Keeping the World a Safer Place: Better Learning through Better Learning Content Management

Department of Energy employee # 3368, a gate guard at a nuclear power plant, hasn't completed his mandated training. The necessary learning content (course #25) has been available, but due to lack of a good system for tracking and managing training information, this employee has slipped through the cracks. Consequently, when this guard comes face to face with a fanatic, armed-to-the-teeth terrorist, he chokes. The terrorist, on the other hand, has gotten the training he needs. He overpowers the guard and succeeds in raining Chernobyl-style devastation on thousands of innocent Americans.

Thankfully, there's never been a incident like the imaginary scenario described here. That's at least partly because the Department of Energy (DOE) has long recognized that the management of training content is as important as the training itself. You can have the greatest training content in the world, but what good is it if it doesn't get to the right person in a timely manner?

NNSI To the Rescue
Besides protecting America (indeed, the entire world) from nuclear proliferation, especially the proliferation of fissionable materials among terrorist groups, the DOE—through its many departments—is also responsible for arms control, emergency management, and nuclear security. These crucial jobs require a great deal of employee training and the responsibility for that falls to the Nonproliferation and National Security Institute (NNSI), which is headquartered at the Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

An elearning pioneer, the NNSI launched a multimedia distance learning initiative for developing and delivering training to the DOE back in 1994. At that time, the DOE realized that the critical nature of its training meant that the NNSI needed to deliver training on-demand, rather than according to an arbitrary schedule of availability. They also realized the burgeoning demand for training would require some new technologies for streamlining delivery and for keeping costs down. "The student population was increasing dramatically, and NNSI needed to do something to manage all the new training," says Gary Klimple, supervisor of the electronic training department at the NNSI. After extensive study of available training management technology solutions, NNSI chose a Learning Management System (LMS) called OnTrack for Training from DKSystems. There are many secrets to the success NNSI has had in keeping us all safe from nuclear accidents and terror-related incidents, but OnTrack is at least one of those secrets.

The LMS Factor
Online training industry pundit Brandon Hall defines a Learning Management System as "software that automates the administration of learning events." Most LMSs are enterprise tools based on database technology that help trainers manage a broad range of learning content types and media. This is one of the strengths of an LMS—it isn't limited to one or two kinds of content. This is important for many large organizations who over the years have accumulated training materials in many different formats.

OnTrack for Training, for example, helps the NNSI manage learning content that runs the format and media gamut. NNSI's distance learning courses include those offered through print and electronic media, computer-based training (usually stored on CD-ROM), real-time and on-demand Web-based training (WBT), interactive and linear television broadcasts, video and audio cassettes with workbooks, desktop computer audio/video systems for one-on-one mentoring, and videoconferencing for informing or instructing small groups.

The management of divergent learning content has become a pervasive problem for many large organizations, and consequently, a whole raft of software vendors have rushed to the fore to offer LMS solutions. In fact, in a report available for sale from his Web site, Brandon Hall lists 60 LMSs. Choosing among them can be a daunting task.

But DKSystems vice president and general manager John Reid points out that not all of those 60 products that bill themselves as Learning Management Systems truly deserve the title. Many of those products are not full-fledged LMSs, but merely "course management or course tracking systems," he says. A true Learning Management System, as Reid defines it, allows someone to not just track and administer courses, but to also deliver them—something most frequently handled online these days. By this definition, Reid's own OnTrack for Training doesn't pass muster unless the company's OnTrack Online module is added to the core OnTrack for Training system. Reid says that almost no one buys OnTrack for Training without the Online module. When the two are marketed together they are referred to as the OnTrack for Training Product Suite. Reid calls the OnTrack Suite a "comprehensive planning, monitoring, managing, and reporting tool that automates an enterprise's entire training program," and says it, "integrates the key areas of learning management: CBT/WBT, self-study, classroom training, skills definition and assessment, curriculum management, requirement management and request management."

Back in 1994, NNSI started out using the basic non-online-capable OnTrack for Training product because NNSI didn't have any online or WBT training at the time. Most of its learning content was classroom courses or CBT on CD-ROM. But they quickly realized the value of online learning and soon purchased the Online module.

