Army expands e-learning abilities

Army expands e-learning abilities

'Our intention was to leverage off the investment of the private sector rather than develop courses ourselves,' said Bob Schwenk, deputy director of the Army Chief Technology Office.

The Army has a vision of its future soldier. He is part of a fearless ground force, trained in modern warfare and as skilled in moving information and plotting strategies with advanced communications systems as he is in wielding a rifle.

With that vision in mind, the Army has extended an agreement with SmartForce, a distance-learning company in Redwood City, Calif., to expand online information systems training for soldiers.

The SmartForce e-learning portal offers 24-hour chat rooms and mentor access, site support and around-the-clock help. When the initiative began in November 1998, under the direction of Lt. Gen. William H. Campbell, the former director of information systems for command, control, communications and computers, the Army managed the training internally. Then, only 880 courses were available.

In October 2001, the service hired SmartForce to host the environment.

'Gen. Campbell said the Army is moving into a digitized battlefield, and its work force needs to have access to IT skills,' recalled Bob Schwenk, deputy director of the Army Chief Technology Office in Fort Belvoir, Va.

'Our intention was to leverage off the investment of the private sector rather than develop courses ourselves,' Schwenk said. 'We're leaps and bounds ahead of where we were three years ago. Previously, we had static coursework.'

Today the virtual classroom offers 1,500 courses ranging from beginning spreadsheet and word processing programs to advanced courses on Cisco routers and 40 preparation courses for advanced certifications.

'It's a much more integrated learning environment,' said Kevin Duffer, director of federal sales for SmartForce.

In order to register, students must have an Army Knowledge Online account. AKO is the Army intranet portal that consolidates news, briefings, a job bank, weather reports, school and benefits information, and a plethora of other service-related information into a single point of entry. So far, nearly 150,000 students are enrolled in the SmartForce e-learning program.

Schwenk said the Army inked the deal with SmartForce to give students more IT support and to improve interaction between students and teachers.

SmartForce offers live technical seminars, a library where students can look up white papers and other documents, practice tests, and other course titles, mostly on IT subjects, business and finance.

Any Army employee worldwide can sign up to take the courses free through the hosted MySmartForce platform.

Soon, Army personnel may earn college credit for the courses. Schwenk said officials have been working with the American Council on Education to get accreditation so the courses can be transferred to a college.

'We are working with soldiers as they transition to the civilian work force,' Schwenk said. 'They can take any number of courses they desire. This allows a student to progress at their own pace.'

Although the e-learning initiative is not named as a component of a broader move to transform the Army into a quicker, more agile and more technical force, Schwenk said the courses are in line with that program.

He said the SmartForce platform can be viewed as a companion to eArmyU, the electronic-learning portal through which soldiers receive free, online education from more than 24 colleges and universities.

But Schwenk said the SmartForce tool is not affiliated with any college, and the courses are geared toward professional and personal development.

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