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UK Ministry of Defence contracts BT for e-learning system

As most large organisations have found at some point, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) found that a) its training requirements can't be met by face to face education alone, and b) its e-learning provision is patchy and disconnected. So a plan was drawn up, and British Telecom awarded about 25 million pounds to provide a system for up to 300.000 users. That's one single system...

The Defence E-Learning Delivery and Management Capability (DELDMC) is to be rolled out to mainly regular forces and MoD civilians starting this year. It could be used to extend delivery to reserves, veterans and other organisations as well, but that is not the first goal.

At the moment, details are a bit sketchy, but it is indeed to be one single monolothic system. The reasoning behind that decision seems to be mostly based on having a unified system to track learners' progress and cut costs by economies of scale.

The cutting of costs seems to be mainly based on having the one system for all that, according to the MoD e-learning policy document "meets the full range of requirements". The system will facilitate content re-use by the establishment of a DELDMC "industry standard" to which all internal and external content suppliers will be required to adhere.

Unless BT already has a ready made system that it can simply roll out, the MoD's choice of trying to implement a single e-learning system for a very large organisation comes as something of a surprise at this point, especially in the UK. Experience with previous attempts at implementing such systems —particularly at the UK e-Universities, but also elsewhere— show that the approach has considerable risks. Because it has to meet "all requirements", have the scale to support very large numbers of learners and be available, well, now, it can easily turn into a very significant drain on resources.

The risk is mainly a result of the fact that such systems are necessarily highly interdependent, but still complex and large. If at one stage it is found that one aspect does not meet requirements, which is almost a given, there's little chance of just throwing that specific part out and start again. Since development of all the parts of the system will almost certainly have to take place simultaneously, fixing anything is intricate, difficult and can lead to unforeseen consequences elsewhere. Meanwhile, the vast scope and tight deadlines means that 'failure is not an option'. In some cases, chucking more money at it was the sole option left.

On the bright side, none of the above is new, and most of it must sound quite familiar to government IT procurers. Lets hope that the MoD and BT will make use of the lessons learned elsewhere and come up with a system that is, at least, rigorously componentised.

On the content side, the main surprise is the DELDMC "industry standard", to be enforced by a development and testing environment. This probably sounds scarier than it is: development so far looks very much like ADL SCORM 1.2, and the test environment like a tightened version of the ADL test suite. In the MoD policy document there's a commitment to follow whatever the the e-Government Interoperability Framework (e-GIF) will recommend by way of e-learning interoperability standard. Which, at the moment, is almost the entire output of IMS, IEEE LTSC, ADL and the e-learning British Standards.


A press release and the MoD e-learning policy document are available on the MoD web site.

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