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iFEST 2021 Wrap-Up: Pandemic Lessons-Learned for DoD Education and Training

September 28, 2021

iFEST 2021 focused on the growing imperative for education and training innovation, including data-centric reforms needed to create a DoD-wide interoperable learning ecosystem. Over 525 participants joined the virtual discussion to learn from policymakers, senior military officials, and technology leaders from industry, government, and academia.

iFEST 2021 graphic artwork
iFEST 2021’s theme was Learning and Thriving in the New Normal.

The iFEST conference is sponsored annually by the National Training and Simulation Association (NTSA) in collaboration with the ADL Initiative. It has become an important venue for discussions on the modernization of DoD’s education and training enterprise. Like last year’s conference, the organizers opted to hold iFEST 2021 in a virtual format due to COVID-19, and the online venue included keynote speakers, panels sessions, technical presentations, and other activities organized around the theme Learning and Thriving in the New Normal.

The three-day conference featured keynotes from Congressman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, Chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor; U.S. Army Major General Donn Hill, Provost of the Army University, and Deputy Commandant of the Command and General Staff College; and Dustin Brown, SES, Deputy Assistant Director for Management at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Other senior military panelists included U.S. Air Force Major General Andrea Tullos of the Air Education and Training Command (AETC); U.S. Army Brigadier General Charles Lombardo of the Army Combined Arms Center - Training; and Brigadier General Ilmars Lejins of Latvia, representing NATO Allied Command Transformation (ACT).

iFEST 2021 virtual venue with people and expo hall
iFEST 2021’s virtual venue included opportunities for real-time networking during live and recorded presentations.

Coupling Technology with Policy to Address Shifts in Workforce Supply and Demand

Day-one keynote speakers Dustin Brown and Rep. Bobby Scott provided remarks about President Biden’s “Build Back Better” initiative and its inclusion of workforce education, training, and performance enhancement priorities.

Brown presented emphasized evidence-based workforce equity, diversity, and safety. He described the growing need for federal agencies to coordinate with colleges and universities to inspire interest and support for government service, through internships, mentorships, guest lectures, and other collaborations. According to Brown, federal agencies are catalysts for bringing together industry, academia, and other groups to raise ideas and garner consensus for policy initiatives.

iFEST 2021 government keynote slide and video livestream screenshot
ADL Initiative Director Sae Schatz, Ph.D., introduces Dustin Brown for the first iFEST 2021 keynote address.

Rep. Scott described his progress in Congress with legislation and appropriations for workforce development, including simulation and training, apprenticeships, and digital literacy programs of interest to the iFEST audience—especially in response to the ongoing pandemic situation. He described his actions to champion legislation for workforce training and other employment protections, with provisions to increase federal funding for these and other programs.

Later, a panel of industry and academic leaders discussed the new normal of using distributed learning to address workforce education and training challenges, and for academic institutions as an alternative to classroom instruction. This panel, including executives from Amazon (Rebecca Allyn), Intel (Brian Gonzalez), Microsoft (Anthony Salcito) and QS Quacquarelli Symonds (Nunzio Quacquarelli), and senior academic officials from the University of Exeter (Tim Quine, Ph.D.) and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania (Jerry Wind, Ph.D.), described their efforts.

Later that day, another panel focused on implementing digital learning modernization, and featured executives from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation (Jason Tyszko), edX (John Schwartz), MITRE (Christina Rhylander), the Alliance for Digital Innovation (Matthew Cornelius), Accenture (Britaini Carroll), and Clay Strategic Designs (JJ Walcutt, Ph.D.). This discussion highlighted the large-scale shifts in workforce development. The panelists described how rapid technological advances are requiring organizations to provide continual workforce upskilling and reskilling at-scale, as they cannot simply hire more people to fill skill gaps. They also emphasized the importance of digital learning system interoperability to foster competition and improve competitiveness.

iFEST 2021 livestream screenshot of participants
JJ Walcutt, Ph.D., of Clay Strategic Designs led a panel discussion on digital learning acquisitions among government and industry organizations.

Learning, Development, and Data…On the Rocks

Special guests Major General Tullos, Brigadier General Lombardo, and Hon. Alan R. Shaffer (a former DoD Deputy Under Secretary for Acquisition and Sustainment) provided insights on the talent development challenges faced by DoD. This less-formal panel discussion with War On The Rocks CEO Ryan Evans was also recorded as a podcast and included suggestions for creating a blended, persistent training environment, with point-of-need training enabled by emerging learning technologies.

iFEST 2021 War on the Rocks participants
Ryan Evans moderated a panel discussion recorded for his popular War On The Rocks podcast series.

PME Takes Center Stage

Brigadier General Hill kicked off day two of the conference, offering another perspective on PME modernization for officers, noncommissioned officers, and civilians based on his leadership experience at the Army University. He explained that Army PME is trending toward student-centered, multi-modal outcome-based education, rather than instructor-driven education where success is measured by the number of hours assigned to a course or classroom.

