Defense charges to the Web for education

Defense charges to the Web for education

Although surmounting the technical challenges requires ingenuity, the services think they're on to something

BY SUSAN M. MENKE | GCN STAFF

Last month's $453 million, five-year Army contract for a college portal was the latest in a broadside of new Web programs for the military services.
The portal, Army University Access Online, sounds like another portal called Army Knowledge Online, but their Web interfaces fill different functions. The former teaches, the latter puts teaching into practice, Army officials said.

The Marine Corps, in contrast, is wary of Web security risks. It runs educational programs over base and station intranets with courseware designed for high-bandwidth LAN and dial-up Internet connections.

Up to 80,000 soldier-students at Fort Benning, Ga., Fort Campbell, Ky., and Fort Hood, Texas, will begin enrolling in college courses this month through the Army University Access Online contract held by PricewaterhouseCoopers Inc. of New York.

Army Secretary Louis Caldera in July proclaimed the site as 'the largest education portal in the world' [GCN, July 24, 2000, Page 1], but its scale has shrunk from the original estimate of 1 million soldier-students.

Technical certifications and associate and bachelor's degrees are Army U's first steps. If the portal succeeds in its base year, it eventually could offer master's degrees by the end of the four optional years, said Chris Thompson, chief of contracts and grants at the Defense Supply Service-Washington.

Under the indefinite-quantity, firm-fixed-price contract, students will each get a Compaq Computer Corp. notebook PC and a printer from Turbotek Computer Corp. of Manchester, N.H. They also will receive the Microsoft Office suite with browser, Internet connectivity through Fiberlink Communications Corp. of Blue Bell, Pa., and 24-hour technical support from Precision Response Corp. of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Who's on first?

Saba Software Inc. of Redwood Shores, Calif., will manage the online courses and evaluations. PeopleSoft Inc. of Pleasanton, Calif., will run the student administration system. Blackboard Inc. of Washington will host the virtual classroom environment.

Army career counselors will help soldiers select from degree programs offered by three dozen institutions including Florida State University in Tallahassee, Indiana University in Bloomington, and other state universities and community colleges.

'We anticipate the number of schools will grow' as the other bidders approach PricewaterhouseCoopers to promote their course offerings, Thompson said.
The Marine Corps meanwhile is preparing to spend $250 million on distance education for about 220,000 active-duty and reserve Marines over the next 10 years.

Its courseware for information technology comes from NETg Corp. of Naperville, Ill. Soon Marines will also have access to about 350 courses from SkillSoft Corp. of Nashua, N.H., that cover such topics as marksmanship as well as general subjects.

Maj. James E. Munroe, emerging technology officer at the Training and Education Command, said the base and station intranets that host the training 'have pretty good bandwidth already. We knew we probably wouldn't control the wide-area bandwidth, and we have stringent security rules concerning firewalls.'

How those arrangements will fit into the future Navy-Marine Corps Intranet, however, 'is still very much up in the air,' he said.

Like the Army portal, the Marines need a learning-management system to track students' progress and evaluations, Munroe said. At the moment, they use a distributed database with a repository at the Marine Corps Institute in Washington.

Disseminating the courses to military and civilian personnel requires upgrades to the current base and station telecommunications infrastructure, scheduled for completion in fiscal 2003.

The Total Army Distance Learning Program is providing the Corps with additional courseware and access to its satellite education network, Munroe said.

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