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Australian military standardizes training with Web tool

Australian military standardizes training with Web tool

The Australian Defence Organisation believes that education advances its mission.

And, like other executives, Australian defense officials knew they had to find the most effective, cohesive way to deliver courses to the ADO's nearly 100,000 military and civilian personnel.

They wanted a single approach for the entire organization, one that would standardize content and control costs at the same time, says Brett MacDonald, director of Flexible Learning Solutions at the ADO.

MacDonald and his team scored big with the 2003 launch of the Defence Online Campus, a learning management system that attained those objectives. The initiative's success earned it a nod from the Computerworld Honors Program in the Education & Academia category for 2005.

"We can't say enough about it. We love it," says Wendy Horder, an Air Force wing commander who, as director of the Australian Defence Force Peacekeeping Center, is using the Web-based system to educate troops.

Cohesive approach

The Australian military had e-learning capabilities prior to the ADO-wide integrated system, but not all divisions had equal capabilities, MacDonald says. So as officials spent 2002 developing a business case, they were clear in their desire for a system that standardized educational policies and procedures -- which would allow for centralized IT and educational management.

"People were saying, 'Let's look at this in a strategic way: How is it going to improve how we deliver education and training? Let's go from that aspect.' So we took a step back and looked at what we needed to do," MacDonald says.

Team leaders then assembled all major stakeholders early in the process to better understand their requirements. That exercise produced a list with more than 700 desired functionalities from the army, navy, air force and various civilian groups.

The team hired Deloitte Consulting, which handled all aspects of the project, including the selection of software providers.

The Web-based Defence Online Campus is an integrated learning management system, learning content management system and basic content-creation tool. The software is supported on a centralized IT server and operates within the Defence Restricted Network, a WAN available to nearly all ADO personnel.

The learning management software comes from Thinq Learning Solutions, a Baltimore-based company acquired by Saba Software in 2005. An application called OutStart Evolution from Boston-based OutStart provides both the learning content management and content-creation functionality.

The team chose these vendors because they met more of those 700 requirements than the other finalists, and the software companies had experience working with the U.S. military, says Dane Buchardt, deputy director of Australia's Directorate of Flexible Learning Solutions.

Today, the Defence Online Campus offers about 150 e-learning courses. In fact, it's one of the largest nonacademic e-learning system implementations in Australia. The ADO's approach is to follow some of the best practices seen in the private sector, particularly among companies in the U.S., where e-learning has a stronger foothold than it does in other parts of the world, says Claire Schooley, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.

"This is a growing trend worldwide, as learning becomes something that all organizations have to be active in for [competitive] reasons," Schooley adds.

The ADO is already seeing cost savings and other benefits. Horder, for instance, now offers an eight-hour United Nations course to personnel via the online system. About 500 people have taken the online course since last July. The cost? Only US$100,000, the price of the contract to develop the e-learning content, Horder says. It would have cost US$750,000 to train that many people in face-to-face sessions.

The system's benefits aren't just financial. William Monfries, a colonel of education and training systems at the Army Headquarters Training Command, says trainers and students have "much more varied access and therefore flexibility." He says that if soldiers can access course work on their own time, with minimal disruption to their jobs, "that's an immediate return."

Given these successes and endorsements, MacDonald says the objective today is to grow the system. He wants to see more interactive programming and more functionality in addition to more training offered in synchronous ways, such as in virtual classrooms.

At a glance: The Australian Defence Organisation

-- The Australian Defence Organisation has nearly 100,000 military and civilian personnel. Its Directorate of Flexible Learning Solutions (DFLS) developed the Defence Online Campus to give the organization's training and education program more flexibility, efficiency and cost effectiveness. The learning management system went live on Nov. 2, 2003.

-- At the height of the deployment, the ADO's internal team had seven employees working with eight contractors.

-- The cost to implement the system was between $4 million and $5 million (Australian). The DFLS doesn't measure all returns, but military officials say they have seen savings from reduced travel costs as well as reduced time away from jobs to attend classes. They've also seen an increase in the number of people enrolled in courses, because the online option allows personnel easier access to training. In addition, the online learning system serves as a recruitment and retention tool for the ADO, says Brett MacDonald, director of Flexible Learning Solutions.

Objective: Alignment

When the Australian Defence Organisation decided to expand its e-learning capabilities, it put the project under the Directorate of Flexible Learning Solutions (DFLS), located at Northbourne House, Canberra.

The move circumvents the usual practice that puts IT in charge of all technology-related deployments. But in this case, it ensured alignment of key learning objectives and the technology meant to support them, says Brett MacDonald, director of Flexible Learning Solutions.

"I've seen that a lot of these types of implementations haven't been as educationally sound or effective if they're run out of the IT division, because they're more concerned about making sure the systems work," says MacDonald. "But our key focus was making sure the IT meets the functionality requirements."

That doesn't mean that tech skills were undervalued or that IT was shut out of the process. MacDonald says he has been involved in e-learning for nearly 10 years. Dane Buchardt, deputy director of the DFLS and project manager during the implementation, has a bachelor's degree in adult education and a master's in computer science.

And the IT department was one of the major stakeholders in the project. MacDonald says his group and the IT department had ongoing meetings to make sure neither the business needs nor the technology requirements got shortchanged.

This cooperation continues postdeployment. The DFLS help desk, for example, is linked to the IT help desk, so workers calling with questions are guaranteed to get a response from the person with the right expertise, MacDonald says.

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. Contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net.

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More about Australian Defence ForceDeloitte ConsultingDeloitte ConsultingDeloitte ConsultingForrester ResearchHISOnline LearningOutStartSaba SoftwareThinq Learning SolutionsUnited NationsVerizonVIA

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