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iFEST 2019 Focuses on "The Future Learning Ecosystem"

October 10, 2019

The National Training and Simulation Association (NTSA), in collaboration with the Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) Initiative, hosted iFEST 2019 at the Hilton Alexandria Mark Center (Alexandria, Virginia, USA) 26-28 August 2019. Over 350 attendees from the military, government, industry, and academia participated in the three-day symposium focused on sharing the latest challenges and innovations in distributed learning encompassed in this year’s theme: The Future Learning Ecosystem.

Opening Remarks and Keynotes

iFEST kicked off with opening remarks from Rear Admiral James Robb (USN, Ret.), president of the NTSA, and from Fred Drummond, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Force Education and Training. Drummond highlighted the Defense Department’s commitment to soldiers’ future, beyond the time that they are serving. Drummond commented, “Probably the biggest challenge is the taxonomy, the standardization of the data, the ability to pull the data. That’s what we’re working on, that’s what ADL’s about, that’s what we’re looking at with xAPI, the Total Learning Architecture.”

Fred Drummond speaking at iFEST 2019

James Woolsey, President of the Defense Acquisition University (DAU), and John Schwartz, Head of Enterprise Business Development at edX, provided the government and industry keynotes respectively. Woolsey spoke about how DAU is transforming its processes to deliver learning to people at the time of need and using their preferred delivery method. Distributed learning will enable DAU innovation by training people to do things differently than before – now more than ever, the workforce must become generalists who are not tied to one type of job throughout their lifetime.

Looking Deeper: The Panel Sessions

Key leaders in education, academia, government, and military shared their expertise through a series of panel discussions. Targeted panels covered modernizing learning, good practices in distributed and online learning, and strengthening alliances and building partnerships through ADL.

In the panel Who Cares? A Strategic Look at Modernizing Learning, Dr. Sae Schatz, Director of the ADL Initiative, moderated a discussion among Sharon Ridings, Chief Learning Officer of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Dr. Yoram (Jerry) Wind, Emeritus Professor of Marketing of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Heidi Schweingruber, Director, Board on Science Education for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, and Phill Miller, Chief Learning and Innovation Officer of Blackboard, Inc. The panelists emphasized the need for systemic disruption and associated experimentation to change learning practices across society. As Schweingruber added, “We don’t have a choice because technology is ubiquitous and is going to change every facet of our lives. The work is going to change the types of skills and competencies we need. It’s going to happen, and we have to respond.

This message was also promulgated in the Good Practices in Distributed and Online Learning panel, moderated by Nunzio Quacquarelli, CEO of QS Quacquarelli Symonds. Panelists included Dr. David LeFevre, Director of the EdTech Lab at Imperial College, Sarah Toms, Executive Director of Wharton Interactive, Dr. Robert Peach, Professor of Mathematics (Online Program Analytics) at Imperial College, Dr. Patricia Gabaldon, Associate Professor of Economic Environment at IE University, and Dr. Kristine Rabberman, Assistant Vice Dean, Director of Academic Affairs at Professional and Liberal Education at the University of Pennsylvania. These speakers underscored the need to think about robust frameworks for distributed learning, especially as academia enters the post-digital space. Toms commented, “My greatest concern is that we’re continuing to propagate a passive learning experience that has failed us and now there are opportunities to correct those sins and shift professors to the left and democratize the educational experience.

The final panel session, Strengthening Alliances and Building Partnerships Through ADL, was moderated by Dr. Aaron Presnall with the Jefferson Institute. The speakers included multinational ADL partners: Commodore Lars Arne Aulie, Chief of Staff at the Norwegian Defense University College, Colonel Slaven Blavicki, Chief of Training and Doctrine Command of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Paul Thurkettle with the NATO Allied Command Transformation and NATO e-Learning Programme Manager, and Brigadier General (Ret.) Daniel Eagle, Director of Executive Education at the Defense Security Cooperation University (DSCU). They discussed the practical applications of ADL across nations and how these efforts have contributed to improved stability and strengthened alliance. Blavicki emphasized: “When deployed, there is no competition between home nations because we are all brothers and sisters.” By continuing to focus on common values of cooperation, coordination, sharing, and trust, nations can help one another operate more efficiently.

