A lesson in defence

A lesson in defence

By Christine Gill

The ADO's Brett MacDonald is down in the trenches commanding one of the biggest e-learning deployments in Australia's history. By Christine Gill

Brett MacDonald is fully aware that the logistics of providing online education and training to over 91,000 Defence personnel, including the Army, Navy and Air Force, will not be easy. As the director of Flexible Learning Solutions Australian Defence Organisation (ADO), he is commanding one of the biggest e-learning deployments in Australia's history, comprising a learning management system, learning content management system and a content creation tool: "The logistics are very hard," he says. "The organisation is geographically dispersed and steeped in culture so there are lots of change management issues to overcome in terms of 'what are the best courses to run and how do we get people who don't have access to a PC, into a training group'.

"It allows organisations to segment training so that certain content is available to people at different levels based on a person's role within the organisation. So a Lieutenant Colonel might only need to have certain part of the learning made available to them, whereas, someone at a lower level will need to have access to more," says Groeneweg.

"We also have standards. At this point in time there is no standard configuration for the network across Australia. There are very good connections in the major cities but in the remote areas there is a lot less bandwidth to deal with and a lot less infrastructure, which means a lot less support," he says, when talking about the problems he faces in getting the system installed at the remote bases.

"You have to manage how much content you can get to those people, what are their expectations and what can we physically provide to them."

Costing around $5 million ($18 per user), the ADO's e-learning project will provide all defence personnel with access to a range of courses from any defence restricted network terminal located anywhere in Australia. When fully mature, the ADO expects to cut training costs by up to a third: "We will have a consolidated response to the Defence Minister on how much training is actually being undertaken and how much that training has actually cost. There have been several systems out there doing similar types of things and this project is similar to other rationalisation programs within defence," says MacDonald.

The Army leads the IT charge

The Army was the test bed for the project. The Army is one of the largest users of online learning and education in Australia and has won international awards for its e-learning content. It has also done studies on its online courses and claims that the development of its learning management system has not only reduced training costs by up to a third, but also made substantial savings in other ways; for example, the Army has found that under its e-learning system, retention of knowledge is greater and students scored higher in tests, than when learning under the old school system of lecture rooms and books.

While the Army had been busy winning international awards, other areas of Defence were at different stages in their development and uptake of the potential of e-learning. "Different standards were being produced on different applications and each service or group did its own thing based on its own training requirements. What this project is trying to do is to put together a common environment and infrastructure to facilitate e-learning across the organisation so that the same fixed costs don't have to be expended. People can share resources and you don't have the same course being developed in two different parts of the organisation," says Macdonald.

Formerly with the Australian Tax Office in Queensland, MacDonald managed the implementation of the first web-based training platform for tax reform, but unlike many projects of a similar size he is leading a small directorate of eight people on the ADO project, supplemented by a group of external IT consultants.

A consortium of IT consultants

The ADO selected Deloitte Consulting to act in the role of Prime Integrator of a consortium consisting of THINQ Learning Solutions, Inc. (Learning Management System), OutStart (Learning Content Management) and NETg (Online Training Courseware): "The key thing about a learning management solution is that it provides flexibility, accessibility, knowledge transfer and the retention of knowledge for training and education within the organisation," says Dion Groeneweg, Principal, Deloitte Consulting's Performance Organisation practice.

"While the ADO is focusing on creating content and managing the people aspects of the project, we will be responsible for ensuring the processes and technology are implemented and working correctly."

Groeneweg says he is not phased by the size of the project. Indeed, the South African is used to managing complex e-learning projects. Eighteen months ago, he was running Deloitte Consulting's learning practice on the US West Coast where he was responsible for implementing a number of global e-learning type initiatives. Based in Sydney, he is spearheading the group of external consultants to deliver the ADO's e-learning system. "A learning management system allows an organisation to track what learning its employees are doing and manage learning plans. So it's a question of putting in a system that allows people to close skills and performance gaps,"

THINQ is providing its TrainingServer Learning Management System (LMS) for the project to deliver learning through personal learning plans, online catalogues, records of learner progress, skills profiling and collaboration tools. OutStart Evolution is providing the content-centric learning platform to develop, manage, store and assemble personalised learning content.

Thomson Netg, a producer of learning products and services, is providing 20 "off-the shelf" courses ranging from operating MS Office to professional and business skills courses such as mentoring, email etiquette and time management. The ADO is adding to the library of content its own generic courses on Occupational Health & Safety, Equity & Diversity - and a new course on fraud is under development: "We wanted to go live with a system that had generic e-learning content so that people could start to experience what "e-learning" was about - not everybody in Defence has experienced e-learning". MacDonald says.

Some standard courses will be common across the entire organisation to allow the ADO to get the benefits of content reuse. In addition, there are specific courses which are only available for one part of the organisation, such as the Army: "It allows organisations to segment training so that certain content is available to people at different levels based on a person's role within the organisation. So a Lieutenant Colonel might only need to have certain part of the learning made available to them, whereas, someone at a lower level will need to have access to more," says Groeneweg.

From their desktops, defence personnel will be able to monitor their own training requirements, have online mentoring discussions with experts, and be able to book a course wherever it is held in Australia. Because the system keeps an audit trail, administrators will be able to produce reports on competency levels and skills gaps within the organisation. "Strategically, this also means Defence can spend more wisely," says MacDonald.

Phase one of the project will be rolled out by 3 November this year, with the completion date set for December 2004. The ADO is planning to extend its program to include e-learning for its personnel working on ships, in Washington DC, and to its operational deployments in places such as East Timor and Bouganville: "It's down in the trenches now. We've signed the contract and so now it's a matter of getting to work from now until the 3 November to have the system configured, the IT infrastructure right and the content - and the support structure behind the system when we go live," says MacDonald.

"You can't just drop the system on the user base and not have the support mechanism behind it - whatever support that's going to be. Whether it's going to be support to the administrators, content developers, user or trainers, otherwise it doesn't matter how good your implementation is - if you don't support it well after you go live the system will fail."

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