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DoD Reform Effort Puts Digital Learning Systems at the Forefront

September 25, 2020

Today, DoD spends an estimated $500 million a year on digital learning products and services (a figure that doesn’t even include large military training systems, simulations, or classified training requirements). To make the most of this investment, DoD is undertaking the Enterprise Digital Learning Modernization (EDLM) initiative.

The Pentagon’s Reform Management Group approved EDLM in July 2018. In broad strokes, the reform first seeks to get a handle on DoD’s education and training spending—reducing duplications of effort, encouraging the use of shared services, and streamlining acquisition processes. Second, the reform seeks to encourage interoperability at the DoD-wide level. This starts by building an enterprise course catalog and an enterprise learning record repository, but the ultimate vision is to have a Department-wide federated digital learning ecosystem.

Hon. Lisa W. Hershman discussing EDLM during keynote at iFEST2020
Hon. Lisa W. Hershman discussing EDLM during keynote at iFEST2020.

DoD’s Chief Management Officer (CMO), the Honorable Lisa W. Hershman, chairs the Reform Management Group. At the iFEST 2020 conference, she recently shared her perspectives on EDLM. “While DoD’s modernization efforts have definitely improved, challenges still remain regarding acquisition management and leveraging DoD’s federated business enterprise architecture. EDLM is addressing these challenges with a plan for modernization of our education and training systems…. EDLM is transforming how DoD provides education and training to its workforce. This is an important culture shift in how we do business.”

Shifting the Digital Learning Business Culture

Historically, each DoD organization has independently acquired its own digital learning systems, software, courseware, and other services. This approach can lead to unnecessary duplication and may not result it the best value for the money spent. Hence, EDLM’s first goal is to transform the way DoD buys and maintains its digital learning capabilities.

Specifically, the Reform Management Group directed DoD organizations to use an assisted acquisition approach to ensure good category management. That basically means that DoD organizations need to make their education and training spending transparent across the agency and use common mechanisms – like shared contracts and enterprise licenses – to find more efficiencies and higher return-on-investment. (The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued guidance on this practice in 2019, see OMB Memo M-19-13, Category Management: Making Smarter Use of Common Contract Solutions and Practices.)

The EDLM reform encourages DoD organizations to use the Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) USALearning program as a hub for acquiring unclassified products and services that support education and training. As an OPM organization (per 5 USC § 4116), USALearning is formally permitted to “advise and assist in the establishment, operation, and maintenance of the training programs.” And (per 5 USC § 1304(e)(1)), it may use a “revolving fund…without fiscal year limitation.”

USALearning is also identified by OMB as a “Best in Class” solution for acquiring education and training products and services under the Human Capital category. That designation goes to government-wide contracts that satisfy strict criteria to ensure they’re well-managed and recommended for use. (The General Services Administration maintains the “Best in Class” listings and other resources on their Acquisition Gateway.)

Said another way, USALearning provides management support (i.e., P/SaaS support for open-source, commercial, and government off-the-shelf software and other configurable solutions) as well as acquisition services for digital learning systems. That means the program has resident subject-matter experts and contracting personnel who help other government organizations with their requirements, contracting, purchasing, and maintenance processes.

Building DoD’s Lifelong Learning Ecosystem

In addition to innovating the procurement of digital learning systems, EDLM is establishing the roadmap for a DoD-wide learning ecosystem. This isn’t about moving to a single learning management system (LMS) for all DoD organizations. It’s about creating an enterprise architecture, made up of interconnected education and training systems, operating as a cohesive system-of-systems. This learning ecosystem emphasizes the use of modern technological approaches, including broad interoperability, and it focuses on exposing and using learning-related data across the Department.

“If you think about the President’s Management Agenda,” Hon. Hershman explained during iFEST 2020, “it has three prioritized areas of reform. Number one is to modernize information technology. Number two is data accountability and transparency. And three is the workforce of the twenty-first century. The EDLM initiative accomplishes reform success in all three areas.”

Example of a list of courses from search results as displayed in the Enterprise Course Catalog prototype
Example of a list of courses from search results as displayed in the Enterprise Course Catalog prototype.

One notable piece of the ecosystem is an enterprise course catalog. Currently in development, this catalog is envisioned as a portal that federates the local course catalog data from across DoD into a single searchable location. Once launched, DoD users will be able to find course information from one location instead of going to multiple websites (with perhaps numerous logins) to gain access.

