private sector.

The Wisconsin ADL Co-Lab, as a sort of "virtual lab," does not have an opening date; projects between the partners are already underway. As of now, there is no specified ending date for the project; all partners will have to see how work progresses and how quickly standards and new pathways for Web learning can be devised. Judy Brown of the technical colleges, a leadership committee of upper-level administrators, and a working group to manage individual projects will provide leadership.

All in all, the January agreement signed by UW System, the technical college system, and the Defense Department bodes well for Wisconsin's high profile in the development of Web-based learning. It stands to benefit not only the government but also students and workers in need of flexible, "anytime, anywhere" learning throughout the state of Wisconsin.

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