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Digital Learning Modernization: Making It Real

A Conversation with the Stakeholders

November 19, 2021

An important component of the U.S. National Defense Strategy is the modernization of DoD’s education and training systems—through the development of new technologies, advances in learning science, and implementation of new policies and business practices. To lay the strategic foundation for DoD’s interoperable future learning ecosystem, the Department in 2020 formalized the Enterprise Digital Learning Modernization (EDLM) initiative.

The ADL Initiative is assigned under EDLM to lead two projects intended to improve personnel access to learning opportunities across the DoD (the Enterprise Course Catalog, or ECC), and improve tracking and sharing of learner accomplishments (the Enterprise Learner Record Repository, or ELRR). These projects are designed to support requirements among military and civilian organizations throughout the DoD. To ensure their interoperability, the ECC and ELRR capabilities are being developed in collaboration with stakeholders within the Army, Navy, Air Force, the Joint Knowledge Online (JKO) program, the Defense Acquisition University (DAU), and the Defense Civilian Personnel Advisory Service (DCPAS).

This article shares a two-part conversation between the ADL Initiative’s ECC and ELRR technical project manager, Ashley Howell (SETA CTR) and partners from the Naval Education and Training Command (NETC) and the Air Education Training Command (AETC). It highlights their responses to questions regarding their involvement in both projects and how the projects fit into their broader plans for achieving learning ecosystem modernization.

Part 1 details Ashley’s conversation with Shelly Petruska, Chief of the Force Development Registrar Branch at AETC, about development of the ECC to serve as an interoperable Department-wide catalog of digital education and training offerings.

Part 1: AETC and the Enterprise Course Catalog

Air Education Training Command graphic

Ashley Howell: Hi Shelly. The ECC is not just another online course catalog, and it’s not an attempt to replace the hundreds of existing catalogs throughout the DoD. How is the ECC different, and how will it benefit the Air Force and the other Services?

Shelly Petruska: The Advanced Distributed Learning’s ECC combines all DoD course catalogs into a single searchable directory that’s easily accessible to all DoD personnel. The ECC benefits the Air Force by expanding developmental opportunities for Airmen and Guardians to participate in inter-Service and joint training not otherwise available, or searchable, for DAF [Department of the Air Force] personnel. A central repository provides the potential to synchronize foundational, occupational, and joint competency-based learning opportunities across all Services. Additionally, the ECC will provide DAF Learning Professionals the opportunity to leverage existing curriculum and training resources from the other branches, saving time and money.

As we combine efforts, the ECC supports the CSAF [Air Force Chief of Staff] Action Order: Airmen by normalizing and streamlining career field management across functional areas and as a joint force. As noted by Air Force Chief of Staff, General Charles Q. Brown, Jr., “…our Airmen need us to integrate and accelerate the changes necessary to explore new operational concepts and bring more rapidly the capabilities that will help them in the future fights.” (Accelerate Change or Lose, August 2020). The ECC initiative is just one way AETC continues to adopt new learning, training, and curriculum methodologies to provide Airmen with the necessary tools to aid their development and empower them in the future.

Ashley Howell: The ECC is being designed for interoperability. This means Air Force personnel will be able to access courses developed to train Army personnel. What are some of the challenges for sharing education and training content across different Services?

Shelly Petruska: The most critical challenges the DAF faces in sharing education and training content are the lack of system interoperability to access courses, a joint course name and number construct to identify similar courses, and the challenges in recording non-DAF course completions in current DAF systems of record. The ECC is designed to address and close interoperability gaps where possible.

Ashley Howell: How would you characterize the process for developing the ECC prototype? Any lessons learned from the collaboration with the ADL Initiative and our vendors?

Shelly Petruska: Throughout the ECC development, we’ve seen the complexities of data mapping, business processes, and challenges with lack of standards across all Services. This insight has helped us chart a clearer path forward as we guide the development of the DAF’s e-Catalog. The e-Catalog will be DAF’s enterprise-wide repository for all validated learning opportunities, to include informal and formal education, training, and experiences. By partnering with the DoD ADL ECC initiative, we are better positioned to face these challenges, ensuring we have a valuable force development tool for the DAF that is also compatible across the DoD.

Part 2: NETC and the Enterprise Learner Record Repository

Naval Education and Training Command graphic

The ELRR is being designed as a hire-to-retire record of personnel education and training activities. For this project, Ashley speaks with Benjamin Ervin, a NETC Program Analyst, about its goals, status, and lessons learned from the collaboration.

