GSA's online syllabus grows

GSA's online syllabus grows

VCampus' site hosts courses in subjects from ethics to tech certification

By William Jackson

GCN Staff

Starting this year, the General Services Administration's employees are all going to take their required ethics training online through GSA Online University.


GSA Online U offers 300 courses including these two homegrown modules on ethics and use of government purchase cards. Common office applications courses are popular.


Online U is too young to have homecoming celebrations. It was established last year in response to an executive order mandating that agencies institute training technology.

There's no football team or campus, either. The real estate consists only of a couple of server farms in Maryland and Virginia. But in its first year of operation, Online U has taught 3,000 courses to 2,200 GSA employees over the Internet.

At the university's Web portal, www.vcampus.com/gsa, employees can access a curriculum of about 300 courses from VCampus Corp. of Reston, Va., which hosts the service for GSA, as well as corporate programs such as Microsoft Corp. technical certification and links to 12 universities that offer accredited classes online.

'We are beginning to develop in-house courses,' said Elaine Lowry, the Online U program manager. The ethics course is one of the first in-house efforts, as is a course on how to use the GSA purchase card.

A joint team from the agency's human resources and chief information offices designed GSA Online University. When they decided what they wanted, they outsourced the program to VCampus, an application service provider. 'They take care of the hardware and software and all the courses online,' Lowry said.

Online dean

But GSA remains in charge of Online U, said Nat Kannan, chairman and chief executive officer of VCampus. 'It's their campus. We are hired to run it for them.'

Employees can take the Web training from anywhere at any time. It requires no additional network infrastructure beyond the Internet connections most offices already have.

VCampus went into business in 1995 as a developer and publisher of computer-based courseware but later became an application service provider. Kannan said the reason was that content, although necessary, is a commodity. Providing the service is where value is added, and 'that's why we're an ASP.'

The VCampus servers are on server farms at Digex Inc. in Beltsville, Md., and at a Reston site hosted by Exodus Communications Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif. The courseware resides on Sun Microsystems Enterprise-class servers. Courses are managed by servers from Compaq Computer Corp. and Dell Computer Corp., all running Microsoft Windows NT.

VCampus still publishes some courseware, but it mostly hosts third-party material for which it pays royalties, as well as proprietary courses developed by its users. Some have up to 1,000 of their own titles, Kannan said.

The most popular VCampus courses are training for common office applications such as Microsoft FrontPage, Word, Access, PowerPoint and Excel, plus technical courses on TCP/IP, frame relay and data communications.

VCampus also hosts courses for the Federal Aviation Administration, the Agriculture Department and the Army, but GSA is the biggest government user, Kannan said.

'It's economics driving it,' he said of the move to online education.

Lowry said many of the Online U students are GSA employees outside the Washington area who do not have as much opportunity to attend conventional training sessions. It is more cost-effective for them to take training online than to travel off-site or have instructors visit.

Easy A

The courseware consists primarily of graphics and text. 'We have tried to not make things too difficult,' Lowry said.

The Defense Department, because of its large number of personnel and its far-flung facilities, has a great deal of experience in distance training. But GSA is ahead of the curve on the civilian side, Lowry said.

Some courses' video and audio content requires plug-ins, but most requirements are very basic: a PC running any Microsoft Windows version or a Mac equivalent with a Netscape Navigator 3.0 or Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.0 or higher browser, 8M of RAM, 10M of free storage and a VGA monitor.

'We are not trying to replace classroom training,' Lowry said. 'Classroom training and computer training are two different things.' GSA will still need instructors in hands-on areas, she said.

The first two in-house projects were chosen because they lend themselves to online use, Lowry said. Ethics training ensures that everyone gets the same message. The course on using a purchase card works well for new hires who need the training right away.

Lowry said Online U might add more instructor-led courses to its curriculum, but there is no timetable. For the time being, students who take the text and graphics courses not only increase their subject matter skills but also get used to computer-based training.

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