Course correction

The Air Force moves its IT e-learning programs from CDs to the Web<@VM>Sidebar | Meet your users' needs

Technology can be a great tool, but getting value from it requires a trained workforce. And keeping the training up-to-date with the technology is a constant challenge for a large, technology-dependent organization such as the Air Force.

'In the Air Force, we have a formal training system,' said Master Sgt. Todd Thomas, manager at the Air Force's e-learning program. 'Personnel go through different schools at different times in their careers.'

Traditionally, those schools have been the bricks-and-mortar kind, where students sit in classrooms to get instruction. But when the Air Force began integrating its networks in the 1990s, the need for information technology training grew beyond the classroom space available in which to provide it.

'We couldn't keep up with the technology you could buy off the shelf in the traditional schoolhouses,' Thomas said. 'The technology had always been there. It's a great asset. But as more technology came into play, the gap was getting wider and wider. We saw the need to get knowledge electronically.'

As the need grew, the Air Force began migrating to an online educational model. What began as an ad hoc program using CDs in the mid-1990s has evolved into a hosted educational system that more than 350,000 people use per month. CDs that contained 10 or 12 courses have been replaced with an Air Force Web portal with 3,500 online courses.

'It's awesome; it really is,' Thomas said. 'Anyone can get access, any time, anywhere in the world, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.'

In addition to greater accessibility, the Air Force does not have to pay for personnel to travel to a central school or struggle to fill a position while someone is away getting training.

The portal uses SkillPort from SkillSoft. The company develops and maintains the courseware, which can be specific to the customer's needs or more generic. The Air Force uses a mix of the two, and the majority of the courses are commercial.

SkillPort can run behind the customer's firewall or as a hosted service. The Air Force has turned the job over to SkillSoft, which hosts it in its Massachusetts data center. Larger customers of the hosted service have service level agreements guaranteeing high availability.

The Air Force ranks as one of the company's five largest customers in terms of the number of users, said Kevin Duffer, the company's vice president of public-sector business. The company also provides online courses for the Army, Navy and all the cabinet-level agencies, but Duffer said government is only a small part of the company's business.

The Defense Department's needs 'are different from anyone else's,' he said. Those needs are defined by the service's 24-hour operational cycle and geographical diversity, which puts an emphasis on 24-hour availability. Military employees also are often younger, and they have an expectation of online resources that makes online training a natural fit for them.

One unique need results from DOD's Directive 8570 on information assurance. Approved in December 2005, the directive requires all DOD information assurance workers to obtain an accredited commercial certification in computer security. DOD has approved 13 certifications for the directive.

SkillSoft, which has online courseware supporting more than 70 IT certifications, helps meet that requirement, Duffer said.

In August, 378,363 people used the Air Force system. The large number is partly because some of the required courses are also intended for the wider Air Force community. The most basic of these courses, on information security awareness, is required for all Air Force employees, and about 2 million people have taken it.

Automated entry

Students access the system by logging on to the Air Force portal using a Common Access Card. Once the user has been authenticated against the Air Force directory service, the authentication is passed to SkillSoft for authorization to use the system.

The online courses are launched on the desktop using Java applets and require interaction by the student, who answers questions, takes tests and completes practical exercises. Evaluation of coursework is automated. The system tracks each user's coursework, grades and progress and provides monthly aggregate reports on activity to the Air Force.

The Air Force also subscribes to SkillSoft's Books24x7 electronic book service, which gives its employees access to more than 6,000 reference books. 'It has saved the government millions of dollars,' Thomas said. 'Now, everybody can touch one library.'

Despite the success of the program, online learning will not replace traditional classroom instruction, Thomas said.

'It will be complementary,' he said. 'It will enhance the classroom training.' Students will learn about the basics of technology through online learning, but more specific hands-on instruction and Air Force-specific training will continue to be offered in the classroom.

'The driver has always been technology training to keep network operations professionals trained in the latest technology,' Duffer said. Online learning can be an effective way to extend resources to a widely dispersed workforce, and users have a wide range of programs to choose from.

'E-learning is really growing,' said Master Sgt. Todd Thomas, who leads the Air Force's e-learning program. 'It's grown a lot in the last 10 years.' In addition to companies offering courses on a commercial basis, a growing number of colleges also are offering programs and individual courses online.

Choosing the proper program requires understanding who the users are and what their needs are, Thomas said.

'It's going to depend in part on the number of people you are supporting,' he said. The Air Force has more than 800,000 people who can use its online learning system. 'Also, know your needs and tailor the e-learning system to those needs.'

An important consideration for the Air Force, in addition to the number and variety of courses, is the supporting company's ability to help with technical integration. SkillSoft hosts the program in its own data center, but it is accessed through the Air Force Web portal, where users are authenticated using their Common Access Cards.

'A lot of systems are being authenticated through the portal to allow a single sign-on,' Thomas said. But after the user is authenticated, their identity is passed on to SkillSoft to allow authorization on the online learning system, and the configuration is a little more complex than with many other applications. This required the company's assistance.

SkillSoft also tracks user performance and provides monthly activity reports, offers online mentoring to students and provides access to a large library of information technology reference e-books, all of which also add value for the Air Force.

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