Panelists offer advice on training technology

Agencies looking for technology to help train their employees and share information should pick equipment and software based on capability and flexibility, not just on a cutting-edge reputation, according to panelists at a conference Thursday.

The best technology, the presenters said, lets government employees train, communicate with each other, and even build smarter software, without needing to rely on technical experts. The discussion was part of the Digital Government Institute's E-Learning Conference in Virginia.

"When an agency has invested in technology, they want to get as much out of it as they can," said Moira Lafayette, the former training and education coordinator for the Wisconsin Division of Public Health. Lafayette is now the director of strategic applications at Sonic Foundry, a media communications company.

Mediasoft, one of Sonic Foundry's products, gave Lafayette and her public health colleagues the ability to record, index, transmit and store information without needing to rely on video or audio editors, she said.

"The back-end software allows you to store and index your information and then you can search it by keyword, metadata or even spoken word," Lafayette said. "You can split out the audio section with no pre- or post-production."

The technology was useful, she said, because it eliminated cost and technical barriers to quick communication by making information available online.

"In the context of public health emergency preparedness, we really need to be able to get information out. We were scheduling three teleconferences a day and we blew our budget in a week," Lafayette said. "You need to be able to link up with your nontraditional partners. If it's live, all I need to do is click a button and it's on the Internet."

In training situations, more advanced technology might actually distract from the quality of the material, warned James Chisholm, co-founder of ExperiencePoint, a Toronto-based simulation design company.

Chisholm said that one of his favorite simulations used simple technology to guide employees through a revealing series of choices, much like a choose-your-own adventure book.

"With very simple technology, you can create something very engaging, depending on the writing," he said. "If you're looking to build a simulation, don't get wowed by the technology. Ask what they teach."

Experts are also looking to take advantage of users' knowledge to build more sophisticated software, even if those users are not, themselves, computer experts. Gheorghe Tecuci, a professor of Computer Science and director of the Learning Agents Center at George Mason University, is working to develop computer programs that will learn from the intelligence analysts using them. The analysts will use the programs to break down larger problems into smaller questions. The programs will provide responses to the questions, and will revise themselves based on whether the analysts accept or reject those responses.

"It develops an approach to build intelligence agents by a subject-matter expert, rather than by a systems engineer," Tecuci said. "Once these systems have been trained, they could embarrass us all -- they could become instructors."

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