Vets go the distance

Program at Walter Reed uses online courseware, assistive technologies

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A program at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center to help prepare injured veterans for careers in information technology and technical support seemed to be a good opportunity to try an online approach.

The center's Equal Employment Opportunity Office offers programs in IT certification and training, but often, veterans were discharged before completing the courses.

One veteran, retired Army sergeant Stephen Holden, began the Microsoft certification program at Walter Reed but couldn't go to a traditional classroom because he was recovering from surgery.

Discharged to his home in New Hampshire, Holden has been able to attend the classes online. Using a webcam, Cisco WebEx software, an Acer laptop PC and a high-speed network connection, Holden, who works for the Veterans Affairs Department, has been able to stay focused on his goal of becoming a software engineer.

The classes are designed and taught by Carl Stephenson, who also teaches the Microsoft courses in a classroom in Building 11 at Walter Reed in Washington. Stephenson works for Axiom Resource Management as a contractor at the medical center.

'I was Carl's guinea pig,' Holden said. With the webcam, Holden said he can still have face-to-face contact and discussions with other students and teachers. 'That's where some of the best learning occurs,' Holden said.

The Web class is held Tuesday and Thursday evenings, which gives students time to catch up on their reading, Holden said.

'There's never any rushed conversation,' Holden said. 'If we don't get to something, we can come back to it.'

The program began in 2006, with vouchers from Microsoft and Defense Department funding, Stephenson said. It used assistive technology for the students, some of whom were amputees or were recovering from traumatic brain injuries. The program provides ZoomText magnification software, Dragon speech-recognition software and assistive keyboards.

The Microsoft courses assume a one-year to three-year experience level in technical support, Stephenson said. 'Most of the soldiers just knew how to get on the Web and check their e-mail.' So Stephenson rewrote the materials, keeping the same content and adding more screenshots.

'This isn't a boot camp,' Stephenson said. 'It's built on quality, not quantity. We're not trying to see how many students we can push through. We want to give them an avenue to start a new career.'

Stephenson cites as an example a student who had lost 20 percent of his brain because of a tumor. In June 2007, the student's mother died, and the same week his wife asked for a divorce. After taking the Walter Reed Microsoft training, the student became a network administrator at Fort Gordon, Ga. Now he's a sergeant and back in Iraq. 'That's what this program has done,' Stephenson said.

And there were two soldiers who initially were reluctant to turn the computer on, Stephenson said. Now they are getting ready to complete their Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer certification.

'Little steps breed confidence,' Stephenson said. 'That's the motto of this program.'

The Web classes take some adjustment, Stephenson said. 'When you're teaching in a traditional classroom, after about 45 minutes, you get the deer-in-headlights look from your students. In WebEx, you can't see facial expressions.'

Stephenson said he also can't require as much memorization from his students, especially the ones recovering from traumatic brain injuries.

'You have to use as many senses as possible.'

However, he said he has seen evidence that the training can help recovery. One student could not remember his three years of network experience after suffering a brain injury. 'But it came back after the classes,' Stephenson said.

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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