A Collaborative Interactive Distance Learning Project

Distance learning occurs when instructor and learner are not in the same place. Over the past century this has evolved from correspondence courses sent by mail between the learner and the instructor, to today’s ability to bring instruction into the workplace or the home using communications technology. Technology is used to bring the instruction to the learner and to provide a vehicle for ongoing interaction between the learner and the instructor as well as among the learners. The vision of the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS) Distance Learning Project was to deliver, via modern communication technology with extensive verbal and digital interactivity, the highest quality and value education and training from the master teachers throughout North America to the workplace, computers and homes of employees.


Starting in 1994, a group of NCMS member companies and organizations conducted a collaborative project to research and pilot interactive distance learning (IDL). These companies included:

Each company or organization provided resources to conduct the project. This included funds from a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Air Force ManTech program and from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Manufacturing Extension Partnership.


Two courses, An Overview of Six Sigma and Geometric Dimensioning and Tolerancing: the New Standard (GD&T), were developed.

1.1.1 Instructional Design Guidelines

In addition, Instructional Design Guidelines were developed to provide instructional designers, project managers, instructors and subject matter experts with a reference for designing IDL. The IDL Instructional Design Guide is already being used and has been adapted by the participant companies for development of future courses.

1.1.2 Instructional Design Workshop

The Guidelines were designed to be used in conjunction with a two day workshop. The goal of the workshop is to teach instructional designers to develop IDL. The workshop focuses on a learner-centered approach.



This project was initiated by Dr. Jerry Steele, who, before his retirement from Ford Motor Company, championed the development of a collaborative IDL project at NCMS. For this particular project IDL focused on:

This technology was selected because most of the participating companies either possessed the infrastructure, were willing to acquire the required equipment, or were able to access the required equipment through another participating organization.

The goal of the companies is to use the technology to allow for participation by larger number of learners at multiple locations while maintaining or improving the quality of instruction. The key to achieving this goal was to develop instructional design guidelines that support use of the technology to benefit the learner.


The objectives of the project were:


These objectives were met by:


The approach undertaken by the participants was to utilize existing expertise in instructional design and distance learning to develop guidelines to conduct IDL. The specific approach selected by the participants was to conduct three short courses of common interest across the participant companies.

During the planning of the project, the selection of courses to be designed and developed for the project began. The project planning group identified priority subject areas for their company. A combined list of these areas was circulated and ranked by the companies. The top three areas identified were:

  1. Six Sigma
  2. GD&T
  3. An environmental course.

2.4.1 Six Sigma - First Broadcast

An ambitious schedule was set for the redesign and broadcast of the Six Sigma course. The broadcast was scheduled for October 26, 1995. The course content was drawn from an existing classroom course. The course’s instructor, from Texas Instruments, had extensive experience teaching the course in the classroom.

The original classroom course, An Overview of Six Sigma, is eight hours in length. The IDL course was half that long, i.e., four hours. This required significant re-working of the course materials and content. In addition exercises were developed that were to take advantage of the IDL medium.

The Course team members were drawn from Texas Instruments, The Center for Optics Manufacturing and Eastman Kodak. The Broadcast was based at EDS. The course was broadcast to 148 people at 22 sites on October 26, 1995.

The IDL project Steering Group met to review evaluation results from the first course and discuss ways in which the course could be improved. These included:

2.4.2 Six Sigma - Second Broadcast

Based upon the feedback from the group the course was revised and re-broadcast . The findings of the debriefing and evaluation materials for the revised course indicated that:

The participant manual was greatly improved

A lack of studio practice time was a problem. The EDS studio was being upgraded and did not come back on line until the last minute

The IDL medium isn’t tolerant and it is imperative to reach out and capture the audience quickly. ONE-TOUCH’S® response time lag was obvious in this course. It takes planning to cover this lag and is something the course design and instructor must address. The design of the course sets the stage for questions. A bailout position is needed if the first approach doesn’t work. Course design requires a mixture of approaches lecture, questions and exercises.

2.4.3 Geometric Dimensioning and Tolerancing

The second topic selected by the project Steering Group was GD&T. A cross company team of subject matter experts (SME) and instructional designers was convened. The individual companies have numerous courses in GD&T, so the SMEs focused the IDL course on recent changes made to the GD&T ASME standard.

The team developed course objectives, major topics to address and a scope and sequence for each topic. The SMEs and Instructional Designers formed sub teams to address each of the major topics as well as deadlines for completion. In addition the graphics and production team generated drawings and graphics.

The team developed a script format and a modification of an audio visual script to be used for the course. The script provided the instructor, and the production staff, with a common document to follow. The left side of the script included the graphics that would be on the screen as well as production cues. The right side of the script contained the instructors notes. The script proved to be a very valuable tool.

The course instructor attended a week long distance learning instructor training course offered by the U.S. Air Force at Maxwell Air Force Base. This course was being piloted by the Air Force. Major Kim Bowling, who represented the Air Command and Staff College on the Steering Group, arranged for two NCMS instructors to attend. The course at Maxwell AFB was helpful in building confidence as well as an understanding that you can’t walk in and do it, but you can if you practice. In addition, the team was able to schedule several days of practice in the GM studio. GM does not have a practice studio, but two team members developed a mock practice studio that allowed for additional practice.

