Army e-Learning Program
In today's fast-paced environment, it's difficult to find the time or the inclination to participate in structured training. From the Army command perspective, in many cases, it is neither fiscally responsible nor mission compatible to send people from their duty stations to complete required training.
Of even greater concern to Army leadership was the fact that traditional methods used for training its information technology (IT) workforce were not keeping up with demand.
So, in 1999, retired Lieutenant General William H. Campbell, the Army chief information officer (CIO), set a goal of maximizing the availability of training/technology for the IT workforce. He anticipated that online training would result in a cost savings to the Army.
That assumption has been more than fulfilled by the Army e-Learning program.
"An Army Audit Agency report from February of this year determined that over the last three fiscal years, the Army has saved approximately $86 million," said Stan Davis, project officer, Army e-Learning. "In fiscal year 2004, Army soldiers and civilians completed over 159,000 courses resulting in an estimated savings of over $47 million dollars. Assuming a constant rate of savings over the next three years, the Army would save an additional $142 million."
The courses are free to every active Army soldier and civilian, in addition to Army National Guardsmen, reservists and ROTC cadets who need information technology or information assurance training. SkillSoft Corp., with U.S. headquarters in Nashua, NH, is the vendor responsible for offering Army members more than 2,000 commercial, Web-based courses related to information technology, business, leadership and professional development, according to Willard J. Scott, the Army project manager at SkillSoft.
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Business courses range from accounting to administrative support and human resources; leadership courses are in areas such as project management and team building; and professional development courses include subjects such as effective communication and time management. The IT library includes training from Microsoft Office to security and system administration, network management, application development and Web site management.
"When the program began, bandwidth was a problem," said Scott. "Not everyone had Internet connectivity or the connectivity they had wasn't very good. SkillSoft provided CDs containing course material to distribute in addition to the master Web site."
Since then, bandwidth and the program have increased. The Office of the CIO/G-6 originally funded the Army e-Learning program out of year-end funds. Now, the program is managed by the Army Distributed Learning System (DLS) program office.
"Army e-Learning reinforces DLS's mission to provide the Army with training on demand: training anywhere, anytime, 24/7," said Colonel Sharon Holmes, project manager, Distributed Learning System. "The Army's aggressive approach to training its workforce is unparalleled."
"Army e-Learning provides the Army's soldiers and civilians the opportunity to take advantage of a multitude of valuable courses for free, while enabling the Army's workforce to be trained to a higher standard," Holmes continued.
To access the e-learning program, a person must have an Army Knowledge Online account. "Then you enter and register in the system and you have one year to take whatever courses you need to take," said Leslie York, the program administrator for Army e-Learning. There are no penalties for not completing a course.
More than 40 certification programs are offered, such as Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer, A+, Certified Information Systems Security Professional, Cisco Certified Network Associate and Oracle Database 10g Administrator Certified Associate. "So, some of these courses could be used as just-in-time resources, where you go into the system, get the information needed and sign out," said York.
Many of the courses are three to four hours in length, but vary based on the number of segments involved in the course content. So, time management skills, which are taught in the Army e-Learning program, can allow a person to take a number of courses and learn diverse new skills.
Carl Herbert is a retired Air Force master sergeant now working as a telecommunications specialist for the Army at West Point Military Academy. He's also a veteran user of Army e-Learning. "Anytime I have an hour or a half hour break between jobs, I try to sign on and work on a course," said Herbert. "I've probably taken 25 to 30 courses thus far."
His usage of Army e-Learning has been for professional development, but also for business and personal development. "I design and build amateur radio equipment, write my own software programs using HTML and XTML and design Web sites. I'm also a published writer," Herbert said. "I use Army e-Learning courses as a tool to teach me how to do what I want to accomplish, whether it's writing software or building amateur radio equipment, and it works."
