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NEWSLETTER: Vol. 5, No. 8, May 17, 2000

Unlocking the Potential of Advanced Distributed Learning through Standards:
Where does the UW System fit in?

by Judy Brown, Emerging Technology Analyst,
and Ed Meachen, Associate Vice President, Learning and Information Technology,
UW System Administration

As reported in the February 15 TTT, the UW System and the Wisconsin Technical College System have entered into a partnership with the Department of Defense to establish the Wisconsin Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Laboratory. At first glance this may appear an unlikely partnership. You may ask, what is the federal government -- and especially the Department of Defense -- doing in the area of Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL), and why should academia care?

First of all, what is ADL?

The Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative began in 1997 as a new approach to developing, delivering, and managing learning on a global scale. It is made possible through the use of common, open-architecture standards and the convergence of computing, communications, and information technologies—with the power to tailor learning to individual and organizational needs and deliver it anytime and anywhere it is needed. Advanced refers to the next generation learning environment made possible through the systematic integration of computing, communications, and information technologies. Distributed is defined as the capability to use common standards and network technologies in order to provide learning anywhere and anytime. Learning is defined as the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Learning is accomplished through the integration of education, training, and performance aiding in a comprehensive, supportive system.

The ADL strategy is to: exploit existing network-based technologies; create platform-neutral, reusable courseware and content to lower costs; promote widespread collaboration to satisfy common needs; enhance performance with emerging and next-generation learning technologies; develop a common framework that drives the commercial off-the-shelf cycle; establish a coordinated implementation process; and develop common standards and guidelines.

How did it begin?

The federal government, the corporate sector, and higher education have been moving separately toward distributed learning, also known as network or Web-based learning, along parallel lines since at least 1995, around the time of the beginning of the Internet's incredible growth. The Department of Defense took the lead for all federal government agencies in examining the promise of network-based learning.

The Quadrennial Defense Review, kicked off in 1996, initiated an in-depth study of the potential for learning technology to significantly improve military readiness while reducing costs. This was considered a high priority as the DoD currently educates 2.5 million military personnel and civilians using approximately 20,000 courses at a cost of about $19 billion annually to operate and maintain the schools and classrooms.

Research by the DoD, and more specifically by the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), into the benefits of using learning technologies showed a 30 percent increase in student achievement; a reduction of training time by about 30 percent; and a reduction of costs by about 30 percent. Despite these benefits, only a small percentage (about 4 percent) of courses offered by the military used any type of learning technology.

Following this review, the Defense Department recommended that all its education and training begin implementing network-based education wherever appropriate. Their vision was to provide access to the highest quality education and training, tailored to individual needs, delivered cost effectively, anywhere and anytime.

Sound familiar?

After further study, the Department of Defense findings led to Executive Order 13111 entitled "Using Technology to Improve Training Opportunities for Federal Government Employees," issued on January 12, 1999. This order charged the DoD with leading collaborative standards development.

During this same period in the late 1990s, higher education was taking advantage of the Internet to experiment with distributed learning in order to shift from a "classroom-centric" model to an increasingly "learner-centric" model. Here in Wisconsin, the UW System Board of Regents issued its "Study of the University of Wisconsin System in the 21st Century." The Regents' report paralleled exactly the directions of the federal government and corporate trainers. "Instructional technology and distance education," the report stated, "are essential for expanding and improving the student learning experience for all students on campus and returning adults. The underlying goal is to use these tools to develop an enhanced student-centered learning environment and to remove time and place as barriers to learning."

The University of Wisconsin System set out to make this vision a reality through initiatives such as UW Learning Innovations, Web-based learning "utilities" and The Pyle Center.

At the same time, corporate America and private education and training organizations were pursuing similar paths.

How important are standards?

At this time, there were several standards bodies working on similar learning standards including IEEE, the aviation industry’s CBT AICC standard, and the EDUCAUSE IMS metadata project. The Department of Defense has taken a leadership role in bringing all the disparate standards organizations together to agree upon a set of simplified core standards for distributed learning. Today these standards bodies are collaborating on the new Sharable Courseware Object Reference Model (SCORM) specifications which provide the foundation for how organizations will use learning technologies to build and operate in the learning environment of the future.

Without the adoption of standards, none of the ADL vision would be possible. Today’s proprietary systems prohibit moving content easily from one system to another.

On January 31, 2000, the ADL Initiative released the initial set of SCORM specifications and guidelines. Many commercial vendors and technology firms, including international standards bodies, declared their support of this release. The goal of the first version of the ADL SCORM centers around Web-based learning content and is intended to enable the following:

These standards, out in draft form now, are waiting to be tested and applied to our current courseware. Keep in mind that standards are nothing more than rules that make the job easier for the faculty, curricular designer, and technologist. If faculty find technology easy to use and easy to apply to their teaching, they will be much more willing to experiment with it.

The Department of Defense refers to the advantages of distributed learning standards as "ilities" such as accessibility, interoperability, adaptability, reusability, durability,and affordability. These "ilities" really make this distributed learning format cheaper, easier to use, and most importantly, allow us to move our content—with a minimum of work—from system to system as technology changes!

Accomplishment of standards design will lead to shareable courseware from across the World Wide Web assembled in real time and on demand to provide learning and assistance anytime, anywhere.

The ADL Co-Lab is soliciting federal, academic, and private sector participation in a series of "plug-fest" events to be conducted quarterly throughout the remainder of the year to demonstrate the interoperability and reusability of ADL prototypes and to refine and update the SCORM. On August 2, vendors will assemble at The Pyle Center for the academic "plug-fest."

What is the Co-Lab?

The Department of Defense established the ADL Co-Laboratory in 1999 to foster the collaborative research, development, and assessment of the common tools, standards, content, and guidelines for the Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative. As the focal point for the new SCORM specification, the ADL Co-Lab will provide a forum and technical support for developing and assessing prototype tools and content that adheres to the new evolving specification.

Two "independent" ADL Co-Labs have since been established in Orlando, Florida, and in Madison. The Joint Orlando Co-Lab was established to promote collaborative development of ADL prototypes and ADL systems acquisitions, principally among DoD components. In January 2000, an academic Co-Lab was established to promote collaborative development, demonstration, and evaluation of next generation learning technologies that enable distributed learning, principally among academic institutions. The physical location of the Wisconsin ADL Co-Lab is The Pyle Center, but it is also located virtually throughout the state. All three Laboratories work together to share research, subject-matter expertise, common tools, and course content through a virtual ADL Co-Lab network.

The ADL Co-Lab also will provide an open environment for testing and evaluating learning technologies and content. It will help determine how learning technologies can be designed to bring about specific, targeted instructional outcomes reliably, within as wide a range of instructional settings as possible. Other research areas include determining the most effective methods to:

The ADL Initiative, therefore, is a cooperative effort between the public and private sectors to develop and share common standards, reusable learning tools, and content that will drive the growth of -- and universal access to -- the knowledge resources needed to fuel a nation of highly skilled, competitive, and adaptive life-long learners.

The ADL Initiative and the Sharable Courseware Object Reference Model are notable achievements and have been widely recognized and supported by major U.S. businesses and universities. Wisconsin is well positioned in this initiative.

For further information please visit or If you are interested in participating in the Wisconsin ADL Co-Lab initiatives, please email

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