The GD&T course was broadcast on May 5, 1996. It was attended by 139 people at 22 sites. The participants responded very well to the course, and there was a great deal of interaction throughout. Elements of humor, in an otherwise very technical subject, were very well received. The evaluation data was very positive. Major elements targeted for future improvement are:


During the planning process, a survey of the participants was conducted to gather information about their communications capabilities. This survey resulted in the selection of satellites and ONE-TOUCH® as the technology delivery platform for the project. An EDS team was tasked with the responsibility of linking the companies.

Each of the three courses was transmitted to more than 22 sites representing ten companies. The task of linking so many sites across different companies was not insignificant. Several of the large companies, Eastman Kodak, U.S. Air Force, Ford Motor Company, Texas Instruments, General Motors, EDS and Lockheed Martin, have existing satellite networks, some of which were analog, while others were digital. This required that all courses be simulcast.

Two of the courses were broadcast from the EDS studio in Plano, Texas, and the third was broadcast from General Motors studio in Detroit, Michigan. 

Some of the main lessons learned for technology interoperability are:


Evaluations were conducted for each of the three broadcasts. A Level One evaluation was built into each of the courses, with the data collected through the ONE-TOUCH® system. The evaluation data gathered included:

In addition, several of the participants held evaluative discussions with the attendees at their sites immediately following the broadcasts. These anecdotal information allowed for more in depth understanding of the responses. Given the research objectives of the project, this was important to improve understanding of IDL design and delivery.


Each of the participating companies or organizations were asked to provide copies of either their ISD guides or any distance learning design guides. These were provided by Eastman Kodak, Ford Motor Co., GM, EDS, Texas Instruments and the Air Force.

2.7.1 Major Elements:

The Guidelines are organized so that users can progress from a general understanding of the fundamental issues regarding IDL instructional design to more specific applications of design principles. As such, the Guidelines begin with a discussion of learning and how learning can be affected by distance. There is a comparison of distance learning or IDL with traditional classroom teaching. This gives designers a chance to shake off some old stereotypes and to make use of what they have been doing throughout most of their careers. The focus is on the IDL student and devising ways of building effective IDL learning environments for students. Specific objectives for the Guidelines are that:

Although traditional instructional systems development (ISD) terminology and approaches are still used, some strikingly new approaches to learning and training design are included in the Guidelines.

Several years ago, the U.S. Air Force, Armstrong Laboratory asked a committee of experts to assess the effect of automation and multimedia on instructional design and development. Their conclusions were two:

1. Conventional design and development practices, particularly for interactive instruction, require such inordinate levels of expertise and resources that they are beyond most organizations' means, and

2. Conventional design and development theory simply does not address the opportunities inherent in modern adaptive training approaches, e.g., interactive, computer-based, multimedia training. They tend, if anything, to strip away the interactive aspects of such training.

All of their conclusions apply to IDL. These same experts conceptualized new approaches to design and development based on emerging theories of instructional design. Armstrong Laboratory currently has a vigorous R&D program based on many of these theories.

The focus of the Guidelines and of learning theory in general today, is on the learner. Instructional design is about improving the learner’s ability to understand.

The Guidelines have taken the path which ushers into the future by including those aspects of current instructional theory which have been tested and work. At times, the Guide also alludes to newer approaches from instructional theory which promise success but have not yet been fully tested.


The Guidelines are designed to be used in conjunction with a two day distance learning instructional design workshop. The workshop provides the user with practical examples to apply the general principles explained in the guide. After the workshop the guide becomes a desktop reference for instructional designers, subject matter experts, program managers and other members of an IDL project team.

2.8.1 Workshop Objectives

The learning objectives for the workshop are:


This project was designed to learn more about the use of IDL. The intent was to use the results to increase the use of IDL at the participant companies. A major premise of the group is that the combination of economic savings and improvement of learning quality for employees makes widespread use of IDL likely.

Technology mediated instruction is becoming more and more a part of industrial training. The maturity and costs of instructional technologies make it possible for companies to increase their usage. Proprietary data has shown that from 1994 to 1995 there was a seven percent increase in the use of instructional technologies by major corporations. Companies can use IDL to increase access to training opportunities and to feel assured that people can gain higher content retention. IDL is a mechanism that enables enterprises to deal with rapid change. It allows companies to reach a larger number of people with a consistent message over a shorter period of time.

Companies have found through benchmarking that 40% of an organizations training-related costs are non-instructional time and travel expenses. IDL allows companies to achieve significant cost savings through the reduction in time and travel to attend training, reduction in need for training facilities, and in the ability to provide training to more people at one time. Ensuring that this includes high learner comprehension has been a critical need.

The project served as a pilot for broad based implementation within the companies. The deliverables provided them with the ability to design and deliver IDL instruction for their own employees, suppliers and member companies.

Courses in Six Sigma, and GD&T were designed and broadcast using cross company teams that operated at great geographic distance and from different corporate perspectives. While this approach added some barriers to the efforts, it also added value. The team members learned from one another, and from being exposed to different views and approaches.


During the project, participants learned the benefits of leveraging across organizations and the value to be learned from other organizations and experts.



At the conclusion of the IDL Project, the participants were so impressed the the benefits of collaboration that a group of companies which included General Motors, Goodyear, Hughes, Texas Instruments, and others petitioned the NCMS board to create a company that could continue their collaborative effort.  The IDL Group was created specifically to continue the efforts begun in the NCMS project. 

The IDL Group continued to work for two years in its original mode with its partners and eventually evolved into another company, Velocedge.