The ADL Initiative is a US government program, reporting to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Force Education and Training, under the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Readiness. ADL was established to help programs, initiatives, and policies better support flexible, lifelong learning through the use of technology.
The ADL Initiative bridges across Defense and other Federal agencies, as well as coalition partners and industry and academia, to encourage collaboration, facilitate interoperability, and promote best practices for using distributed learning to provide the highest-quality education, training, informal learning, and just-in-time support, tailored to individual needs and delivered cost-effectively, anytime and anywhere.
The ADL Initiative pursues three broad lines of effort:
- Thought Leadership: ADL aspires to serve as a leader for forward-looking distributed learning topics within the DoD, other national and coalition governmental agencies, and the greater professional community. For ADL, thought leadership involves the curation (i.e., collection, validation, synthesis, maintenance, and dissemination) of relevant requirements, emerging targets of opportunity, corresponding strategic roadmaps, and associated policy guidance. Effective thought leadership also includes the cultivation of stakeholder buy-in for the advocated strategies, plans, and policies.
- R&D Innovation: ADL strives to develop the next-generation of distributed learning science techniques and technologies via research, development, and collaboration. In accordance with its original mandate, ADL’s R&D work seeks to develop and assess advanced distributed learning prototypes that enable more effective, efficient, and affordable learner-centric lifelong learning. These R&D activities span six technical areas: e-learning, mobile learning, learning theory, web-based virtual worlds and simulations, learning analytics and performance modeling, and interoperability infrastructure.
- Outreach and Transition: Finally, ADL works closely with stakeholders to help them implement effective, coordinated advanced distributed learning solutions. This includes coordination via ADL’s professional communities of practice, the Defense ADL Advisory Committee, international governmental bodies (such as NATO), and the ADL Global Partnership Network.
ADL Program History
The ADL Initiative traces its antecedents to the early 1990s, when Congress authorized and appropriated funds for the National Guard to build prototype electronic classrooms and learning networks to increase personnel’s access to learning opportunities. By the mid-1990s, DoD realized the need for a more coordinated approach, and the 1996 Quadrennial Defense Review formalized this by directing development of a Department-wide strategy for modernizing technology-based education and training. This strategy became the original ADL Initiative, and in 1998, the Deputy Secretary of Defense directed the Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness (USD(P&R), in collaboration with the Services, Joint Staff, Under Secretaries of Defense for Acquisition and Technology and the Comptroller), to lead ADL. The Deputy Secretary of Defense also directed the USD(P&R) to produce the Department-wide policy for advanced distributed learning, develop a corresponding “master plan” to carry out the policy, and to ensure sufficient programs and resources were available for the associated implementation (see the 1999 ADL Strategic Plan for more details).
By 1998, the DoD and other Federal agencies (e.g., the Department of Labor) had each established their own ADL projects, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) moved to consolidate these via the Federal Training Technology Initiative. Thus, following guidance from Congress, OSTP, and the National Partnership for Reinventing Government, the DoD ADL Initiative was grown into a Federal-wide program. Specific direction for this can be found in Section 378 of Public Law 105-261, the Strom Thurmond National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1999, which required the Secretary of Defense to develop a strategic plan for expanding distance learning initiatives, as well as Executive Order 13111 (President William J. Clinton, 12 January 1999), which called for an integrated Federal-wide approach to distance learning.
Shortly after President Clinton signed Executive Order 13111, the Pentagon released the Department of Defense Strategic Plan for Advanced Distributed Learning (April 30, 1999) and the corresponding Department of Defense Implementation Plan for Advanced Distributed Learning (May 19, 2000). These prescient documents defined the ADL Initiative, its rationale and vision, in a way that still largely aligns with the contemporary program. For instance, from page 8:
Importantly, the Initiative’s underpinnings and applications are germane not only to the Department of Defense, but to other government organizations, academia, and the private sector, as well. The ADL Initiative, therefore, is a structured, adaptive, collaborative effort between the public and private sectors to develop the standards, tools, and learning content for the future learning environment. The Department of Defense’s vision is to harness the power of the Internet and other virtual or private wide-area networks (WANs) to deliver high-quality learning. It brings together intelligent tutors, distributed subject matter experts, real-time in-depth learning management, and a diverse array of support tools to ensure a responsive, high-quality “learner-centric” system (DoD Strategic Plan for ADL, 1999).
And later, on page 9:
The advanced distributed learning strategy requires re-engineering the learning paradigm from a “classroom-centric” model to an increasingly “learner-centric” model, and re-engineering the learning business process from a “factory model” (involving mainly large education and training institutions) to a more network-centric “information-age model” which incorporates anytime-anywhere learning (DoD Strategic Plan for ADL, 1999).
Similarly, the objectives outlined in that 1999 strategy still guide today’s ADL Initiative. For instance, the original strategy proposed pursuit of emerging network-based technologies, creation of common standards to enable reuse and interoperability of learning content, lowering of development costs, widespread promotion of collaboration to satisfy common needs, enhancing performance with next-generation learning technologies, working closely with industry to influence the commercial product development cycles, establishing coordinated implementation processes, and ultimately delivering efficient and effective high-quality learning continuously to DoD anytime/anywhere. The original intent of these efforts (which is still valid today) was to establish learning that was accessible (anytime/anywhere), interoperable (across developers and technical platforms), durable (does not require redesign when technology changes), and cost-effective (significantly increases learning effectiveness while reducing time, costs, and duplications of effort).
These aims were to be achieved by taking five actions (which, again, still hold relevance today; see the DoD Strategy for ADL, 1999, p. 10):
- Influence the development/use of common industry standards
- Enable acquisition of interoperable tools and content
- Create a robust and dynamic network infrastructure for distribution
- Enable the modernization of supporting resources
- Engender cultural change to move from a “classroom-centric” to a “learner-centric” model
Mike Parmentier, the OSD Director for Readiness and Training Policy and Programs, who supervised the original ADL Initiative director published in March 2000 (p. 4):
The ADL Initiative is designed to leverage the full power of communications, information, and learning technologies—through the use of collaboratively developed common standards…The challenge to teachers is to understand and apply the new technologies in concert with, in addition to, or in some cases in place of, traditional learning methods. The challenge to developers is to design methods of instruction and content that are open-architecture, shareable, high quality, and cost effective. The challenge to the information technology sector is to field an infrastructure that supports anytime, anywhere learning with appropriate bandwidth, transaction security, and robustness that is transparent to the learner. These are not easy challenges. They require unprecedented collaboration and consensus building.
This quotation highlights ADL’s long-term mission as well as its enduring core values, including active inclusion of learning science best practices with advanced technology development, dedication to open and interoperable technologies, a learner-centric focus, and unique commitment to widespread collaboration. Although, technologies have advanced since 1999 and requirements have evolved, the original ADL mission and vision still ring true today.
ADL Program Stakeholders
The ADL Initiative originated as a DoD-wide program, and Defense personnel have been—and remain—the core constituents of ADL. However, with the policy documents published in the late 1990s, ADL received direction to also serve the entire Federal workforce as well as international partners, industry, and academia. In short, ADL’s stakeholders, in rough order of priority include, the US Defense and security sector, US Federal government, coalition military partners, and other distributed learning professionals from industry, professional societies, and academic institutions.
Since its inception, ADL has emphasized collaboration. The two primary program offices, in Alexandria and Orlando, were originally named “Collaboration Laboratories” (or Co-Labs, for short) to emphasize this cooperation, and they were explicitly designed as cooperative sandbox environments, where government, industry and academia could come together to test commercial product offerings against learning requirements (Parmentier, 2000).