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The Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative


The ADL Initiative traces its antecedents to the early-1990s, when Congress authorized and appropriated funds for the National Guard to build prototype electronic classrooms and learning networks to increase personnel’s access to learning opportunities. By the mid-1990s, the DoD realized the need for a more coordinated approach, and the 1996 Quadrennial Defense Review formalized this by directing development of a Department-wide strategy for modernizing technology-based education and training. This strategy became the original ADL Initiative, and in 1998, the Deputy Secretary of Defense directed the Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness (USD(P&R), in collaboration with the Services, Joint Staff, Under Secretaries of Defense for Acquisition and Technology and the Comptroller), to lead ADL Initiative. The Deputy Secretary of Defense also directed the USD(P&R) to produce the Department-wide policy for advanced distributed learning, develop a corresponding “master plan” to carry out the policy, and to ensure sufficient programs and resources were available for the associated implementation (see the 1999 ADL Initiative Strategic Plan for more details).

By 1998, the DoD and other Federal agencies (e.g., the Department of Labor) had each established their own ADL Initiative projects, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) moved to consolidate these via the Federal Training Technology Initiative. Thus, following guidance from Congress, OSTP, and the National Partnership for Reinventing Government, the DoD ADL Initiative was grown into a Federal-wide program. Specific direction for this can be found in Section 378 of Public Law 105-261, the Strom Thurmond National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1999, which required the Secretary of Defense to develop a strategic plan for expanding distance learning initiatives, as well as Executive Order 13111 (President William J. Clinton, 12 January 1999), which called for an integrated Federal-wide approach to distance learning.

Shortly after President Clinton signed Executive Order 13111, the Pentagon released the Department of Defense Strategic Plan for Advanced Distributed Learning (April 30, 1999) and the corresponding Department of Defense Implementation Plan for Advanced Distributed Learning (May 19, 2000). These prescient documents defined the ADL Initiative, its rationale and vision, in a way that still largely aligns with the contemporary program. For instance, from page 8:

Importantly, the Initiative’s underpinnings and applications are germane not only to the Department of Defense, but to other government organizations, academia, and the private sector, as well. The ADL Initiative, therefore, is a structured, adaptive, collaborative effort between the public and private sectors to develop the standards, tools, and learning content for the future learning environment. The Department of Defense’s vision is to harness the power of the Internet and other virtual or private wide-area networks (WANs) to deliver high-quality learning. It brings together intelligent tutors, distributed subject matter experts, real-time in-depth learning management, and a diverse array of support tools to ensure a responsive, high-quality “learner-centric” system (DoD Strategic Plan for ADL Initiative, 1999, p. 8).

And on page 9:

The advanced distributed learning strategy requires re-engineering the learning paradigm from a “classroom-centric” model to an increasingly “learner-centric” model, and re-engineering the learning business process from a “factory model” (involving mainly large education and training institutions) to a more network-centric “information-age model” which incorporates anytime-anywhere learning (DoD Strategic Plan for ADL Initiative, 1999, p. 9).

Similarly, the objectives outlined in that 1999 strategy still guide today’s ADL Initiative. For instance, the original strategy proposed pursuit of emerging network-based technologies, creation of common standards to enable reuse and interoperability of learning content, lowering of development costs, widespread promotion of collaboration to satisfy common needs, enhancing performance with next-generation learning technologies, working closely with industry to influence the commercial product development cycles, establishing coordinated implementation processes, and ultimately delivering efficient and effective high-quality learning continuously to the DoD anytime, anywhere. The original intent of these efforts (which is still valid today) was to establish learning that was accessible (anytime, anywhere), interoperable (across developers and technical platforms), durable (does not require redesign when technology changes), and cost-effective (significantly increases learning effectiveness while reducing time, costs, and duplications of effort).

These aims were to be achieved by taking five actions (which, again, still hold relevance today; see the DoD Strategy for ADL Initiative, 1999, p. 10):

  • Influence the development/use of common industry standards
  • Enable acquisition of interoperable tools and content
  • Create a robust and dynamic network infrastructure for distribution
  • Enable the modernization of supporting resources
  • Engender cultural change to move from a “classroom-centric” to a “learner-centric” model

Mike Parmentier, the OSD Director for Readiness and Training Policy and Programs, who supervised the original ADL Initiative director stated the following:

The ADL Initiative is designed to leverage the full power of communications, information, and learning technologies—through the use of collaboratively developed common standards…The challenge to teachers is to understand and apply the new technologies in concert with, in addition to, or in some cases in place of, traditional learning methods. The challenge to developers is to design methods of instruction and content that are open-architecture, shareable, high quality, and cost effective. The challenge to the information technology sector is to field an infrastructure that supports anytime, anywhere learning with appropriate bandwidth, transaction security, and robustness that is transparent to the learner. These are not easy challenges. They require unprecedented collaboration and consensus building.

This quotation highlights the ADL Initiative’s long-term mission as well as its enduring core values, including active inclusion of learning science best practices with advanced technology development, dedication to open and interoperable technologies, a learner-centric focus, and unique commitment to widespread collaboration. Although technologies have advanced since 1999 and requirements have evolved, the original ADL Initiative mission and vision still ring true today.