Distance Learning Revs Up Integrators

Distance Learning Revs Up Integrators

By Gail Repsher Emery, Staff Writer

When PricewaterhouseCoopers won a five-year, $453 million contract Dec. 14 to build a distance learning network for the Army, the company got the jump on several other heavyweight bidders.

But the losing competitors in the high-profile project haven't lost their enthusiasm for the growing government distance learning market, company officials said.

The Army picked PricewaterhouseCoopers over companies such as Electronic Data Systems Corp., Science Applications International Corp., Lockheed Martin Corp., Computer Sciences Corp., IBM Corp. and NCS Pearson Inc., according to industry officials.

Interest in the project, and in online education in general, remains high among systems integrators. The Army received 1,143 inquiries after it announced the program last summer, spokesman Paul Boyce said.

Spending on e-learning by the federal government is expected to grow 34 percent a year, from $200 million in 2000 to $850 million in 2005, according to market research firm Input of Chantilly, Va.

By comparison, Input estimates the federal IT marketplace as a whole will grow 6 percent annually, from $30.2 billion in 2000 to $40.3 billion in 2005.

Gary Yenser, vice president of distance learning solutions for EDS Federal in Herndon, Va., was even more optimistic.

"Our assessment, at a minimum, is that the federal e-learning marketplace is growing at about 38 percent a year," he said. EDS has several government distance learning projects under its belt, including contracts with the Army National Guard and the Social Security Administration.

The e-learning market is "tremendously important" for SAIC, said Henry Sunkenberg, a corporate vice president of the San Diego company. His technology application group hopes to do $40 million in e-learning business this year, Sunkenberg said.

"There are always contracts coming up where you're looking to develop content, requirements analysis and strategic plans for training," he said. SAIC has won e-learning contracts with the Internal Revenue Service, the Defense Financial Accounting Service and the Office of Personnel Management.

However, projects as big as Army University Access Online are few and far between, Sunkenberg said. The Army project could ultimately reach 1 million soldiers across the United States and around the world.

Government agencies, most notably the Army and Navy, have launched distance learning programs, which use Web-based, satellite and videoconferencing technologies to deliver training to employees in far-flung locations more quickly and at lower cost than traditional classroom instruction.

"It is critical that we upgrade the skills of our soldiers ... but sometimes it is hard to work on education because of [soldiers'] irregular schedules, deployments, reassignments and family commitments. Distance learning knocks down all those barriers," Army Secretary Louis Caldera said Dec. 14.

New York-based PricewaterhouseCoopers brings to the Army job experience in developing distance learning systems for corporations and higher education institutions, managing multimillion dollar government consulting projects and providing e-business services globally.

PricewaterhouseCoopers executives spoke enthusiastically about the work ahead. The firm will build a network that will allow soldiers to earn college degrees and technical certifications via the Internet while they serve.

The program, at www.earmyu.com, is set to begin in mid-January with up to 15,000 soldiers at Fort Benning, Ga., Fort Campbell, Ky., and Fort Hood, Texas.

"The way to improve educational access for young people is through the use of this technology. We're extremely proud of this [win]," PricewaterhouseCoopers Chief Executive Officer James Shiro said when the contract was awarded in Washington.

The accounting and consulting firm is partnering with about 10 technology companies and at least 29 higher education institutions to develop the network. Its technology partners include learning-management firms Saba Software Inc. and Blackboard Inc., computer manufacturer Compaq Computer Corp. and student administration software provider PeopleSoft Inc.

The program will help the Army keep soldiers such as Sgt. Christopher Jones, who said he wouldn't have re-enlisted without the promise of the online university. "I think this program is great. It presents an opportunity for me to serve my country and also achieve my personal goals," said Jones, who wants to be a high school math teacher.

The Army and Navy are the biggest federal government spenders on e-learning so far. Last August, the Navy announced a distance learning initiative that could bring Web-based courses to 1.2 million active duty personnel, reservists, veterans, civilians and their families worldwide.

Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md., won the one-year, $2 million contract to develop the Navy Learning Network prototype. The contract ended last fall, and Coalescent Technologies Corp. of Orlando, Fla., was retained to support and enhance the distance learning program during its implementation early this year.

Coalescent Technologies' services were purchased under an existing contract, said Navy spokeswoman Michele Harrison.

When complete, the Navy Learning Network should cost $600 million to $800 million, said industry analyst Cushing Anderson of International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass.

Unlike Army University Access Online, the Navy's focus is on training and technical certification courses. However, the Navy network will become the portal leading to all education opportunities, including the Navy College Program, which helps sailors earn college degrees via distance learning, Harrison said.

"What the Army and the Navy deals do is demonstrate ... that you can have a good, valuable training experience using an e-learning method. The Navy and the Army wouldn't spend money on things they thought would be a waste of the servicemen's time," Anderson said.

The Army required each bidder to develop a Web portal in advance of the contract award. It was a move Yenser said would become common in pursuit of e-learning contracts. The companies whose bids weren't successful will have other opportunities to use their portals and the partnerships built with subcontractors, company officials said.

For example, Lockheed Martin announced Nov. 28 that its EduXchange program will serve the Defense Department, federal agencies and commercial companies that want to provide employees with college and technical courses.

"The solutions we evolved to implement EduXchange will be applied to large-scale distance learning projects we undertake in the future," said Steve Lubniewski, senior vice president of systems solutions.

Similarly, SAIC is pursuing ways to build upon the work it did with partner click2learn.com inc. to develop new product offerings, Sunkenberg said.

Bob Jaynes, regional vice president for A&T Systems Inc. of Silver Spring, Md., was optimistic as well. The software developer started off pursuing the Army initiative as a prime bidder, but after it won two other federal contracts, officials decided to team with three other prime bidders as a subcontractor.

"To waste a relationship with these folks would be a tragedy," Jaynes said. "A&T will not have been hurt from this. We learned a great deal."

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