iFEST 2020: eLearning Vision Becomes Reality
The iFEST conference is an annual milestone for tracking the development of science, technologies, and policies for distributed learning. In 2020, amid a pandemic-driven global expansion of online collaboration, iFEST became an affirmation of the new distributed learning reality.
This year’s iFEST theme was “Working Out What Works: Creating Value From Innovation.” iFEST speakers told attendees to seize opportunities in the new distributed learning reality to modernize learning systems and create a “new normal.” Here are some of the key takeaways from iFEST 2020.
DoD is Embracing Digital Learning Modernization
iFEST began with a keynote address from the Honorable Lisa W. Hershman, DoD Chief Management Officer. She discussed the Enterprise Digital Learning Modernization (EDLM) reform effort. Consistent with the three lines of effort in the President’s Management Agenda, EDLM supports the modernization of information technology, provides data accountability and transparency, and promises to help build the twenty-first century workforce.
The EDLM reform includes two major goals: 1) modernize DoD’s digital learning systems by implementing a federated digital architecture and enterprise-wide data-centric processes, and 2) improve the way DoD buys and maintains its digital learning software and services. According to the Hon. Hershman, the EDLM effort is making progress in eliminating redundant systems, increasing the use of shared delivery services, and streamlining business operations for DoD digital learning.
EDLM policy and technology activities are moving forward at a rapid pace through collaborations among the ADL Initiative, Office of Personnel Management’s USALearning program, and other DoD stakeholders. Projects include the development of an Enterprise Course Catalog to consolidate online course access throughout DoD, an Enterprise Learner Record system that will track learner activities and accomplishments, and a consolidated acquisition process for education/training products and services.
Seize the Opportunity to Expand Distributed Learning
Brigadier General Ilmārs Lejiņš, NATO’s Assistant Chief of Staff for Joint Force Development, in his keynote address encouraged using technology to address challenges faced by the new reality, setting standards to make using technology easier, and seizing new opportunities to move distributed learning forward. From his home, he demonstrated a prototype virtual-reality headset that allowed him to train in real time with the Latvian Army “somewhere in the woods” in eastern Latvia.
BGen Lejiņš called on the community to see a silver lining within the crisis—an opportunity to accelerate the use of advanced distributed learning. He emphasized, “We now need to adopt proven methods from this [COVID-19] experience and embed them into a future ‘new normal’ before strategic impatience strikes us, and we are forced to settle for less.”
Special guests General Paul E. Funk II, Commanding General of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), and the Honorable Katrina McFarland, former Assistant Secretary of the Army (Acquisition, Logistics & Technology), also remarked on the acceleration of digital education and training during the pandemic. As part of a special War on the Rocks podcast production, host Ryan Evans discussed distributed learning technologies and the next generation of military training with the pair. GEN Funk shared his vision that any physical or synthetic location can become a learning environment. The three also discussed DoD’s response to COVID-19 interruptions in live force training as well as anticipated Congressional interest in new authorizations and appropriations for digital and synthetic training transformation.
John Kroger, the Navy’s first chief learning officer and now vice president of the Aspen Institute, described how the pandemic-driven shift from in-person to almost 100% virtual education at multiple DoD academic institutions (with over ten thousand students) has been “close to flawless.” One factor in this success was the institutions’ use of .edu networks instead of .mil domains. This gave them flexibility and freedom to pivot quickly in the face of the pandemic and to experiment with digital tools that wouldn’t have been permitted on military networks.
Making the Leap from R&D to Practice
As described by Dr. Jen Murphy of Quantum Improvements Consulting during an “Innovation in Digital Learning” panel, hundreds of promising distributed learning products/solutions have failed to make the leap from R&D to widespread acceptance and use. Among the many reasons has been their narrow focus on learners as the primary end-users—ignoring other stakeholders such as system administrators who integrate the technology or manage the data, course designers, and organizational managers.
