Distance Learning Takes Root at Government Agencies
Distance Learning Takes Root at Government Agencies<@VM>FAA and SSA<@VM>Variable Standards<@VM>E-Learning Forecast
By Ed McKenna
Federal agencies are in a bind. As they deploy advanced technology to improve delivery of services amid flat or declining budgets, they also are ratcheting up the pressure on their downsized work force to adjust quickly to new systems and responsibilities.
The government is in the middle of a technology movement where job responsibilities are changing rapidly, said Elaine Lowry, program manager for the General Services Administration Online University. "We have to be able to learn much quicker [and] do more with less."
To avert a skills gap and still keep costs down, government organizations are launching distance-learning initiatives ? often called e-learning when involving the Internet ? using Web-based, satellite and videoconferencing technologies to deliver critical training to their employees.
E-learning in the professional training market is booming. Revenue from e-learning, including solely Internet or intranet-based initiatives for both the private and public sector, will surge from about $550 million in 1998 to about $11.4 billion in 2003 ? a robust 84 percent annual growth rate, said Ellen Julian, an analyst with the market research company International Data Corp. of Framingham, Mass.
A mix of workplace and cost-cutting issues is sparking that growth in the government sector.
In today's busier work environment, these programs give employees who find it difficult to get away from their desks an opportunity to learn new IT skills or even polish their office skills, Lowry said. Using Web-based courses offered by the GSA Online University, they can "spend maybe an hour one day or two the next on the courses ? or work over a weekend or in the evening." This allows them to complete their mission for their organization and learn at the same time, she added.
Since the online university opened for business in April 1999, GSA employees have taken about 3,000 courses, noted Lowry, who said that GSA offers a catalog of 250 courses covering IT and office skills, all published or licensed through the project's contractor, Vcampus Corp. of Reston, Va.
Vcampus is an application service provider that not only provides off-the-shelf and custom-designed courseware, but also hosts the programs on its own servers, noted Firuzeh McLean, director of business development at Vcampus. Plans are afoot to open the offerings of GSA to other federal organizations, McLean added.
These programs give the agencies "a logistical boost for training an increasingly mobile and distributed work force," said Clark Aldrich, an analyst with the GartnerGroup, Stamford, Conn.
With the advent of distributed computing, telecommuting and telecenters, "our whole operation at the federal government has changed dramatically," said Marc Santini, program director of the GSA Federal Technology Service's federal learning technology program, or Fed Learn ? a program begun late last year to help agencies develop distance learning programs.
"In my organization, people are distributed all over the country, so they can be closer to the clients and for them to get any training they have to get on a plane," Santini said. Using the Internet makes "it very easy to access online courses and very inexpensive," he said, citing the cost of all GSA online courses at $100 or under.
Having that distance learning accessibility also translates into savings in per diem and transportation costs for users of the satellite-based program at the Federal Aviation Administration Academy, according to Rich Schrum, interactive video teletraining operations manager at the academy based in Oklahoma City. From there, the system reaches 65 sites around the country.
"Aviation security folks are one of our big users because they have field agents at every airport all over the world," he said. "We [also] are a quick means of getting information out," including new laws and congressional mandates, he added.
The Social Security Administration gets similar benefits from its satellite-based learning program, according to Jim Noble, senior technology adviser for the interactive video teletraining system at SSA. The program began as a pilot project in 1995 and has been managed since 1997 by Electronic Data Systems Corp., Plano, Texas, under the Department of Energy's Telecommunications Integrator Services contract, valued at $600 million over five years.
At present, the system comprises 830 facilities and five broadcast studios around the country. It will add another 670 sites and a studio in the next two years, said Noble. SSA has invested about $13 million in the program so far and the agency likely will begin some Web-based training during that time frame, he added.
FAA and SSA are two of 10 agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Veterans Affairs, that use technology from San Jose, Calif.-based One Touch Systems Inc., according to Kevin Lawrence, government regional manager for the company in Washington. The company offers distance learning systems for satellite, videoconferencing and the Web, said John Futrell, One Touch vice president for North American sales.
All the initiatives are being acquired off the GSA schedule, said Futrell, who noted that the company takes part in several schedules of other companies, including Hughes Global Systems, which owns 51 percent of One Touch.
Programs such as those offered by One Touch offer a way to deal with the thorny issue of employee retention by providing an easier outlet for continuing education. "The government is having a bear of a time retaining good IT [personnel]," Aldrich said. "It takes three years to train them and then they leave."
Since it cannot hope to compete on a salary basis with private-sector employers, the government has to adopt a long-term plan that provides continual training to keep ever-changing employees up to date, Aldrich added.
There are only a couple of dark clouds in this otherwise bright picture and one of them is the lack of standards.
No standards for interoperability have been developed despite more than two years of work by various standards bodies as well as a White House-sponsored Advanced Distributed Learning initiative, or ADL, that was tasked to facilitate development of common standards.
To date, the ADL has produced a publication called SCORM ? Shareable Courseware Objects Reference Model ? said Raye Newman, director of human performance at Science Applications International Corp., San Diego. "The emphasis right now for SCORM is metadata and how you can describe the learning objects in ways that make them easy to find and use and reuse," he said. While that has gotten a lot of press, the standards it is based on are still evolving, according to Newman.