The Army’s current challenge is to leverage the new technologies being developed by the ADL Initiative and other organizations to establish the kind of learning ecosystem described by other presenters at iFEST. With over three million individual Army distributed learning accounts, current efforts are aimed at expanding access to learning through mobile platforms, to augment classroom-based and traditional computer-based instruction.

International Collaboration

iFEST 2021 also explored the benefits of working with allied militaries to align their modernization strategies with the DoD. The Jefferson Institute has been working in support of ADL Initiative to demonstrate and validate digital learning technologies like xAPI during joint exercises. A panel moderated by the Jefferson Institute’s Aaron Presnall, Ph.D., brought together some of the leaders of these joint exercises to share their experiences. The panelists included Brigadier General Lejins, Colonel David Gagua of the NATO-Georgia Joint Training and Evaluation Center, Colonel Carl-Fredrik Kleman of the Swedish Armed Forces Joint Training Center, and Zoran Šajinović of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Ministry of Defense.

The panelists conveyed the importance of international collaboration for military education and training, as a means to ensure readiness consistency and interoperability among joint-use systems. This year’s iFEST conference attracted record-breaking attendance by international stakeholders, with a total of 56 registered participants from outside the U.S.

iFEST 2021 livestream screenshot of participants
Aaron Presnall, Ph.D., led a panel discussion with international partners pursuing joint learning system modernization.

Movers and Shakers for Modern Learning

The final live panel of iFEST 2021 brought together a diverse group of thought leaders from the Federation of American Scientists (Daniel Correa), the State of New Jersey (Beth Simone Noveck, Ph.D.), the Department of Veterans Affairs (Amy Parker), and the Defense Acquisition University (Alicia Sanchez, Ph.D., and Frank Kelley). These executives discussed ideas for moving beyond the current focus on agency-specific modernization efforts to ignite a whole-of-government culture of sustained learning innovation.

The keys to doing this involve a commitment to sound learning science, the development of policies to align scattered (and siloed) agency projects, programs for workforce-wide upskilling, and leveraging other centers of gravity (chief learning officers, successful projects in other agencies, etc.) to foster enterprise-wide modernization.

Sharing Technical Details to Advance the State of the Art

In addition to its live panels and keynote speeches on days one and two, iFEST 2021’s third and final day included concurrent live and pre-recorded technical presentations on topics ranging from new artificial intelligence and augmented/virtual reality applications to data standards and competency-management systems. Experts from throughout the military, government, academia, and industry shared the latest advances.

The pre-submitted content included recorded presentations, technology tutorials, and posters describing ongoing technology development projects. These are valuable intellectual resources that experts are sharing with their peers, partners, and competitors to advance the state of the art for everyone.

Screenshot of comic-style poster telling a story between characters view full pdf
The “Best Design” poster winner focused on modernizing legacy eLearning systems without tearing them down.
Screenshot of poster with title Moving From SCORM to xAPI: Where Does cmi5 Fit?, along with questions and data sections view full pdf
George Vilches’ poster on SCORM, xAPI, and cmi5 won the “Best Narrative” award.

Every year during iFEST, participants are asked to pick their favorite posters, with People’s Choice awards presented to those with the best design and best narrative. The People’s Choice winners for iFEST 2021 went to How to Keep Your Castle: Retrofitting ‘Brick and Mortar’ Training (by Jill Wierzba, Ed.D., Alysson Hursey, and Kathryn Thompson of SAIC) for best design, and Evolution of eLearning Standards: Moving From SCORM® to xAPI – Where Does cmi5 Fit? (by George Vilches of Rustici Software) for best narrative.

Online access to iFEST 2021’s recorded keynote speeches, panel sessions, technical presentations, and poster displays are available to registered participants through October 1, 2021 on the conference website. The ADL Initiative has also prepared a video that summarizes the conference highlights.

iFEST 2021 Highlight Video

iFEST 2021 Highlight Video

Become Involved in Next Year’s iFEST

Annual iFEST planning and implementation is supported by a committee of stakeholders representing DoD and other agencies, industry, and academic institutions. If you or your organization are interested in participating on the committee for 2022, contact Julie Lowndes (SETA contractor) of the ADL Initiative at by October 8, 2021.


Hursey, A., Thompson, K., Wierzba, J. (2021). How to keep your castle: Retrofitting ‘brick and mortar’ training [Poster presentation]. In Volume 2021 (Eds.), Proceedings of the 2021 iFEST Conference. Arlington, VA: National Training and Simulation Association.

Vilches, G. (2021). Evolution of eLearning standards: Moving from SCORM® to xAPI – where does cmi5 fit? [Poster presentation]. In Volume 2021 (Eds.), Proceedings of the 2021 iFEST Conference. Arlington, VA: National Training and Simulation Association.

Bradley, E. (2021, September 28). iFEST 2021 highlight video [Video] YouTube.