Navy to Launch Global Network

Navy to Launch Global Network

By Gail Repsher, Staff Writer

The Navy is preparing to unveil a distance learning network that will bring thousands of Web-based courses to 1.2 million active duty personnel, reservists, veterans, civilians and their families all over the world.

The Navy Learning Network likely is the biggest distance education initiative to date, said industry analyst Cushing Anderson.

"It's a really big deal. [It is] certainly the largest implementation of distance learning services that I've seen," said Anderson, program manager for International Data Corp.'s Learning Services Research practice in Framingham, Mass.

Anderson said the project should cost $600 million to $800 million. Officials at the Navy and prime contractor Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md., did not release cost estimates for the learning network, also called NLN.

When fully operational, the system will allow 250,000 users to access online training simultaneously, 24 hours a day. It will be unveiled gradually to the Navy community this fall.

By the end of the year, the network will be accessible to the general Navy population, said Phyllis Ferguson, deputy director of the education and training strategies division at the Chief of Naval Education and Training office in Pensacola, Fla.

Lockheed Martin's Systems Integration unit in Owego, N.Y., won the initial one-year, $2 million contract to develop the network in September 1999. Navy officials said they are re-evaluating the project and assessing the Navy's options for its continuation after the contract ends next month.

The Navy's options include extending the contract with Lockheed Martin, putting the project out for a competitive bid and exploring partnerships with other government agencies, said Michele Harrison, a spokeswoman at the Navy education and training office.

"We're in the process of looking at what is our next step in pursing the continuation of the NLN ? with Lockheed Martin or anybody," Harrison said.

Lockheed Martin spokesman Charlie Carrington said the company "can't presuppose any contract awards without an appropriate competitive bidding process, but we are confident the Navy is satisfied with our performance."

The Navy has held off on a publicity blitz until testing is complete and officials are confident the system can meet the Navy's requirements. A few hundred people began testing the network in July and will continue doing so for a few months.

"We're not rolling out until we have what is going to benefit the sailor, [and] it won't be perfect when it's first open," Harrison said.

Russ Shoop, manager of Navy programs for Lockheed Martin Systems Integration, said the system could be complete within six to eight months if funding is available.

The learning network will give the Navy a single source of information about training taken by any sailor or group of sailors, allowing the service to effectively deploy its resources.

"The Navy has over a million people dispersed throughout the world. Training is essential to us being able to perform our mission," Ferguson said.

The initiative also should help recruit and retain personnel because it provides technical job training and academic and leadership courses. The learning network's Web portal will be accessible via standard Internet connections wherever its users are, so sailors can continue their classes when their duty stations change.

"If we can make available access to education and training, it will encourage [personnel] to stay with an organization that cares about them," Ferguson said.

Providing access to family members also will aid in retention, Anderson said.

"The idea that the military is going to be committed to the learning of family members shows a lot of respect for the family unit. It's a very smart move," he said.

The Navy initiative is extensive not only in the number of users it will support, but also in the content it will carry and manage.

"No organization is more complex than the military when it comes to training," Anderson said. "If [the vendors] can pull this off, they are really going to have a feather in their cap."

By the end of the year, at least 400 courses will be available, including Navy technical courses and information technology courses such as local area and wide area network integration and Unix fundamentals. Within its first 12 months of operation, Ferguson said she expects the learning network will host about 1,000 technical, academic and leadership courses.

The courses will be developed by the Navy and procured from outside vendors. The network also will link to the Navy College Program, which helps sailors earn college degrees.

The network "won't be static. It will grow every day," Ferguson said.

The Navy's network should serve more users than the Army's planned Army University Access Online, announced in July. The Army's distance learning network will provide college and technical courses to about 1 million active duty personnel, National Guard members and reservists.

Army spokesman Paul Boyce said it will be ready for about 20,000 students next year.

The Army's distance learning program will cost about $600 million.

Likely bidders include Computer Sciences Corp. of El Segundo, Calif.; Electronic Data Systems Corp. of Plano, Texas; Oracle Corp. of Redwood Shores, Calif.; and Lockheed Martin.

"We are evaluating whether we will be bidding on that program," Lockheed Martin's Carrington said. "The things we're learning with NLN and the expertise Lockheed Martin has would certainly play into the evolution of that sort of a program."

The Navy network will use learning management software developed by Pathlore, a Columbus, Ohio, subcontractor, to deliver courses; manage student registrations, course catalogs and evaluations; and capture each student's performance data.

The software will allow the Navy to track individuals' training over time, assign courses, assess the service's readiness and effectively deploy its resources.

Myriad challenges have arisen as the Navy, Lockheed Martin and Pathlore have worked to design a system that will operate across multiple servers and platforms and reach sailors wherever they are: at home, in offices, on aircraft carriers or on submarines.

"This is a huge architectural challenge for us," Ferguson said. "It has not been done anywhere that we are aware of."

The pace of technological change presents difficulties in designing the state-of-the-art network, Shoop said.

"Trying to deliver the latest and greatest is probably the greatest challenge," he said. "The Navy puts out an RFP [request for proposal], and two weeks or two months later, the technology has changed. Part of our strategy was to make the system expandable and upgradeable."

Supporting a diverse population of students is a challenge for the users themselves, said John Olivero, Lockheed Martin's manager for development and implementation of the network.

"The NLN will not only go to active military, it will go to spouses and dependents who will use it in the truest sense of the commercial Internet," Olivero said. "There are a lot of variables involved ? it's different than the traditional military environment.

"The end user could be on variety of hardware platforms and using a variety of software to connect to the Internet. That could present problems," he said.

Therefore, in addition to its extensive testing, Lockheed Martin will also be providing information to end users online so they can help themselves use the system.

"The best strategy is to make as much information available as possible to end users so they can help themselves," Olivero said.

Excitement already is building within the Navy, said Rob Perry, vice president of Pathlore's federal systems division.

"They can't have it quick enough," Perry said. "It offers that much relief to them to be able to get the training to their people."

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