In panel sessions focused on Learning Engineering and on Practical Innovations, experts such as Drs. Chris Dede and John Richards of the Harvard Graduate School of Education spoke of the need for a “60-year curriculum” to support lifelong learning, and Nunzio Quacquarelli of QS Quacquarelli Symonds, discussed the opportunities and challenges of using big data to tailor approaches to lifelong learning. They and other panelists shared examples of successful innovations in the delivery of digital education and training. For example, projects selected for QS Reimagine Education awards are demonstrating new approaches for this with machine learning, advanced analytics, and tools like facial recognition.
While these and other emerging technologies are allowing terabytes of data to fuel the future learning ecosystem, the abundance of data is presenting other challenges. Dr. JJ Walcutt of Clay Strategic Designs discussed issues with cognitive overload among learners as well as concerns about data privacy and security within the networks connected to the ecosystem.
Key Success Stories are Paving the Way in DoD
Multiple high-profile projects are blazing the trail to broader adoption of modern digital learning systems in DoD. For example, Tim Welch of the Naval Air Warfare Training Center described the Defense Health Agency’s ongoing work using the Total Learning Architecture (TLA) to bridge disparate healthcare learning programs into a seamless system serving the needs of thousands of healthcare personnel.
Dr. Keith Beurskens of the Army University presented on the Army Learning Ecosystem Concept (ALEC), a comprehensive transformation of the service’s approach to education and training. As part of a broader Army modernization strategy, ALEC aims establish the kinds of interoperability made possible by the TLA’s education/training standards and technologies.
The Defense Acquisition University (DAU), with Dr. Alicia Sanchez and multiple other speakers, highlighted their many modernization initiatives and keen interest in building an ecosystem with federated access to data about learners and online content. DAU is using xAPI and other TLA standards and tools to federate learner records and support online learning content delivery.
iFEST 2020 Exceeded Expectations and Remains Open until 2021
Due to the pandemic, this year’s event organizers were forced to make a late-date shift to a virtual format. A nimble committee led by Program Committee Chair Frank Kelly, DAU Vice President (BGen USMC, Ret.), and Conference Chair Dr. Aaron Presnall, president of the Jefferson Institute, and 2021 Chair Dr. Beurskens succeeded in transforming the event. iFEST 2020 also retained an impressive array of speakers, panelists, posters, sponsors, and exhibitors. Registrations outpaced those of 2019 by 25%, and this year’s 21 hours of live sessions and prerecorded content surpassed the amount of content offered last year by 25%.
iFEST 2020 was enabled by the creation of a custom interactive website, designed by the Jefferson Institute and the ADL Initiative. It allows synchronous and asynchronous participation, and it includes features such as discussion boards, in-site direct messaging, an exhibit hall, and a matchmaking board.
A presentation library houses the pre-recorded videos and recorded versions of the live talks, along with bios of the speakers. The site’s poster gallery showcases 10 graphic illustrations of distributed learning research. Attendees are able to rate and comment on the videos and posters, and the top-rated poster also received prizes. SAIC’s Dr. Jill Wierzba won both the Best Narrative and Best Design for her poster focusing on xAPI as a tool for capturing and curating learner data.
The entire site is instrumented with xAPI, a metadata standard that allows user participation monitoring. This technology enabled an automated presentation leaderboard. Participants also earned Continuous Learning Points (CLP) from DAU based upon their xAPI-based interactions. This proved to be a value benefit for participants who need to earn annual CLPs to maintain their occupational accreditations.
The iFEST 2020 website remained open through the end of the 2020 year. Registration was complimentary for military and government personnel.
Become Involved in Next Year’s iFEST
iFEST is sponsored by the National Training and Simulation Association. Conference planning and implementation is supported by a committee comprised of government, industry, and academic members. If you or your organization are interested in participating on the committee for 2021, contact Julie Lowndes (SETA contractor) of the ADL Initiative at firstname.lastname@example.org by 2 October, 2020.