100_0200The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is comprised of 28 member states. The NATO Communications and Information Agency (NCIA) is tasked with delivering secure, coherent, cost effective and interoperable communications , information systems and services to the organization’s multiple entities across those 28 states. Within the NCIA is the Education and Training Service, which manages, coordinates and delivers education and training services to agency customers and NATO staff.

With the organization spread across so many independent nations, geography is a major concern across all of NATO. And with budgets tight for many governments, the travel necessary to keep the agency connected is a line item than many can’t afford. To help overcome this challenge, NATO tuned to video teleconferencing (VTC) solutions to help their employees have face-to-face communications and meetings from any location.

On August 14, 2014, NATO’s Paul Ladd accepted the Federal Government Distance Learning Association (FGDLA) Five Star Award on behalf of the NCIA for taking that VTC network and using it to expand the reach of their training programs, effectively delivering educational content to NATO staff anywhere, at any time.

We had the opportunity to sit down with Paul immediately following the award ceremony to discuss NATO’s distance learning initiatives, its benefits and why VTC makes sense for NATO in particular. Here is what Paul had to say:

PSV: Congratulations on your Five Star Award from the FGDLA. Can you give our readers some additional information on how NATO is using distance learning technologies? Who are you using it to educate, and what are you teaching them?

Paul Ladd: One of the big things that have been pushed our way from e-learning is from one of our major providers, Learning Tree International. Learning Tree has a program called Anywhere. I had never heard of it before, and I didn’t really trust it at first, but I gave it a try and it really worked for me.

It’s actually interactive e-learning that is video invoice – connecting students into a classroom no matter where they’re located at all times during the actual class. If you have an eight hour class, the students will be connected in for eight hours during the day. They can see the instructor, hear the instructor. There will be cameras on the instructor and on the students in the room.

Again, I was very hesitant. I had grown up with e-learning when I was in university. I was always very disappointed. I didn’t see how it could really teach people long term, and that’s usually because my learning experience involved the school sending a great big stack of CDs with about 17 hours worth of information on them and saying, “watch those CDs, and then come to class once a month, take the final and you’ll be fine.” And I had a very bad experience with that. I think a lot of people in class did as well. I felt that we were learning in a fake way.

Anyway, I was hesitant about e-learning, but gave Learning Tree a try, and I was very impressed. I wasn’t just impressed with how it worked, but the numbers behind it. With much of computer-based training (CBT), when you’re sent content on CDs and other media, most students will drop out. They can’t force themselves to take the time to digest the content. They can’t find time in their life, get out of work or get time away from their families. But more importantly, they can’t get themselves motivated. So I was very impressed with the completion rate and investment that I saw from Learning Tree’s distance learning programs.

So then, I was speaking to our VTC program, and we were putting in these gorgeous video endpoints all across the organization. The goal was to cut down on our travel expenses; otherwise we would literally have had to drive every single day to Brussels or the Hague. I would have to fly to all of our different NATO schools all across NATO – I would have to fly out at least once a month. I would have very little time for my actual day job.

We were lucky enough to have these amazing systems put in. I don’t know if you’ve seen this in person, but HD video and voice – back and forth in real time – it literally makes you feel like you’re sitting in front of a person. You’re able to share documents. You’re able to interact with equipment. You can literally pick it up and show it to the screen. You’re able to correct each other. You can collaborate in real time.

So I’m talking to the VTC guys, I’m seeing all of this wonderful equipment and I’m saying to my boss, “this is looking really great, these people are doing such great work, why don’t we try to take advantage of it and try to use this for e-learning?” So, instead of reinventing the wheel and trying to build a homemade system – instead of buying expensive products and software – we took the existing VTC systems connected to our phones, laptops, tablets and other devices, and used them for an e-learning program. This means that anyone, from anywhere can be connected at any time.

