Defense Department Taps Distance Learning Tools
Defense Department Taps Distance Learning Tools<@VM>Congressional Mandate<@VM>Prototype Sites <@VM>Distance Learning a Boon to Dependent Schools
By Ed McKenna
Virtually all branches of the U.S. military have embraced distance learning initiatives, tapping advanced communications and video technology to help train the troops and prepare them for future conflicts.
Soldiers in Bosnia, for example, can obtain military training and college courses via videoconferencing through the Army's Teletraining Network program. And the Army National Guard is setting up a nationwide network of high-tech classrooms to keep the troops ready under its Distributive Training Technology Project.
A combination of reduced spending on training and the expanded capability of online technology and videoconferencing is prompting the Department of Defense to make more use of these tools, said Linton Wells, deputy to the undersecretary of defense for policy support.
"We've already seen our readiness beginning to decline" because of cuts in military spending, said Lt. Col. Philip Vermeer, Army National Guard manager of the Distributed Technology Training Project.
For Vermeer and other officials involved in military training, efforts such as the Army's Distributive Training Technology Project are designed to reverse that decline and save training costs. But these programs also should yield other benefits, giving new recruits hands-on training and computer skills and even offering local civilian communities access to new technology.
Distance learning saves a lot of money "in travel and per diem that would be needed for on-site training," said Walter Breckons, chief of video teletraining team for the Teletraining Network at the Army Training Support Center, Fort Eustis, Va.
Serving 160 sites worldwide, the Teletraining Network broadcasts upwards of 50,000 hours of training per year, he said. Sprint Corp., Kansas City, Mo., is the prime contractor for the network. The contract is valued at $50 million over five years.
The Defense Language Institute, one of the network's users, is providing training in 33 different languages to soldiers at 25 sites around the world using VTel videoconferencing systems, said Russ Colbert, VTel Corp.'s international distance education specialist. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the institute delivered crash courses in Arabic to the troops, he said.
This high-tech learning format also is tuned into the learning habits of the new recruits who are more accustomed to sitting in front of a computer or television, said Sgt. Bill Moore, who designs and implements telecommunications systems for the Air National Guard at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
Moore supervises an Air National Guard initiative that is implementing PictureTel videoconferencing systems at 170 Air Guard sites. About 85 units have been installed under the initiative launched in late 1996. They are typically located in briefing rooms capable of accommodating up to 20 people.
Already providing 75 percent of the Air Guard's telephone switches, Lucent Technologies Inc., Murray Hill, N.J., was tapped as the integrator for the project, with the average site costing about $58,000, including equipment, site administration and follow-on maintenance, he said.
These systems also are helping the military to deliver computer and information technology skills that are sorely lacking among new recruits, Vermeer said. The quick exodus of trained personnel from the services, he said, makes this training even more imperative.
"In the military and government, we don't pay these people enough, and they are leaving just as fast as the pilots leaving the Air Force," Vermeer said.
Unlike other defense distance learning programs, the DTTP is designated for both military and civilian use. The program was spurred by a congressional mandate in 1996 that directed the Army National Guard to build a nationwide program to improve its readiness and allow local communities to share the facilities on a fee-for-service basis.
Another goal was to make additional use of some of the more than 3,000 armories in communities throughout the country, Vermeer said.
Under this program, commercial courseware is made accessible to civilian users through the network on a pay-as-you-use basis, almost like a Kinko's store, said Beverly Nelson, a consultant in charge of communications for the DTTP at Booz-Allen & Hamilton, McLean, Va.
Vermeer said more than 2,000 commercial applications, such as popular Microsoft programs, are available on the network along with 400 different military programs.
The armories also can be used by local colleges for videoconferencing classes or computer-based training, Nelson said. Booz-Allen is writing a software management system to meter the use of the systems and build and maintain the courseware repository, she said.
Army National Guard also is allowing other government agencies to use its distance learning facilities, such as the General Services Administration, Nelson said.
The Distributive Training Technology Project itself began under a blanket purchase order from the GSA in 1996. Electronic Data Systems Corp., Plano, Texas, is the prime contractor and integrator for the project; Booz-Allen & Hamilton is responsible for all the business operations, and Richard S. Carson & Associates Inc., Bethesda, Md., provides system oversight.
The first critical piece of the project was the construction of Guard Net XXI, an end-to-end asynchronous transfer mode network. Completed in 1997, the network consolidates voice, video and data communications functions to support a wide range of multimedia applications.
There are four grades of classrooms in the program, said Gary Yenser, vice president of EDS' Distance Learning and Collaborative Technology, Herndon, Va. They range from a single trainer classroom that uses one workstation with two-way audio and one-way videoconferencing capability to larger, more advanced multimedia centers.
The most popular of these are the multimedia classrooms, which include 12 student workstations each with videoconferencing capability at the desktop, Vermeer said. In addition, there is CD-ROM-based training as well as high-speed Internet connections. Each of these classrooms also uses a roll-about videoconferencing unit capable of providing incoming and outgoing video, and an instructor workstation with a camera and videotape player.
