USDA turns to CD-ROM for technical training

USDA turns to CD-ROM for technical training

Agency wants to teach users to better handle farmers' loan apps and program assistance requests

By Bill Murray

GCN Staff

The Agriculture Department recently ordered 16 computer-based training courses worth nearly $1 million for 16,500 employees who are getting new computers with Microsoft Windows NT Workstation 4.0 preinstalled.

'A lot of our field people have never used Windows,' said Scott Snover, USDA's Common Computing Environment project manager in Fort Collins, Colo. 'They may have used an IBM System/36 or a dumb terminal connected to a Unix server.'

USDA is midway through deploying the 16,500 Compaq Computer Corp. desktop PCs and Dell Computer Corp. portables worth $30 million, purchased from four resellers last year [GCN, Oct. 26, 1998, Page 57]. 'It's a logistical nightmare' to change systems at 3,100 field offices, Snover said.

Set for completion in 2011, the CCE for the Service Center program is a cooperative effort by USDA's Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service and several rural development agencies to make computer systems interoperate more effectively to process loan applications and program assistance requests from farmers.'

Through a Unisys Corp. contract, Enterprise Training Solutions Inc. of Ardsley, N.Y., is supplying eight CD-ROM training courses for Microsoft Office 97 Professional Edition, Netscape Communicator browsers and messaging products, and NT Workstation 4.0.

USDA can extend the delivery order to supply up to 40,000 users, said Keith Hodson, public relations manager at Microsoft Federal.

In addition to supplying Microsoft training books, Enterprise Training is providing eight courses for systems administrators in NT Workstation 4.0 setup and administration, said Snover, who works for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

USDA officials considered holding classroom training in central locations, but the travel costs and lost worker productivity dissuaded them, Snover said.

Desktop diploma

'Employees can work at their own pace and still be at their duty desks,' he said'a common refrain by agency officials who purchase computer-based training software.

Stephen Fried, vice president of Enterprise Training, said his company also provides headphones for the audio tracks. Users can run an application in one window and access a course in another window whenever they need to resolve a problem, he said.''

The USDA organizations are loading the Ethernet-connected PCs with custom software that includes USDA-developed and commercial programs, Snover said. Officials wanted not only to have PCs year 2000-ready but also to replace older computers that could not run multimedia applications on CD-ROMs.

The 400-MHz Compaq Deskpro EP Pentium II desktop systems have 64M of RAM, 6.4G hard drives, 8M video cards and 17-inch monitors. The 266-MHz Dell Latitude CPi266XT notebooks have Pentium II processors, docking stations, monitors and external keyboards. About 20 percent of the total number are notebooks that will serve as desktop replacements.

USDA ordered one set of CD-ROMs for every five employees. Technicians 'needed some advance time to get ahead of the curve,' Snover said. 'Reaction has been very positive so far.'

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