In addition to the plenary panel sessions, three other session attracted significant attention.

Learning Analytics Tutorial

In the Learning Analytics tutorial, experts from academia, industry and military gathered to present on real-world applications and impacts. Dr. Ryan Baker with the University of Pennsylvania presented on data science as a means to enhance training outcomes and ultimately produce better performance in a military context. Key applications include automated detection of learning engagement, emotion, strategy, complex reasoning and skill, leading to better individualization and better learning outcomes, and better reporting for instructors, academic advisors, and course designers, which has impacts on course sequence, student progress, and content effectiveness.

Dr. Jeanine DeFalco, Adaptive Training Research Scientist, Army Futures Command, presented on the relevance of learning analytics to the US Army’s STE initiative in exploring not only how to integrate innovation into training and learning, achieving meaningful elearning with technology that supports discriminate intelligence. When thinking about the future of the US Army, she discussed several key themes; Embrace the suck, Breakout of your bubble, and Disobey orders- smartly.


A group from the IEEE LTSC conducted a panel, moderated by Dr. Robby Robson, to share their current work and provide feedback to audience questions. The IEEE efforts have significant overlap with the agenda of iFEST since they are working to preserver current capabilities (SCORM), further the use of xAPI, and create industry and Government alignment through standards for learning technology.

Industry Roundtable

Presentations from the ADL Initiative, the Army Simulation and Training Technology Center (STTC), Close Combat Lethality, and Defense Acquisition University (DAU) covered government requirements for vendors in upcoming proposal and collaboration opportunities. Dr. Sae Schatz, Director of the ADL Initiative presented on 4 major topics of interest to the ADL Initiative; Universal Learner Records, Accredited xAPI Learning Record Store, cmi5 Player and Test Suite, and PII/Privacy Policy.

Ben Goldberg, Senior Scientist of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command-Soldier Center STTC presented the Synthetic Training Environment, one of the six modernization priorities coming out of Army Futures Command and the Secretary of the Army. They want to leverage advancements in gaming technology (augmented reality and virtual reality) to create engaging immersive experiences with realistic stimuli, targeting abilities required to perform trainees’ job functions and expose learners to novel experiences.

Lieutenant-Colonel Rory Quinn of the Close Combat Lethality Task Force, OSD provided a broad summary of the USMC’s efforts to incorporate augmented reality and virtual reality into training. He stressed that this will ultimately extend to operational use on the battlefield, which means we need to look at AR/VR in that context.

Finally, Shawn Miller with DAU presented on the overall vision of the Artificial Intelligence (AI)-Powered Adaptive Learning (AL) project to further improve the development and delivery of content. Overarching deliverables include an AI/AL framework for content development/transformation requirements and to inform DAU adaptive learning strategy.

Expanded Multinational Presence

This year’s iFEST had a significant multinational presence that extended beyond the senior-leader multinational panel session. The Partnership for Peace ADL Working Group conducted their board meeting before the conference started, where they coordinated for the 20th Anniversary Meeting of the working group, planned for November. Other highlights included a breakout session presented by the Royal Danish Defence College where Warrant Officer II Bob Ludvigsen presented their simulation game that uses xAPI data for choosing battle positions, a virtual reality demonstration on Protection of Civilians/Children in Armed Conflict from NATO ACT, and Balkan Medical Task Force. International speakers also delivered several Ignite! talks, including presentations from NATO ACT, NATO School Oberammergau, Norwegian Defense University College, Swedish Armed Forces, and University of Warmia and Mazury in Poland.

Concurrent Presentations, Ignite Talks, and Poster Sessions

iFEST attendees got the chance to dive deeper into future learning ecosystem concepts through a variety of presentations, Ignite! Sessions, tutorials, and a poster showcase that covered topics such as xAPI, learning engineering, augmented and virtual reality, learning technology standards, and upcoming government requirements for vendors.

