Distance learning receives high-level backing

Distance learning receives high-level backing

By William Jackson

GCN Staff

Distance learning needs a vocal champion, the higher in the organization the better. And content should drive technology, not the other way around.

Those were the messages from representatives of the Army National Guard and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, who described their online training experiences at the TeleCon East conference earlier this year in Washington.

Distributed learning relies on telecommunications to supplement or replace face-to-face classroom training. There is no single standard technique; products and services range from real-time interactive video classrooms to purely browser-accessible instruction.

The National Guard and the U.S. Courts used different learning techniques but arrived at similar conclusions.

The GuardNet XXI nationwide asynchronous transfer mode network carries training courses to more than 360,000 Guard members in the fifth year of what is 'probably a 10- or 15-year implementation,' said Lt. Cmdr. Craig Bond, chief of the Guard's Distance Learning Branch.

The courts' administrative office has not yet settled on a single method. It commissioned a 1998 study of Web learning systems already in use by companies and government agencies. The contractor was Vertex Solutions Inc. of Falls Church, Va.

'We're trying to avoid mistakes other organizations have made,' said S.D. Eiserman, the courts' senior technologist.

The Vertex survey found that successful Web learning programs, whether simple or elaborate, generally had an aggressive proponent, usually at the executive level.

At the Guard, however, the program was not top-driven. Bond said a high-level champion would have helped increase acceptance and speed cultural change.

'We fight a lot of battles,' Bond said. GuardNet has congressional support and did not face obstacles from upper management, but 'often the leadership is distracted by other things,' he said.

GuardNet distributes live and on-demand digital instruction over a leased 45-Mbps T3 backbone linking seven hubs. There are 1.54-Mbps T1 spokes to 142 classrooms at Guard sites in all 50 states, and another 300 classrooms will link up over the next three years.

Development of educational material has not kept pace with the network's expansion.

'We are classroom-rich but courseware-poor,' Bond said.

If he had it to do over again, he added, he would want better synchronization between classroom development and courseware development.

The Vertex survey for the U.S. Courts made the same point. 'Requirements have to drive what you do,' said Steve Kerschenbaum, program manager for Vertex's systems engineering group.

Bond said agencies 'lack a single source where we can go and find out what is available. You don't know whether to start collaborating with someone or to start from scratch.'

Despite the problems, both organizations found that distance learning works. Skill sets improve, and the time and cost of training fall.

Bond said the residential training component of the Guard's Armor Captain course has dropped from 20 weeks to two weeks. In 1997, he said, the distributed simulation of Guard battalion and brigade exercises cut training expenses from $142,000 to $18,000.

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