Classroom XXI puts soldiers at head of class

Classroom XXI puts soldiers at head of class

Army constructs digital training access centers to lay groundwork for nationwide cyberschools

The Army's Classroom XXI project, to be completed in 2009, uses real-time and stored courseware for resident training, such as this class at Fort Gordon, Ga.

By Merry Mayer

Special to GCN

The Army is building a systems network that eventually will provide computerized training at 270 Army classrooms nationwide and tens of thousands of soldiers.''

And that may not be all. The Army 'will still need hundreds and hundreds more of these high-tech classrooms,' said Glenna Dobie, Classroom XXI program manager for the Army's Training and Doctrine Command.

TRADOC began wiring the Army's classrooms two years ago and expects to complete the project, known as Classroom XXI, in another 10 years.

Classroom XXI, which is modernizing resident training classrooms, is an adjunct of the Army's Distance Learning Program, which is building 745 classrooms wordwide.

High-tech high

Right now the budget calls for 270 high-tech classrooms and 15 digital training access centers within the United States to be completed by 2009. The DTACs are the network rooms that enable the high-tech classrooms to function.

Since fiscal 1998, the first year of the project, TRADOC has built seven DTACs. 'Since the DTACs cost the most, I built small ones and scaled them up as the number of users increased,' Dobie said. The system has an asynchronous transfer mode backbone and is run over TCP/IP.

Still, Classroom XXI is a major feat for the Army in several respects.

The most obvious is it makes training and professional development more efficient for the bases that have access to it. The system the system is a way to bring the battlefield to the classroom and quickly pass on lessons learned.

Students can take instruction at a desktop PC in one of these classrooms any time they want and at the pace they want. It is a radical departure from the traditional platform method of teaching, in which an instructor delivers a lecture to a class at a specified time and place.''

It's also a big change for most of the Army's instructors, who were schooled in the old way, Dobie said. TRADOC is working to bring all the classroom training to desktop PCs, which means the instructors have to think differently about how they present the coursework, she said.

The technology used in Classroom XXI allows students to have online collaborative discussions with instructors or other students working with the same information.

To keep some of the benefits of the traditional classroom, students taking the same class can choose to take the class in real time and have shared calendars, notebooks and documents.

For the Army, standardized courseware lets it keep better control of the coursework content, ensuring that the same message is going out to all its soldiers.

But electronic learning wouldn't bring efficiencies if instructors had to get the help of programmers every time they wanted to make a change in course content.

One of the objectives of Classroom XXI is to be able to replicate training courses throughout the Army.

Cloned classes

The Army also didn't want to be adding servers as the number of students at a site increased or the types of training changed. 'One of our objectives was that we could replicate this throughout the Army, that it be truly scalable,' Dobie said.
To meet the first requirement, the Army selected mGen from Digital Media Solutions Inc. of Brockton, Mass. One part of mGen is an authoring tool that allows instructors, even those not computer-literate, to create a multimedia production.

It lets instructors basically drag and drop in words, sounds, pictures and video footage as if assembling a textbook, said Jack Battersby, president of Digital Media Solutions. 'It looks and feels like a Hypertext Markup Language editor; the difference is that it is a visual database editor,' he said.

Loading data onto the network is also easy. All the tagging of elements and mapping of content locations that would normally be left to database administrators, multimedia programmers or systems administrators is maintained by mGen Network, Battersby said.

The tool also takes care of writing to and deleting from the database, Web server, application server and video server.

It analyzes each network and will, if necessary, rewrite the content to match each individual deployment.

'Trainers can author their materials without having to worry about individualizing the material to match each site's network or even be concerned that the material will not run properly because it was not authored for a particular system,' Battersby said.

The system uses four servers. An Oracle8i Enterprise Server runs the database for Classroom XXI.

An Oracle Web Application Server aggregates the data and creates a visual interface. Video is provided with an MPEG video server from nCube of San Francisco and mCast, a multicast server from Digital Media Solutions.

The system uses just one server for storing data, which can streamline operations at some locations.

At Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., TRADOC needed only one database server and one DTAC to set up a distance-learning program for the base's engineering, chemical and military police schools.

'Running off a single server eliminates the need for creating multiple copies of courseware,' Dobie said.

To increase scalability, all the hardware used for Classroom XXI is platform-independent. The Army uses Microsoft Windows NT, but Unix could also be used, Battersby said.

OS options

Coursework stored in the DTAC is sent to a desktop PC over the LAN with a high bandwidth to provide full-motion, full-screen video and multimedia presentations.''

When a student logs on to Classroom XXI and requests specific course materials, the database server compiles all the various parts'video, text, pictures'and sends them out packaged in the way the instructor intended.

It also generates lists of students doing similar coursework so they can contact each other via e-mail or conduct online group discussions.

'Lots of intelligence is built into the back of the system,' Battersby said.


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