I was thinking about how we can save our students money. Our students are everyone from an 18 year old Lithuanian NCO, to a 60 year old colonel coming out of Iraq. These are our customers – these NATO personnel. We spend a lot of money and time getting them trained. We needed to find a more effective way to do this. And I think we captured that, working with Polycom, various software providers and working with our NATO school – NCISS – in order to have a hub to deliver this system.

NCISS in Latina, Italy is where that hub is located and we deliver these NATO tools, training and systems to our people worldwide. So we’re talking about people in the desert of Afghanistan, people living in London, people in Norfolk [Virginia] all getting training from Latina, Italy.

PSV: You talked about some of the people that would benefit form this training, what kinds of classes are they taking? What are you teaching them via video?

Paul Ladd: I would say the most obvious classes for distance learning are the ones that aren’t technical.

The NATO orientation course is a great example. This course brings people from all over the world to a single classroom to learn what NATO is, how it works, what its future is, what they’re going to be doing, etc. This allows us to train a person in Afghanistan without paying the thousands of Euros to fly them out, put them in a hotel and train them. Instead, we can connect them from their laptop into the classroom – real time – and enable them to coordinate and collaborate with the students and instructors.

I do believe that it is applicable to most classes at NCISS that are not classified. Now, some classes are very restrictive. They come with a high classification, and the only way you can possibly train people on these systems is if they’re on the network. In order to do that, we can have only students connected to the network able to connect via VTC to learn those systems. So, we always have to operate in the parameters of classification. That is first and foremost.

PSV: You mentioned the cost savings and the productivity savings. In addition to these benefits, are there any other advantages that NATO is getting from their distance learning program? Any metrics about the return on investment in the program?

Paul Ladd: I would say that “ease of life” is one of the largest benefits – at least that’s how I would describe it. For people that don’t mind traveling – like me – it’s still exhausting. For people that don’t like to travel, or that have health problems, if the flights are infrequent or inconvenient, then it becomes a huge problem.

The time wasted on traveling becomes enormous. [Distance learning via VTC] makes it so that you don’t have to work a 15 hour day due to travel. You can work your normal day from your office – or from the comfort of your own home with your family. And that’s really important to a lot of our customers because a lot of our customers have families – and not being able to connect with them for a long period of time can be disruptive. Distance learning gives us an alternative.

PSV: One of the major issues that the federal government is focused on right now is budget. Have you been able to put a metric around the cost savings from this program?

Paul Ladd: It’s really difficult to do that because – in truth – every travel from every location has a totally different cost associated with it. But, the clearest example I give is that flying someone from Mons to London – which isn’t really that far away – costs, on average, $2,200 Euros with per diem, travel and hotel. That doesn’t include tuition. Now, because we have deals with companies like Learning Tree, the cost of tuition is lower, but the cost of the course is literally tripled by the travel due to per diem and everything else. It really adds up. It’s amazing.

PSV: You’ve established something amazing at NATO. You’re saving money, increasing productivity and making quality of live better for NATO members. Where does the program go from here?

Paul Ladd: That’s a great question, because no matter what we’re doing, we can always learn and do better. Luckily, technology is advancing and catching up with us. The work that we’re doing, the high bandwidth capabilities, the HD video and voice streaming, that is now.

In the very near future, I see our schools, our instructors and our students all intricately connected by all of their communications devices in order to deliver training where you can and how you can. I see HD video getting even clearer and crisper. It may not mean much at first, but for training on very small pieces of equipment -or very tiny lines of code – that are very detailed and that students need to see closely, it could make a large difference.

The next advancement would be better classroom involvement for people attending via VTC. People that attend a class via VTC require the ability to collaborate and coordinate with their fellow students. I think that’s a serious point. Sidebar conversations that take place out of the classroom between teachers and students are a phenomenal way to learn. It makes people think differently when someone points out problems or questions that they may not have thought of. So, HD video and voice – linking someone in from a distance into a classroom – making it so that they can listen to a classmates questions clearly, see their faces, and interact with them during coffee and other down times is critical.

For a list of all of the FGDLA Award winners, and to see photos for the 2014 FGDLA Awards Ceremony, click HERE.