Lessons Learned Over the Net: A Boon for Info-Tech Industry
During the air war over Yugoslavia 18 months ago, Navy and Marine pilots flying the EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare aircraft were able to take refresher courses online while on duty at Aviano, Italy. Those courses previously had been available only at their training squadron on Whidbey Island, Wash.
“We found the crews were pulling up the courseware on the [Defense Department classified network] SIPRNET, so they could refresh the material before flying a mission,” said Douglas C. Greenlaw, vice president of training at Delex Systems, in Vienna, Va., a defense contractor that specializes in information technology and training systems.
“This effort has been held up as one of the pioneering activities in ADL [advanced distributed learning] applications,” he said in a recent interview.
ADL, also known as distance learning, is a booming business in the military services. Riding on the ease-of-access and user-friendly qualities of the Internet, many Defense Department agencies are investing millions of dollars in training programs that can be delivered online. Even courses that involve classified information, such as Prowler flight training, are being offered online, because the technology makes it possible, Greenlaw said.
“We have been working for almost two years revising and maintaining the EA-6B curriculum for the Fleet Replacement Squadron and the Electronic Attack Weapons School,” said Greenlaw. “The courses they had were not taking advantage of modern technologies, such as ADL.” The company converted the courseware into a Web-ready format.
For the EA-6B flight training project, the company operates a learning center at Whidbey Island, which is the home base for the Prowler, and one at Cherry Point, N.C., for the Marine Corps. “The learning center contains all the curricula for the EA-6B community,” said Greenlaw. “The users can reach back to the learning center and pull information to where they need it.” They have 24-hour-a-day access and can exchange e-mails with the instructors.
Greenlaw foresees this program will lead to an expansion of the ADL business. “There is interest in trying to leverage what we learned in [the Prowler] community to the other communities, so we can take advantage of the technology without having to reinvent it in every community.”
The company is probing various learning management systems, to see which ones are commercially available and more suitable for ADL. Learning management systems are tools that help organize the course materials, collect student records, record course-completion results and provide feedback to the developer, so the course can be improved.
Using private investments, Delex recently launched LessonCenter.com, a commercial venture that will offer a distance-learning portal for any organization that wants to train its employees, said Edmond F. Driscoll, president and chief executive officer of Delex. “Over the next two years, we will be investing about $3.5 million in technology. Some of it is modeling and simulation. Some of it is for a learning portal that we call ‘lessonscenter.com,’” he said in an interview.
The recent wave of publicity about the Army’s Online University program has sparked widespread interest in the military services’ investment strategies for distance learning programs. Delex is watching the Army’s program closely but, like other companies, is waiting to see how these programs unfold. “We decided to build a facility to do [ADL] and apply the government standard to any courseware content we put on this portal,” said Driscoll. “We are aware of the Army’s program and have not decided whether we are going to be a player or not. We are trying to gain knowledge by doing and delivering this technology.”
The first course offering under lessoncenter.com will be “something mundane, for the health care industry,” he said. It is a course to teach employees the proper codes that have to be included in forms used by doctors, so they can get paid for their services. “It’s a critical element that is missing now in the medical field,” said Driscoll. The courses focus on coding and billing compliance.
“I think we are on the verge of a revolution in how training is conducted,” said Greenlaw. The Web, he explained, offers technologies such as “intelligent tutoring,” where the curricula can be tailored to respond to an individual learner’s behavior and customize the course for the student. The technique is called “adaptive remediation,” said Greenlaw. That means the software will develop learning methods that will vary from learner to learner, based on the student’s behavior. Some students, for example, are visual learners. Others need to hear things, or touch them. “The curriculum can adjust itself to respond to the student’s needs, act like an individual tutor guiding the student,” he said, The technologies are based on artificial intelligence systems.
“This approach to training is considerably more effective than traditional classroom-based instruction,” Greenlaw said. “I believe the military and commercial marketplaces are about to take advantage of this technology in a big way.”
The demand for these technologies in both the military and civilian worlds is fueled by the same realities, such as shortage of qualified employees, increased workloads and tight budgets, Greenlaw noted. Commercial customers today generate more business, “but there is still a huge military requirement for application of this technology.” The Defense Department, he said, “appears to be taking a leadership position for setting policy associate with ADL.”
One of those efforts is a software program called shareable content object reference model (SCORM), which is driving ADL standardization, said Greenlaw, and “has significant potential to leverage technology across the military requirements and benefit commercial organizations.
“Before you apply any technology, you have to do a thorough analysis of the training requirements,” he said. “That distinguishes our approach from others, who like to push technology.” For some courses, video games or simulations may be needed to achieve a high level of interactivity.
Asked whether ADL will save customers money, Greenlaw said the jury is still out. “We have done some studies. ADL is still fairly new and I don’t think that we have enough data yet to draw definitive conclusions.” Pentagon officials said that two-thirds of the cost of training Defense Department-wide is attributed to instructor and student time. “The capacity to do training any time, anywhere, saves [the cost involved in] sending instructors and students to the school.”