But Aldrich argued that standards are not particularly relevant at this point. "Right now we are in a best of breeds world [with] de facto standards. When you look at formal standards bodies in the learning area, they are kind of lowest common denominator," he said.
It has been more effective to allow top companies to build custom bridges between their systems, he maintained. "Once the technology stabilizes a little bit, then standards will come into play," he said. But that may not occur for three to four years.
Another challenge that is surfacing is the substantial market potential for distance learning. The promise of a possible financial windfall has spawned a confusing, crowded marketplace. "Every month there are new companies and new technologies and you can't keep up with [the pace]. ? It is the next revolution in IT," Santini said.
Yet all that growth "is confusing for our customers because there is a lot of hype and things are changing rapidly," said Newman. "It is not only the new products, but all the new releases with new architectures from companies that have been in the market for some time ?everybody wants to be for everybody," he said.
Fed Learn offers one solution to this problem in the public sector, according to Santini. "My market niche is to provide IT solutions for traditional training issues that agencies have," he said. "I take care of their project, contract and financial management and any legal support ? the whole soup to nuts."
In the meantime, government organizations have adopted a number of strategies on their own.
Many organizations are vesting their trust in traditional systems integrators. The Army National Guard and Air Force National Guard respectively have tapped EDS and Murray Hill, N.J.-based Lucent Technologies Inc. to manage their expansive videoconferencing-based programs. Begun in 1996 under a GSA blanket purchase order, the Army Guard's Distributive Training Technology Project now reaches 151 classrooms located in every state and territory and is still growing, said Gary Yenser, vice president of distance learning solutions for EDS' federal business in Herndon, Va.
"They've deployed a nationwide telecommunications backbone that is capable of supporting two-way full interactive voice data and video," Yenser said, adding that Internet access is embedded in the [network] architecture." A variety of technologies are used in the project including videoconferencing systems such as VTEL, PictureTel and First Virtual.
The Air Guard uses the PictureTel system to reach 170 classrooms across the country, said Chief Master Sgt. Bill Moore, who manages the systems for the Guard at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. The Air Force has invested about $15 million over the five years it has been in place, according to Moore, who said the service is looking to deploy desktop video and voice via the Internet over the next two years. "We have our own contract with Lucent and now are in the process of negotiating a new contract with the same support," he said.
Along with working with the Chief of Naval Education and Training office on the service's broad-based distance learning initiatives, SAIC is shepherding the Naval School of Health Sciences' efforts to transition its CD-ROM training system to the Web. "We are providing a reality check to keep smaller agencies [such as Health Sciences] apprised of where big Navy is going so they will end up being consistent," Newman said.
The school is test piloting the Accredix distance learning system from Alameda, Calif.-based Knowledge360. "If that is successful it will presumably take the next step and find a way to go worldwide with this capability," said Newman of the Navy. That would mean an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 medical professionals all over the world would be using the system, said Josh Berson, vice president of marketing at Knowledge360.
Similarly, General Dynamics Corp.'s Taunton, Mass.-based Communication Systems unit is managing a pilot project for the Department of Agriculture designed to reach an estimated 2 million disadvantaged farmers, said Richard Semon, director of distance learning for the company. General Dynamics is offering its own distance learning product, the Pathways Platform, which uses streaming video technology from Akamai Technologies Inc., Cambridge, Mass., and mGen Inc.'s learning management system, he said.
Some agencies are eschewing the traditional contractor route and launching their own test programs or simply filling niche needs.
NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., has engineered a multivendor vehicle, awarding contracts in April to DigitalThink Inc.; Skillsoft; Mindleaders.com Inc.; Knowlogy Corp.; and Network Automation Technology Inc., said Jeff Brown, a contract specialist at Ames. The contracts are part of NASA's Consolidated Contracting Initiative under which one center initiates a contract and makes it available to all NASA Centers. Valued at up to $600,000, contracts are limited to one year after which the agency plans to do an evaluation, he said. "If we do another procurement next year, we will probably consider including options in it so that we can extend it," he said.
The agency opted for a multivendor contract this year because it was believed that "no one vendor was going to make everyone happy," said Brown.
"NASA is a very distributed organization and every location is a little bit different," agreed Sally Turner, director of the government sector for DigitalThink. An application service provider based in San Francisco, DigitalThink hosts its own classes, which cost from $99 to $325 per person depending on the courses. Prices also vary when bought in volume off its GSA schedule, Turner added.
The Environmental Protection Agency is using technology from AdvanceOnline Inc., Seattle, to help train its personnel and customers on how to deal with hazardous waste. Also working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, AdvanceOnline's focus "is related primarily to OSHA safety training, environmental compliance and transportation of hazardous materials and related topics," said Monte Rosen, vice president for business development and marketing at the company.
The Army's Aberdeen Test Center in Aberdeen, Md., is looking at Scottsdale, Ariz.-based KnowledgeNet's online learning program to provide training for its network employees, said Robert Stastny, an engineer at the facility. KnowledgeNet's focus is IT training providing online courses from the most complicated Cisco Systems' training to Microsoft certification down to commercial end-user products, said Tom Graunke, chief executive officer at KnowledgeNet.
The U.S. corporate market for e-learning, which includes the public
and private sectors but not the academic sector,
is expected to top $11 billion by 2003.