All of the systems are standards-based, he stressed. For example, the videoconferencing systems receive H.320 video over ATM using Zydacron codecs cards and First Virtual ATM Net cards and can communicate with other systems such as those produced by VTel and PictureTel.
Beginning with nine prototype sites in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, there are now 49 Distributive Training Technology Project classrooms, 42 of which are equipped for videoconferencing, Yenser said.
By the end of 2000, the number of classrooms should grow to 350, Nelson said, adding that the program is allocated for about 650 classroom through 2003. To date, Congress has anted up about $103 million for the project, she said.
Distance learning projects are not limited to land-based sites but have extended their reach to sailors at sea via the Navy's video teletraining network, or CESN ? short for Chief of Naval Education and Training Electronic Schoolhouse Network.
For 10 years, CESN has beamed videoconference training to sailors on land and at sea, saving $18 million in travel and per diem expenses, said VTel's Colbert. The network sends videoconferencing classes to 32 sites, including two ships, the USS Carl Vinson and the USS George Washington.
Austin, Texas-based VTel is subcontractor on the CESN program to Raytheon Co., which has served as the prime over a series of three contracts beginning 1989.
On board the Navy's aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman, commissioned last July, the service has launched a pilot project with Oracle Corp. and Compaq Computer Corp. to offer intranet-based training.
"Our intent is to establish the learning center and then integrate it into the ship's unclassified network so that sailors from locations anywhere on board ship, with access to the network, can do asynchronous learning," said John Miller, executive director for learning solutions at Oracle Service Industries. A traditional learning center on board a ship trains 18 to 20 sailors at a time.
At the heart of the project is the Oracle Online Learning Application, which runs on the Oracle database and application server. The application stores, organizes, manages and delivers the learning content to the network, where users can access it with a browser, Miller said. The content can be anything you can put in a database, including video, text, spatial images and audio, he said.
"The potential for a live connection into the Internet environment is there," Miller said.
Lt. Cmdr. Bob Kass, combat systems maintenance officer on the Truman, said a number of hurdles must be cleared first.
"Our combat systems department LAN experts are already finding out about limitations to interactive-Internet access from ship to shore, because of built-in firewalls developed by the Navy for security reasons," he said.
Scheduled to run through March 2000, the intranet-based learning project eventually will be augmented by videoconferencing classes provided via CESN in the Truman's Distance Learning and Resource Center. Currently being developed and installed on the ship, the learning center is slated for completion by this fall, said Cmdr. Mike Sonnefeld, air operations officer.The children of U.S. military personnel are another beneficiary of distance learning programs that are offering added educational opportunities at defense installations worldwide.
Located in 13 countries across nine time zones, the Department of Defense Dependent Schools turned to distance learning techniques more than a decade ago to supplement their curriculum.
At the local level, often the only way that students can get certain courses is through distance learning, said Lore Peyton, a distributed learning technologist with DoDDS, based in Stuttgart, Germany.
For example, there are many small schools whose staff can't support a calculus teacher or an advanced placement physics teacher, she said. "If the students want to take those courses, they have to take them via distance learning," she said.
The distance learning program was the brainchild of a DoDDS teacher. The teacher wanted to use computer conferencing to deliver Pascal and advanced placement computer science courses to students at schools whose enrollment couldn't support those courses, Peyton said. The teacher used Confer, a text-based computer conferencing program run from a central computer at the University of Michigan.
Connecting to the computer via telephone lines, the program offered some challenges. Most notably, the students always had to dial into the University of Michigan computer, which could be very difficult, she said.
Still, the class was successful, and the school expanded its use of the program. In practice, the class is taught by an expert teacher in one location and a teacher facilitator, who may not know anything about the subject, at the other sites. "Three years ago, we moved the entire program to Lotus Notes," Peyton said.
DoDDS acquired the license to use Notes under Lotus' Total Campus option, which Lotus offers to school systems, said Alan Minard, director of Lotus Academic Solutions, Orlando, Fla.
The phone connection to the University of Michigan was replaced by a network of more than 50 Lotus Notes Domino servers located at the DoDDS high schools and the defense school system's headquarters in Arlington, Va.
For all practical purposes, these servers are now the virtual classroom for the schools' distance learning, containing a replica of the course including all of the work done by the teacher and students.
Using Notes, the students can add content at their own speed and share it with other students, said Minard. "Course communication can be to the whole class or teams in the class or to the teacher on a private basis," he said.
"By these successive replications, the kids can see the work that somebody might have done yesterday in Germany when they log on in Korea and make their contributions," Minard said.
The schools are currently using Notes for 14 courses, which have an enrollment of over 500 students, Peyton said. The schools also use Notes for writers' workshops and creative writing projects with students sharing and critiquing each others works over the distance learning network. "We also publish a worldwide newspaper," she said.
For the future, the schools are looking into using the Internet and videoconferencing to forge more synchronous connections between students and teachers, she said.