The U.S. Department of Energy's National Training and Education Resource gives organizations easy access to a robust set of web-based learning tools to improve listen to this feature their training programs.

A big part of the U.S. Department of Energy's job is to promote advancements and breakthroughs in energy technologies, ranging from biofuels and solar to building and energy efficiency. So it is perhaps not surprising to see the department push the envelope on new ways to share ideas, collaborate on research, and provide learning and training content to a large audience.

But what is exciting is to see the extent to which the department has integrated open source software and combined it with new, easy-to-use authoring tools to energize the department's knowledge sharing and learning opportunities. This represents a real breakthrough for content sharing, collaboration, authoring, and e-learning management that government agencies, colleges, and industries are using to reduce costs and improve access to learning.

Program beginnings

A few years ago, the Department of Energy initiated a program that became known as the National Training and Education Resource (NTER). The department had a mandate to provide effective energy efficiency training to building contractors, developers, and home repair and improvement technicians. Also, the secretary of energy, Steven Chu, identified what he believes is a critical need: make it easier for the American workforce to access engaging learning and share knowledge on energy and other key technologies.

"Our competitiveness as a nation hinges on our ability to effectively learn and collaborate," says Chu. Therefore, he challenged Michelle Fox and her team in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy to create technology that:

  • provides economical access to learning, skills development, and collaboration, which embodies best practices in learning
  • is secure, can easily integrate with other applications, is user friendly, and accessible to people with disabilities
  • provides easy access to free and low-cost, high-quality learning content for government employees, academic institutions, and key American industries.

Fox and her team met these challenges, then set the bar much higher. As a result, NTER technology achieves significant cost reductions for organizations and agencies to manage and distribute all types of training and educational materials. Since the licensing is open source, NTER can reduce life-cycle costs by 72 percent compared with similar learning system implementations. The technology also provides the tools to build immersive and interactive three-dimensional scenarios that can run in typical web browsers without hard-to-use plug-ins. This helps reduce expensive, 3D development costs by as much as 60 percent. Last, NTER technology provides a peer-to-peer secure environment in which content can be quickly found by learners across multiple internet domains, and it provides a variety of social learning tools.

Open source software

The NTER platform incorporates more than 1 million lines of code, all of which are open source software (OSS). It is important to note two key characteristics of OSS in light of the common misconception that "open" means software is less reliable or secure than proprietary software.

First, although OSS is open to be used by all, its development and maintenance is closed and is well controlled by established governance and a supporting development and testing process. Second, the exposure of the code to a wide community of developers provides comprehensive and ongoing input on potential security issues, which continuously improves the software's security posture. Both of these attributes are certainly true of the NTER tools.

NTER is licensed under the General Public License Version 2, which requires the software to be released to anyone who asks for it, and that all improved versions be free software. This makes NTER a great solution for an organization with tight budget constraints but must still offer a high-quality user experience.

Benefits are expansive

"We are seeing more and more universities, agencies, and organizations like trade associations to come on board," says Fox. "Our vision is to provide the tools to better equip American workers with the skills to win in the global economy." Significantly, the Department of Energy has teamed with the U.S. Department of Labor to do just that. The Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training grant program, run by the Labor Department, provides grants to help community colleges and similar organizations to improve their ability to deliver education and career training programs.

The program is geared toward workers who have lost jobs, or are threatened with job loss, because of foreign trade. NTER provides the enabling technology that can link all these schools together so they can collaborate, share courses, and capitalize on each other's programs. Thus, an enrollee could easily find and take courses from any and all colleges that participate in the program, which in itself is a remarkable form of digital democracy.

This is just one example of many programs and organizations that are using this technology; others include the U.S. Department of Defense, National Association of Manufacturers Institute, Ford's Partnership for Advanced Studies, Illinois Green Economy Network, and the Center for Energy Workforce Development.

What NTER can do for you

In brief, NTER is a robust set of web-based learning tools, including a fully functioning, secure, accessible course management system; 3D authoring tools; advanced collaboration functionality; sophisticated portal technology; content sharing; and content management coupled with a cutting-edge search capability. NTER provides the following.

A searchable e-learning content repository. This is a key capability of NTER that is proving to be incredibly valuable. This repository function is coupled with advanced search capability, which means participating organizations may search on and access content from other NTER organizations without having to download the content. However, instructors can track course progress and completion, and use other LMS reporting functions if desired.