Under contract to the UPS shipping firm, Delex developed a $50,000 course that, said Greenlaw, saved the client $2.5 million in the first year of operation. “It’s a pretty powerful economic justification for the technology.” The $2.5 million savings resulted from airplanes departing on time more often.
Delex was awarded an eight-year contract in late August, by the U.S. Navy for the development of training products, with emphasis on Web-based training and tutoring.
With a $500 million ceiling, the contract is expected to focus on Navy aviation training efforts such as air crew training, electronic classrooms, establishment and support of learning centers, enterprise system design and development, maintenance training, and other multimedia applications.
The program is managed by the Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division (NAWC-TSD) and the Naval Air Systems Command PMA-205, which is responsible for all naval aviation training systems. The Education and Training Strategies Division for the Chief of Naval Education and Training is expected to launch the Navy Learning Network, an educational portal that will enable sailors to get technical training online while deployed anyplace around the world.
Army Online University
The Army released in September a request for proposals for the University Access Online education program. The goal is to select a consortium of firms that will set up prototype systems at three Army installations, to offer Web-based educational programs. The three sites are Fort Benning, Ga., Fort Campbell, Ky., and Fort Hood, Texas.
Army Secretary Louis Caldera launched the program last July. The project, for which the Army will request $600 million over six years, was designed to offer eligible soldiers the opportunity to obtain higher education degrees and technical certifications via the Internet. About $48 million was allocated for the Online University effort in fiscal year 2001. Another $550 million will be sought from Congress during the next five years.
More than 1,000 representatives from universities, colleges, and high-tech companies turned up on August 2, for an “industry day” hosted by Caldera in Washington, D.C., to allow potential contractors to exhibit their products.
A laptop computer, printer and Internet access are just some of the items the contractor will be expected to provide soldiers registered in the program.
Army Sgt. Maj. Jack L. Tilley told the conference that it takes soldiers an average of 12 years to get an associate’s degree while serving on active duty. The reasons, he explained, are unusual work hours, field exercises, deployments, strict limits on the number of credit hours that one university will transfer from another and a cap on the number of credit hours allowed each semester under the Tuition Assistance Program.
The Army University Access Online contract is slated to be awarded in December, to either a single academic entity or a consortium of education providers. Depending on the costs and requirements of the contract, the program also may be offered to spouses sometime in the future, Caldera said. Reservists and Department of the Army civilians will likely be offered some form of the program in the future.
According to Army figures, 9,021 soldiers have enrolled in distance-education courses so far this year. Under current policy, the government pays 75 percent of the tuition cost, and each soldier pays the remaining 25 percent.
The downside to distance learning, however, is the likelihood that a student may not be motivated enough to complete an education program online. One industry consultant who works on these problems said “experience shows that if students don’t have an investment in the courses, they won’t complete them. ... Students demand human contact. The Web alone won’t maintain the motivation necessary.” Off-duty course work, additionally, competes with family time.
The solution is to have “local mentors,” said Timothy Olwell, a consultant with ReliaSoft Professional Services, in Tucson, Ariz. His company developed a Web site called ArmyDL.com, which was designed for the Army’s distance learning program.
“We have a strategic and tactical plan for the Army to attack this,” Olwell said in an interview. “Not only getting the soldier enlisted and started in the program, but getting the soldier successfully through the program.
“We see many soldiers, airmen and sailors start with a lot of motivation, good will and intent, and not finish,” he said. “For the Army’s program to be successful, it should be gauged not just on how many soldiers take a free laptop and surf the Internet, but on how many actually get college credits and associate’s degrees in their first enlistment terms.”
ReliaSoft has done similar work for the Navy and for commercial customers, Olwell said. “We understand how much motivation plays a part. When you deploy and you have other priorities, such as family and work and education, which one is going to fall off first? Probably the education.” The company provides academically trained mentors— mostly former military academy instructors—who understand the Army and help soldiers stay motivated and focused, he said. ReliaSoft expects to be involved with the Online University program. “There are only one or two or three companies that are big enough to take this on.”
Among the large “systems integration” contractors at the industry exhibition were General Dynamics Communication Systems, based in Taunton, Mass., and Electronic Data Systems Corporation, from Plano, Texas. Experts at the conference said they expected the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa and the University of Maryland’s University College—which has a well-established online education program—to be the front runners.
Army officials stressed they are serious about this program, and it will not be just a “pilot” project. “We are not going to have a pilot program. We are going to award a contract and implement that contract at two to three installations only, because that is what the funding will allow us,” said Brig. Gen. Kathryn G. Frost, the Army’s adjutant general. “How much we do will depend to a large degree on the cost of the program.”
Caldera said the contract “may be with one vendor, or a consortium of vendors who will provide the technology package, run the help desk, and sign up the schools that will be the providers of the course content and awarders of degrees. The vendor would sign up any qualified school that was willing to offer its courses to our students on the terms the Army offers. The vendor will work with the Army to specify those terms.”