Numerous presenters discussed xAPI and, relatedly, learning analytics. Themes highlighted xAPI in offline learning situations, privacy and cybersecurity challenges, and testing and evaluation methods. Many of these presentations focused on xAPI in practice. Daniel Pfieffer, lead developer of Float, discussed how leveraging a local Learning Record Store (LRS) in Sen$e, a financial training mobile application for Service Members, enabled pre-processing data for faster syncing of xAPI statements when reconnected to the local LRS. Tim Welch with the Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division (NAWCTSD), discussed how the Navy leveraged xAPI in their eSailor and eHelm training programs.

This year’s iFEST featured two Ignite! sessions, where the speakers had only five minutes each to present 20, auto-advancing slides. The first Ignite! session featured the science, organization, and policy of distributed learning—beyond the technology. Nunzio Quacquarelli, CEO of QS Quacquarelli Symonds, discussed the necessary evolution of educational institutions in order to remain relevant. Quacquarelli stated, “Without data you’re just another person with an opinion.” Dr. Piotr Gawliczek with the University of Warmia and Mazury introduced DEEP, a vehicle working with partner nations to help identify the needs and gaps of higher military education in their countries.

photo of TLA iFEST 2019

In contrast, the second session looked closer at the technological considerations involved in distributed learning. Dr. Paul Schneider with domiKnow discussed the relevance of measuring skills to drive business decisions and dynamically adapting training content for personalized learning. Similarly, Shrikant Pattathil with Harbringer Systems discussed how nudge learning served as an important factor in personalized learning by delivering small chunks of knowledge in the flow of work that not only reinforces learning but helps overcome the forgetting curve.

The iFEST poster session comprised 23 posters, representing topics such as learning analytics and visualizations, adaptive learning, specifications and standards, and learning science for distributed learning. iFEST attendees voted on two People’s Choice Awards, one for Best Poster Design and the second for Best Poster Narrative. Ashley Reardon, from SimIS, received the best design award for her poster to “From Theory to Practice: Elevating mLearning Through Gamification.” It discussed how xAPI could help create gamification elements to increase motivation throughout the learner career cycle. Biljana Presnall, from the Jefferson Institute, received the best narrative award for her “Maturing ADL in Exercises (MADLx): Setting Foundations to Measure ROI” poster. This project was featured in an ADL Initiative webinar on September 18.

Total Learning Architecture

The Total Learning Architecture (TLA) also featured prominently into this year’s event. The TLA technical team spent the past year migrating the TLA reference implementation to a Kafka data streaming architecture and building out key interface specifications and communication protocols that facilitate data interoperability across systems, components, and institutional boundaries. These were encapsulated into a draft TLA policy framework and explained in detail during a TLA tutorial provided by Brent Smith and Jerry Gordon, (SETA) R&D principals at the ADL Initiative.

While last year’s discussions focused on abstracting away the complexity of the TLA through well-defined control loops, this year focused on a comprehensive data strategy facilitated by the TLA policy framework. The four pillars of this data strategy include standards and specifications that describe and communicate information about the learner (Universal Learner Record), learning activities (metadata), the things that need to be taught (competencies), and a method for tracking performance (xAPI) throughout the continuum of learning.

Members of the TLA Working Group’s subcommittee chairs and planning committee held a face-to-face meeting in between the packed iFEST schedule where numerous goals and objectives of the working group were identified, the measures of success were defined, and the steps to achieve success were outlined. Today, the TLA is betting on a future that includes massive amounts of data with low latency that will change the way computing happens. The TLA is building out the technical underpinnings for this ecosystem to manage the data that drives learner analytics, improved workplace performance, and personalized learning interventions. The TLA Working Group is instrumental in collecting requirements from the broad community of interested parties to help make this vision a reality. (UPDATE: Working Group No Longer Meeting)

iFEST 2019 Information and Future Plans

Presentation slides from the iFEST 2019 sessions are available at the NTSA’s  webpage including photos and video provided by the ADL Initiative. The dates and location for iFEST 2020 as well as the call for submissions will be announced at this year I/ITSEC event held in Orlando, FL 2-6 December.

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