Army Seeks Firms To Manage Distance Learning Venture

Army Seeks Firms To Manage Distance Learning Venture<@VM>E-Learning Forecast

Army Secretary Louis Caldera

By Jennifer Freer, Staff Writer

Some of the top systems integrators are girding up to compete for a new $600 million Army distance learning program that many industry officials also hope will demonstrate distance learning as one solution to the shortage of skilled technology professionals.

Army Secretary Louis Caldera announced July 10 his plans for the Distance Learning Initiative, called Army University Access Online. The program will give soldiers the opportunity to earn college credits, degrees and technical certifications while they serve, at little or no cost to them.

Army officials will meet with interested companies Aug. 2, and issue a preliminary request for proposals Aug. 11, with the final RFP in September. The contract is expected to be awarded in December.

Among the major competitors expected to bid on the contract are companies such as Computer Sciences Corp., El Segundo, Calif.; Electronic Data Systems Corp., Plano, Texas; and Oracle Corp., Redwood Shores, Calif.

"Distance learning is an enormous area of growth, and it's not just in government. It's across all the commercial markets as well," said John Miller, executive director for learning solutions at Oracle.

Oracle is not new to the distance learning world. Oracle University, an e-business education program that is part of the Oracle Education group, provides customized information technology training for employees and other students who want to learn Oracle technology. And Oracle Education, begun 20 years ago, helped train 475,000 students in 1998.

CSC also has a strong background in this arena.

"What the Army is going to need is a systems integrator to work with the academic side of the world, the technology side of the world and the network side, and build it and put it together," said Austin Yerks, senior vice president of the Defense Group of CSC. "That's where we play best."

The company has a distance learning center in Hampton, Va., which began five years ago. The center supports military and commercial customers by setting up offices, installing software, providing educational materials and conducting classes.

In addition, CSC does $500 million a year in business with the Army, making it the company's largest customer within the Defense Department, Yerks said.

The IT worker shortage is driving the need for distance learning, Miller said. Distance learning enables organizations to retrain their workers and helps reduce turnover by offering workers opportunities to grow personally and professionally.

The program is important to the Army for the same reasons: recruiting and retention. "Today, our biggest competition is not a hot economy but a higher education," Caldera said. Young people, he said, are choosing education over military service.

With the Army University Access Online program, the Army can offer both an education and military service. Soldiers who are able to achieve educational goals will be more satisfied and likely to stay, Caldera said. And, of course, the new program also will help produce the technically savvy soldiers the country needs to succeed on the battlefields, he added.

Distance learning is a growing market, and one that offers a remedy to the work force shortage in other government agencies outside the military services, said industry officials.

"We're seeing more opportunities in distance learning," said Kevin Plexico, an analyst with the market research firm Input Inc. of Chantilly, Va. "There is a shortage of technical skills in the government, and the government may have more trouble finding qualified technical people than the commercial side."

For the companies that are competing for the Army contract, the program represents an important reference account when other federal agencies initiate similar projects, Plexico said.

While the distance learning market is growing, the Army's distance learning program is expected to grow exponentially.

"We envision a program that will be available to soldiers any time and anywhere they go in the Army, a program so accessible and so effective that potentially more than a million soldiers could eventually take advantage of it," Caldera said at the program's launch announcement July 10 in Washington.

The program will be conducted on a much larger scale than previous distance learning programs offered by the Army or any other branch of the military, Caldera told Washington Technology.

The Army normally spends about $50 million a year on tuition reimbursement, Caldera said. With this program, the Army eventually will be tripling that amount. It has budgeted $50 million for 2001, but $550 million over the following five years.

Soldiers will receive tuition assistance, textbooks, laptops, Internet access, academic counseling, help-desk assistance and course offerings with the program.

The Army hopes to have all of these resources in the hands of an initial 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers by January 2001, with the potential to offer services to 1 million or more active duty and reserve personnel, as well as to Army spouses.

The Army's program will start at selected installations that already are wired to obtain quick deployment.

To accomplish these goals, the Army is looking for a single contractor or a partnership consisting of educational institutions, Internet companies, hardware and software companies and system integrators.

The winning company or team will have to wire all Army barracks and other facilities, provide technology and manage it, partner with universities and provide technical, administrative and academic support, Caldera said.

There also are possibilities for extensions of the network, he added.

The same network can be used to help reduce costs to students. It can provide potential revenue by advertising to soldiers and assisting with communications within the Army, such as access to regulations, policies, training schedules and an Army e-mail system.

Austin Yerks, CSC

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