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E-Learning: Ways Forward

Future learning for defense and security professionals, photo: ISN

Almost anyone involved in large-scale education and training activities has accepted e-Learning as an established method and technology. What started with early experiments by financially powerful large enterprises and armed forces almost twenty years ago, has become available and affordable to almost any organization today.

Open-source solutions for learning management systems and the authoring of content, as well as low-cost hosted solutions,  allow for the minimizing of technology investments to about zero. And based on the experiences of early adopters, the dos and dont’s, as well as successful e-Learning scenarios are widely known.

As a result, e-Learning has found its way into most educational organizations, including many committed to education in the defense and security policy sector. Everything fine and dandy then? Well, almost …

Contrary to basic language and computer training for the broader market (of professionals in general), there is hardly any off-the-shelf online-content available for more specific educational topics related to defense and security. As a result, content in this area is usually produced by educational institutes from scratch, requiring close cooperation between subject matter experts, instructional designers and multimedia specialists. It also requires a lot of time and money.

Despite this, there is more and more content being developed in support of peace and stability worldwide, often supported by funding from various sources. Although most of this content serves its key audience and goals, the return-on-investment for production, as well as the overall effect of educational campaigns might often be improved significantly: The key lies in expanding the target audience.

In defense and security fields e-Learning typically addresses the needs of higher ranking officials in governments and armed forces. These typically represent a small elite. When trying to apply what they learned and to bring the recommended changes to their organizations, the educated elites face a critical knowledge gap. Promoting new ideas that many don’t understand, they may encounter little support or even complete opposition. By expanding the scope of educational efforts beyond the traditionally rather narrow target audience involved in higher education, the knowledge gap and resulting problems may be reduced.

As an e-Learning professional, I want to outline a few ways in which the scope and impact of e-Learning modules can be maximized by exploring the potential for re-use and re-distribution.

1.  Modularize your online-content for partial re-use

‘Modularization’ of online-content brings a lot of flexibility to the way in which we can respond to different curricula or training settings. When it comes to reaching audiences beyond the elites of defense and security studies institutes, all entry-level content should be planned and built as separate, closed modules. This way, they can also be used or re-deployed  in a stand-alone format for other interested audiences.

While the key audience for a course on the law of war would, for example, need to study all of the elements of an e-Learning course, the basic introductory information could be interesting for many if not all members of an armed force. If built as separate modules, these parts may be easily distributed to a much wider target audience.

2.  Stick to established standards of interoperability

There are some established technical standards on the market that ensure that content can run on different online learning management systems. The Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) of the Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) Initiative is one of them. As it is being widely used in the defense sector, within NATO and in the PfP Consortium, the successful distribution of content meeting this standard is well supported.

3.  Facilitate the localization of parts

While understanding English may be expected to be an entry-level skill for the attendants of international higher education courses, it cannot automatically be expected from broader audiences of medium or lower career levels in countries where English is not widely spoken.

Regular inquiries from countries for English e-Learning content in their own language (e.g. Russian or Romanian) clearly indicate that English does limit the reach of a course’s content. This may apply even more when content relies on the highly specific vocabulary typical of  security policy issues.

Reason for hope: Organizations are often willing to support the translation of a course into their local language, and with a set of simple measures the workload and costs for localizing a course may be highly reduced:

  • Keep images and text separated. Translation is thus restricted to text and does not require rebuilding layered graphics in expensive tools.
  • If narration is used: Keep a storyboard of the narration ready for translation and re-recording.
  • Allow for easy exchange of images and other media. Chances are high that some of the images or media need to be replaced to address a given target audience, particularly in the case of images of armed forces and uniforms.
  • Use simple technology: The costs of the required production tools and infrastructure as well as the required amount of training for handling 3-dimensional models, virtual worlds and complex simulations  might just be way too much for the localization and later use of the content by third parties. In short: By doing less technically, you may end up getting more in terms of distribution!

4.   Avoid limitations because of copyright or licensing terms

With content intended for wide re-use and distribution, any limiting copyright or license agreement for the whole product or parts of it is a no-go.

One of the key obstacles to interoperability of content is in fact not technology but limitations imposed by commercial aspects. Do not accept such limitations by contracting companies and make sure that you may use the product and its source in whatever form you want!

5.  Distribute your content actively

One more element is required in expanding the scope of any educational offering: Make it known!

  • Publish your entry-level content on your own Learning Management System with free registration and signing-up for the components.
  • Use portals such as pfp.ethz.ch to offer the content to individuals worldwide.
  • Inform whatever organizations might be interested about your content and your willingness to share.

The key is to start thinking beyond your usual target audience.  Make your e-Learning benefit a broader range of people and policymakers; after all – it’s not only good for your students but also for your brand!

For more information on the ISN’s e-Learning efforts, please see here.

One Response to “E-Learning: Ways Forward”

  1. I love this article!
    I have been campaigning amongst peers for a long time to secure funding for an e-learning platform for the training of analysts, which could be promoted openly to allow public participation (wiki concept) in open-source analysis.
    The e-learning platform would be pre-requisite for public, open participation… thus greatly widening the ‘collective intelligence’ that traditional security cleared analytical agencies by their nature cannot create.
    I will be following the author’s works very closely from this point on… thank you.