Stepping outside the traditional classroom setting has many advantages for the program's participants. Learning takes place when and where the participants want, characteristics that fit well with a military lifestyle. Participants in the Army e-Learning program have been stationed anywhere from Alaska to Iraq.
"Army e-Learning is awesome," said Army Reserve Specialist Sergeant Jackson Andrew, a senior mechanic with the 63rd Battalion, Fort Dix, NJ. "When I was deployed to Iraq, I was able to log on during my down time and take A+ courses, which helped me get my certifications once I got back state side."
Geoff Gowey, a National Guard officer candidate and a systems administrator at Fort Dix, wholeheartedly agrees with Jackson. "To put it succinctly, Army e-Learning is the best thing since sliced bread. It allows the average soldier to pursue advancement using their own initiative on their own time. Instead of wading through paperwork and hassles to get the classes needed, a soldier can advance using the clicks of a mouse from any terminal. This not only helps the soldier improve their career by pursuing once unavailable opportunities, but strengthens the Army as a whole."
SkillSoft currently has about 14 curricula approved for credit recommendations by the American Council on Education (ACE) with many more in the approval process. A person can take the exam in a monitored environment, the monitor signs off on the exam and sends the document to ACE, and the person gets a transcript in return.
"Many of our industry and military customers request that we offer ACE recommendations," said Scott. Companies such as Microsoft and Cisco are more than willing to offer industry certification programs to promote loyalty and increase professionalism.
"In fact, the federal government CIO council has stated that its does recommend certification when possible," said Scott. The Department of the Army is a member of the Chief Information Officers Council, which is the principal interagency forum to assist CIOs in realizing their mandates to ensure the rapid and effective implementation of information management and information technology solutions within each agency.
According to Davis, certification can increase career opportunities by establishing competence in implementing IT products and technologies. It also validates the knowledge and skill gained through training and experience.
"Plus, at the end of a certification course, a practice certification sample test is available to students to take to increase their comfort level for the real test," said Scott.
Scott also noted SkillSoft offers a mentoring program that is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. "The student has access to mentors who are full-time employees certified in the referenced topic online 24 hours a day," he said.
Scott pointed out that the mentoring is also proactive, as opposed to reactive. "If a student requests mentoring we begin sending proactive e-mails to check and see how the student is doing-just as a teacher walks around a classroom and offers encouragement.
"Of course, it's up to the student to either respond to or ignore the e-mails. So, with the e-learning program, a student can go online and engage in an interactive discussion with an instructor at any time. Plus, mentors are part of the instructional design process. They know the course content, and they develop the mentoring scenarios and the test preparation exams."
Once a student completes a course, a record is forwarded to the Army Training Requirements and Resources System, which is responsible for the Army training records. Credit is then given to the person on their official training record and a completion certificate is produced.
There's an additional bonus for enlisted personnel who complete e-learning courses. One promotion point is given for every five hours of documented course work, according to York.
Colleges such as the University of Phoenix and Drexel University have been accepting transcripts reflecting completion of some of the courses and giving credit.
"There is a whole list of colleges that have accepted these courses and given credit for them. And the list is growing," York said.
Is there any downside to the Army e-Learning program? "Well, it is a cultural change getting people to understand that you don't need a live instructor, but can proceed through the courses at your own rate," said Davis.
But the program coordinators expect that people will see the advantages of Army e-Learning and make the transition. "And I expect that the program will expand with even more course offerings," Davis said.
With testimonials like that of Sergeant Rustin Prentice, OPFOR NCO/Retention NCO, 78th Division Battle Projection Group Installation, Fort Dix, NJ, Davis doesn't need a computer model to make a prediction about the expansion of e-learning.
"Army e-Learning is an excellent tool," Prentice said. "As a reservist, these classes have assisted me in my civilian employment as well as in my military duties. I have and will continue to encourage anyone to take advantage of this program."
For the latest program news and information, go to the Army's e-Learning webpage on AKO; "My Education" under "Self-Service", then select Army.