Adding the Online module turns the OnTrack LMS into a self-service system that gives control to the learner and takes a lot of burden off the trainers and administrators. Today, the NNSI OnTrack Online-equipped Web site allows up to 25,000 DOE employees to manage their own training activities, 24-hours-a-day. With OnTrack Online, students can view their training requests and requirements, search online course catalogs, request courses from the Web, and launch and deploy CBT/WBT training. Supervisors have the ability to review staff requests and approve or deny training registration requests, from wherever they can access the Web.

Workflow Assistant
NNSI has purchased two other OnTrack modules from DKSystems—the OnTrack Workflow Assistant and DKWebBuilder. Neither is yet fully implemented into the NNSI OnTrack system, though they soon will be, according to Gary Klimple. By automating repetitive day-to-day learning management tasks, Workflow Assistant promises to free training managers from spending valuable work time sending and responding to email, running scheduled reports, and answering the same questions over and over again. Out of the box, Workflow Assistant handles several standard workflow tasks. And then, of course, the user can customize the system to handle his own unique chores. Any task that can be defined can become a workflow event. Defining workflow events involves specifying the particular rules, trigger conditions, and distribution strategies for each task. (These are the tasks Klimple and his staff are currently working on.) For example, a standard notification event might trigger a confirmation email to be sent to an employee when the employee's class registration is confirmed.

Among the complex tasks the Workflow Assistant can automate is the generation and delivery of specified reports at specified intervals. For example, after each class is completed, the Workflow Assistant can deliver course attendance records to training managers. Or if a student/employee has checked out an item from the resource library and it has come due, the Workflow Assistant can notify the manager and also automatically send an email reminder to the forgetful employee.

This tool takes so much of the drudgery out of managing learning that, "Trainers will love this tool," says Reid. As one of NNSI's main learning administrators, Klimple will be one of the main beneficiaries of this tool's labor-saving power. He's looking forward to the day it is fully integrated into the NNSI system. "That's going to be great," he says. It may even automate so much registration work, that the NNSI may be able to eliminate some lower-level administrative positions.

DK Web Builder
A brand-new addition to the DKSystems toolkit is DKWebBuilder, which the company calls "a metadata-driven Web site application builder." It helps non-HTML-savvy personnel (like instructors, for example) to quickly build and deploy custom Web applications and portals. "This tool allows us to develop many different unique interfaces for different kinds of people," says Klimple. "We can create different windows into the database for different user needs." DKSystem's CEO and co-founder David Kripke believes that this product will "revolutionize" Web-based training. "Until now, the challenges of deploying software applications in a Web-driven world inevitably resulted in bland, static Web sites built on huge amounts of HTML code that is difficult to support, making customization and ongoing enhancements a nightmare."

DKWebBuilder renders its Web pages directly from rules and definitions stored in a database, rather than static files coded by programmers. According to DKSystems, the tool's underlying metadata definition technology "allows more than 90 percent of an interface to be modified or expanded with a few simple clicks." With DKWebBuilder, trainers can customize pieces of Web applications on-the-fly, to meet continually changing end-user needs and preferences, a task that previously required hiring an outside consulting service or tying up highly-paid IT staffers.

While Klimple and the six staff programmers under him at the NNSI are all HTML experts, Klimple is quick to recognize DKWebBuilder's non-HTML orientation as a great asset. "Not needing to know HTML could be a big advantage to any organization," says Klimple. "Technology is moving so fast that it is becoming more and more important to be able to develop courses quickly. Nowadays, trainers need to be able to offer training on-demand. And freedom from HTML would make that easier for a training staff. It would enable rapid prototyping and rapid development."

A Question of Questions
Although some NNSI courses contain tests, the organization has chosen not to score and/or evaluate test data. If they did want to do this, however, they'd have to use something beyond OnTrack. "We don't do testing," says DKSystems' Reid. The company has, however, forged a partnership with Question Mark, one of the leading vendors of testing and assessment software. Reid assures that Question Mark's Perception Web-based assessment software will integrate seamlessly with the OnTrack LMS. Perception's quizzes, tests, and self-assessments can provide instant feedback to OnTrack course participants and powerful reporting capabilities to course administrators. It also enables educators and trainers to write, administer, and grade assessments for secure deployment on the Internet and intranets. Pre-course assessments enable participants to test out of courses, and valuable data compiled through the use of online assessments before, during, and after each course gives administrators a simple way to track people's progress and manage the certification process.