An early prototype of the catalog is currently running on the ADL Initiative’s development environment on USALearning servers. It contains metadata from more than 50,000 courses. The next phase of the project is underway with developmental testing anticipated in FY21.

The envisioned EDLM learning ecosystem will also incorporate an enterprise learner record repository. Similar to the enterprise course catalog, this repository will aggregate data from across the agency. Specifically, it will federate data on learners’ performance and other relevant personal characteristics from across various platforms.

Currently, learning records reside across a variety of DoD systems using countless disparate data formats, making the data difficult to access. As a result, DoD is not able to fully leverage all of its rich training, education, and personnel readiness data. The enterprise learner record repository is meant to address this challenge by making learner performance data broadly interoperable. In time, this can translate into tailored content and personalized learning, which is more effective and efficient than the one-size-fits-all sort of learning. This can support adaptive instruction, improve data-driven decision making, and generate analytical insights into learners and the systems they interact with.

The Road to Reform

EDLM traces back to an overarching federal reform that was initiated by Executive Order 13781. It directed executive branch agencies to identify ways to improve their efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability. Responding on behalf of DoD, the Secretary of Defense identified nine areas for reform, including IT and Business Systems. One of the subareas under that larger category focused on LMS reform. This effort kicked-off around March 2018 and originally had a simple goal: Reduce the number of LMSs used across the DoD. The initial concept was to move all DoD e-learning to a single, or at least a small handful, of enterprise-wide LMS software applications. However, it soon became clear that this wouldn’t satisfy the reform’s intent.

While simply reducing the number of LMS applications might have reduced DoD’s LMS license and maintenance costs, it wouldn’t have yielded the kind of true efficiencies or readiness improvements the CMO wanted. Transitioning the existing e-learning courseware (scattered across hundreds of existing LMSs) would have proven prohibitively time and labor intensive. Additionally, traditional LMS applications are inching toward obsolescence. Although still broadly applicable today, they’re frequently supplemented by more diverse digital learning delivery platforms (e.g., smartphones, virtual and augmented reality, e-books) and by disaggregated software services, like separate software apps for content, quizzes, and records. Simply creating one big LMS for all of DoD wouldn’t work. Instead, the Reform Management Group approved a different approach, which is now EDLM, in June 2018.

In a memo from July 2018, the CMO approved three lines of effort for the EDLM reform, specifically agreeing to:

  • Direct DoD to use OPM USALearning for assisted acquisition for training and education;
  • Direct the use of an Enterprise Course Catalog; and
  • Direct the use of an Enterprise Learner Record Repository
In March 2019, Margaret Weichert (left) and Lisa W. Hershman (right) signed an OPM-DoD memorandum of agreement for DoD enterprise digital learning reform
In March 2019, Margaret Weichert (left) and Lisa W. Hershman (right) signed an OPM-DoD memorandum of agreement for DoD enterprise digital learning reform.

The acting OPM director, Margaret M. Weichert, and then-acting DoD CMO, Lisa W. Hershman, signed a memorandum of agreement defining their mutual plans for EDLM on 26 March 2019.

Shortly after, on 26 April 2019, the DoD CMO also issued a memo directing all DoD Components to participate in the reform, and Hon. Hershman once again reinforced her commitment to EDLM with a memo dated 8 April 2020.

Since the reform was approved in 2018, DoD has made significant progress toward its major goals. For example, the CMO set and began regular monitoring of benchmarks for the reform’s success. USALearning began expanding its workforce to support anticipated growth in procurement customers, and in collaboration with DoD, USALearning established an automated Project Portal to make it easier for DoD organizations to submit and monitor acquisition requests.

DoD also established an executive steering committee for EDLM, comprised of senior executives representing education and training perspectives from military, civilian, and DoD intel communities as well as an Office of the CMO representative.

The ADL Initiative has taken significant responsibility for realizing the DoD-wide learning ecosystem, working with the Office of the CMO to expedite development of the Total Learning Architecture (TLA) and undertaking projects focused on the enterprise course catalog and enterprise learner record repository.

Upcoming milestones for the reform effort include issuing a user guide to DoD organizations to help them better use USALearning assisted acquisition, beginning developmental testing of the enterprise course catalog, and early-phase development of the enterprise learner record repository. Continue following the ADL Initiative for progress on these efforts.

Additional EDLM Resources