Ashley Howell: Thank you, Ben. I’d like to ask a few questions about our collaboration process and how we were able to develop solutions aligned with your needs.

Ben, the ELRR is being designed to follow personnel through every step of their careers (and could even capture pre-career transcripts and post-retirement learning). How will this support the Navy’s training readiness, in near-term implementations and over the long-term?

Benjamin Ervin: The ELRR and Navy Learner Records will provide us with a much more transparent and meaningful understanding about our Sailors. Near-term, this will help inform our recruiters, instructors, supervisors, etc. with their respective mission sets. Longer term, our vision is to utilize the data comprised within these Learner Records to implement and improve on Navy AI/ML [Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning]–based recommender capabilities for use in adaptive learning and automated and intelligent career management functions, as well as support an enterprise level training effectiveness and analytics capability.

A centralized and comprehensive record will enable Navy to find and place the best Sailor for a job or mission, provide good feedback to the Sailor and Leaders about progression (charted path through a career-continuum), and uncover other opportunities based on knowledge, skills, and abilities already achieved. We truly view this as a game-changer, and a foundational element of implementing a Total Learning Architecture.

Ashley Howell: The ELRR records will be accessible across the different Services. What are the technical challenges for achieving this kind of interoperability?

Benjamin Ervin: There are no shortage of technical obstacles that will need to be addressed to implement the ELRR. One particular challenge being considered at the DoD level revolves around the overall enterprise DoD Data Management strategy and architecture, and how DON [Department of the Navy] data strategies will align remains somewhat unclear today. A second challenge deals with the issue of PII [Personally Identifiable Information] and other sensitive data. For example, there remains a need to determine how the ELRR will function as individuals move from unclassified to classified learning environments, including how that related information gathered will be protected and handled.

Ashley Howell: What were some of the challenges for developing the ELRR? Were there any lessons learned from the collaboration?

Benjamin Ervin: One of the biggest challenges or barriers to making data usable across DoD Services is a lack of interoperability, necessitating the development of common data models and standards. This is a critical requirement on the path to creating and implementing a data fabric where common data elements can be captured across different, highly unique, and nuanced domains, and interpretable for use by different stakeholders and purposes. ADL Initiative is leading the charge to address this through the creation of an IEEE DoD Learner Record standard, which will ultimately inform the individual DoD Service Learner Record models and support interoperable and transparent data flows.

Ashley Howell: Regarding ELRR interoperability, what kind of insights will be possible with access to cross-organizational data? How about cross-Service consistency? For example, will Space Force course completions be relevant to Navy records for personnel transferring from one Service to the other?

Benjamin Ervin: We have examples every day of our Sailors, Soldiers, Airmen, and Marines participating in joint service training events, transitioning from one branch to another, or acquiring competencies in a Service-specific course that could align to a credential or certification consistent with completion of similar learning events in another service. The ELRR will allow the DoD to obtain a more complete picture of our Service-members and provide them with the information, tools and other resources needed to improve their personal, professional, and technical development throughout the course of their careers.

Ashley Howell: Among our plans for the ELRR is to enable “big data” analytics and AI to optimize, and even recommend, training pathways. How do you envision this working for the Navy? What benefits or insights are you most looking forward to?

Benjamin Ervin: The Naval Education and Training Command [NETC] is currently working towards the development and implementation of a program called MyNavy Learning [MNL], which is focused on delivering a Total Learning Architecture-based ecosystem of learning technologies building off of the ADL Initiative TLA blueprint. NETC’s MNL program seeks to leverage learner records that are relevant to the ELRR to support AI/ML recommender and adaptive learning capabilities. The benefits of such capabilities include improved curriculum development and training delivery, increased mission readiness levels, and data-driven analytics to support decision making processes.

The ECC and ELRR projects are developing cornerstone capabilities for EDLM and DoD’s vision for a future learning ecosystem. The ADL Initiative appreciates the support of stakeholders like AETC, NETC, and other DoD organizations working to make this vision a reality.

As these two projects advance to prototype testing, the ADL Initiative worked with vendors from Deloitte Consulting, LingaTech, and EdX to host tutorial webinars in August 2021 for other stakeholders planning to put these new tools to organizational use. The webinars were recorded and will be accessible soon on the ADL Initiative Webinars page for anyone interested in learning more about the projects.

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