The Heart of the Matter
While many LMSs are database management systems in their own right, OnTrack is a system that rides atop an existing database tool, sort of like the way Microsoft Windows rides atop DOS. The database products that OnTrack works with include Oracle, Sybase, or SQL Server. There are some distinct advantages to this co-dependent approach. For one thing, it makes data more portable and makes it easier to tie the LMS database to other enterprise databases. This way, a company is not stuck with a proprietary system whose data is only transportable to another identical proprietary system.

OnTrack's non-proprietary nature made it easier for the NNSI to implement the LMS when they first bought it, Klimple reports. He says it was relatively easy to port the old data from the NNSI's previous database system into OnTrack.

Prior to implementing OnTrack, the NNSI attempted to manage its training using a regular old flat-file database. "It didn't have much relational capability to it," says Klimple, who sums up its usefulness: "You couldn't get much out of it, but it was there." The NNSI OnTrack system currently stores and tracks the detailed training information pertaining to over 25,000 DOE employees. It also schedules and/or delivers 350 courses.

DKSystems takes great pride in OnTrack's "relational design," which features multifunctional screens and something the company calls "smart walking" the database. Instead of having one screen to store data, one screen to query data, and one to write reports, OnTrack includes all those functions in one screen. Plus, those options are available to the user at anytime from anywhere. This use of multifunctional screens allows you to conveniently see a broad view of your data, the company claims.

By "smart walking" through the database, DKSystems means that you can access different areas of the database—even those you might not expect—without ever leaving your current screen. You don't need to follow rigid menu structures or "back out" of your current screen to perform the next function.

Eight years ago, when the NNSI first purchased an OnTrack for Training system, there weren't as many LMSs to choose from as there are today. Nevertheless, Klimple feels they made a good choice. "It is a system that has grown with us," he says.

Klimple isn't the only one who is happy with NNSI's OnTrack for Training LMS. Its ability to keep a complex training program effective and affordable also seems to be keeping high-echelon DOE officials, politicians, and taxpayers quite happy. And, more importantly, it is helping keep us all a little safer.

SIDEBAR: Training Management: An NNSI Web Site Tour
A visit to the NNSI Web site gives a good introduction to the capabilities of the complete OnTrack for Training LMS, though the site doesn't utilize all the program's many options. If you were a DOE employee, you could access the following options from the main menu/ interface:

*Course Catalog—View descriptions of all the courses currently in the database. You can search courses by level, category, title, number, or provider. Once you've found a particularly course, you are given the following details: course objectives, prerequisites, topics, intended audience, scheduled dates. You can request the course from here.
*Scheduled Courses—View a list of scheduled courses or search for a specific course. Search result details include location of class, start date, start time, and status (closed/full or open/ available).
*Self-Study Courses—View descriptions of all courses available in a self-study format. This includes CBT, WBT, correspondence, and video courses.
*Your Course Schedule—A list of courses for which you are currently registered.
*Your Request List—A list of the courses or classes that you have requested.
*Your Training Activity—View your training record, which details courses you have completed.
*Your Skills and Certifications—A list of the skills and certifications you currently hold, with status information.
*Frequently Asked Questions—Help with the training management system.
*Resource Schedule—A schedule of classrooms, conference rooms, and live-fire shooting ranges.

A DOE staffer who authorizes and monitors employee training is designated by NNSI as a "POC," which stands for Point of Contact. Every student has a designated POC—usually that employee's immediate supervisor. The OnTrack LMS provides an "Instructor View" option that the NNSI has utilized to give POCs a higher level of access and functionality than the students get. For example, if you were a DOE POC, the menu you'd see when you log into the NNSI Web site would include everything listed earlier that the student sees, plus the following:

*Staff Registrations—This heading would provide you with a list of the current class schedules for all your students. With the click of the mouse, you could sort this list by student name, course title, or class date.
*Staff Requests—A list of requests for courses made by members of your organization. The POC can immediately approve or deny a request from here.
*Staff Training Activity—Lists all the students under your administration. Click on a student's name to view his or her training history.
*Staff Skills and Certifications—Permits a POC to check on the skills and certifications currently held by his assigned students.
*Course Materials Available—View course materials available for downloading. Choose from a catalog of file names with descriptions.