NTER serves a vital need since there is a great deal of isolated, public domain content that can be shared between government, academia, and the public if a unifying, indexed repository was established. As an example of how this can be used, the Department of Labor has major projects in place to develop content for community colleges to help retrain displaced workers. The NTER repository will enable these colleges to share content, which greatly expands displaced workers' access to retraining content.

An enterprise e-learning platform. This is especially useful to an organization that has to reach a large internal or external audience, but also has a need to manage the content, as opposed to just making it available via a website. NTER provides complete content management, including reporting and tracking, all without licensing costs.

Collaboration tools. Academia, government, trade associations, and industry can make good use of NTER's social learning tools, such as blogs, wikis, and communities of practice, and the collaborative course management capabilities.

3D content in your browser. A recent survey indicates that most learners dislike the typical, "page turner" type of e-learning you sometimes see in off-the-shelf and homegrown web content. However, NTER contains an advanced library of 3D objects and a 3D editor that enables web developers to quickly build interactive 3D learning environments. This transforms the complexity of 3D development into easy-to-use building blocks for common functions, allowing developers to create compelling, immersive user experiences.

Complements a commercial LMS

NTER is not designed to compete with commercial LMSs since it does not perform the functions of talent management and some of the business processes of training administration. Rather, it is designed to complement a commercial LMS by providing low-cost solutions for the learning technologies listed earlier. Therefore, NTER easily interfaces and integrates with off-the-shelf commercial learning solutions.

In fact, a best practice used by companies that have a commercial LMS installed is to augment this technology with an open source LMS to leverage the cost-free licensing and collaborative course management functions. Therefore, organizations that have commercial LMSs can make good use of NTER to:

  • manage the user interface—NTER has a highly configurable portal and user interface, and many organizations are realizing the power of putting their LMSs behind a portal customized to their needs
  • administer e-learning courses to large internal and external audiences, both of which get expensive with a commercial LMS
  • use NTER's social learning and collaboration tools, which are available without license costs (many commercial LMSs charge additional fees for similar tools)
  • use the virtual e-learning content repository to access the training courses of other organizations
  • create compelling, 3D courseware rapidly and cost effectively.

Under the hood

A key attribute that sets NTER apart is the extensive and successful use of OSS. NTER does not merely use OSS; it has woven together multiple leading OSS applications to create a learning platform that provides a range of training capabilities.

"NTER integrates about 10 OSS programs which collectively contain well over a million lines of code," says Alex Cohen, the program's lead technologist. "That's about $700 million worth of code we've leveraged to create a whole new, really great platform."

The core of NTER is a fully functioning, secure, and accessible LMS built using ILIAS, a leading open source LMS developed in the ubiquitous web language, PHP. NTER also is integrated with Moodle, another leading open source LMS. To this core several additional open source tools have been added, notably:

  • a modern portal and user interface using Liferay, which also provides online collaboration tools, content sharing, and management capabilities
  • a sophisticated search engine built using Nutch and Solr
  • 3D in-browser authoring tools based on the Kuda OSS (the Kuda world creator uses WebGL, the cross-platform web standard for 3D graphics).

The NTER platform provides a full set of tools, including a fully functioning LMS, course authoring using a 3D world builder, a traditional learning content management system, and support for multiple types of content such as images, text, multimedia, and 3D—all of which can be used within a single course. NTER is certified and accredited under the Federal Information Security and Management Act of 2002, is SCORM 2004 compliant, and meets the interoperability standards of the Aviation Industry Computer-Based Training Committee, an international association of technology-based training professionals.

What's next

Fox and her team members exceeded expectations when they created NTER, but now the goal is to ensure that the program grows and fulfills its potential. "We've written a pretty compelling business case for NTER, so there's a real opportunity here for another agency that is authorized to do fee-for-service to take this and run with it. We feel the same is true for commercial and noncommercial organizations as well," she says.

So, all that being said, what can you do with NTER? The short answer is just about anything you want. You can download it, install it, modify it, or implement it for any purpose—without licensing costs. Or, you may want to consider providing NTER services on a fee-for-service basis.

"Now's the time to step up to the plate," says Fox. "And if you're an eligible academic institution, consider applying for the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training grant program." The Department of Labor, who runs this program, encourages applicants to take advantage of NTER.

Any takers?