Army Project Boosts E-Learning Prospects

Army Project Boosts E-Learning Prospects

Jill Kidwell

When registration opened for the new Army University Access Online program at Fort Benning, Ga., some soldiers were so eager to enroll that they camped out the night before in a January rain to ensure a place in the e-learning program.

"Soldiers think this is one of the best things the Army has ever done," said Susan Johnson, program adviser for the Army. "Perhaps by giving them better opportunities for education, we are going to be able to provide them with a better quality of life."

The Army's five-year, $453 million e-learning program is providing more than a boost to soldiers' education opportunities and morale. It's also helping to establish online education as a viable market for major consulting and technology companies.

Ultimately, it will be seen as a seminal event in the e-learning industry, said David Derman, an e-learning analyst with investment banking firm Goldman Sachs Group Inc. in New York.

"When people say e-learning is a real and lasting industry, people will point to this [project]," he said.

The Army's e-learning initiative, which eventually will bring computer-based college courses to soldiers worldwide, is distinguished by its size, scale and time to delivery. The initiative is so complex that prime contractor PricewaterhouseCoopers likely will face problems most companies will never have, said Cushing Anderson, an e-learning analyst with International Data Corp. of Framingham, Mass.

"The Army's work force is constantly on call and could deploy to more remote and inhospitable areas than an IBM executive would ever have to deal with," he said. "They have to permit that kind of connectivity. Soldiers can't just drop the class."

One month after the contract was awarded, soldiers began registering for classes at three Army bases. Within 180 days, PricewaterhouseCoopers of New York brought on 65 contractors and set up the fully automated education portal, eArmyU.com, integrating 10 major software programs with the Army's three legacy systems.

The pace of development was unprecedented, said partner Jill Kidwell, PricewaterhouseCoopers' eArmyU program director. It takes universities two years just to implement one of the firm's systems, she said.

The portal has set a benchmark for the collaboration of colleges and universities online, Johnson said. Through the portal, soldiers will be able to earn certificates and associate's, bachelor's and master's degrees at no cost to them.

In addition to courses from 24 colleges and universities, eArmyU offers a host of services at a click of the mouse, including course registration, tutoring and technical assistance. Participating soldiers are given laptop computers, printers and Internet and e-mail access. Soldiers can take courses from any school, and all credits transfer among the participating institutions.

The Navy's e-learning initiative, Navy Learning Network, was unveiled more slowly, about 16 months after the first contract was awarded in September 1999. While the system will serve both Navy personnel and their families worldwide, its focus is on Navy technical courses and information technology training, not college classes.

The Army's project is also distinguished from online schools such as the University of Phoenix Online, which launched in 1989 and now serves about 15,000 students. The rollout plan for eArmyU virtually ensures that the Army will reach Phoenix's enrollment levels at a much quicker pace.

The Army and PricewaterhouseCoopers "are moving toward establishing the standard by which other educationally related portals will evolve. I could not point you to another fully integrated portal of the same magnitude," said Bruce Chaloux, director of the Southern Regional Education Board's Electronic Campus, a Web-based marketplace of courses, programs and services from colleges and universities throughout the southern states. Its members advised PricewaterhouseCoopers and the other eArmyU bidders about providing education online.

More than 4,300 soldiers are taking classes through eArmyU, and 1,400 more have signed contracts to participate. The program is offered at Fort Benning, Fort Campbell, Ky., and Fort Hood, Texas. eArmyU can support 80,000 students and should be available Armywide in 2003, Kidwell said.

The Army predicts 8,000 soldiers will enroll by September, Johnson said. In October, the portal will open to soldiers at additional bases.

The Army believes Army University Access Online will develop better educated and tech-savvy soldiers and improve recruitment and retention by providing education any time and anywhere soldiers need it. Already, enrollees have deployed from their U.S. bases to far-flung locales such as Kosovo in Eastern Europe.

The project "demonstrates that a large organization has decided that online education is a quality product that should be offered to employees because it is more consistent with their lifestyle. That is a message any organization can relate to," said Frank Mayadas, director of the e-learning program at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a philanthropic nonprofit organization in New York. A committee of higher education providers sponsored by the foundation has advised PricewaterhouseCoopers on educational quality issues.

The Army has already seen a payoff. Eight hundred participants ? 14 percent of the total ? re-enlisted because they must have three years remaining on their tour of duty to participate, said Kelley Mustion, the Army's program manager for eArmyU. Also, two thirds of participating soldiers are new to the Army's voluntary education programs or haven't participated in at least a year, Johnson said.

The impact of eArmyU.com has been felt far beyond the Army and its contractors, even though it is just six months old. Online education is now more legitimate because of the Army's commitment and the involvement of PricewaterhouseCoopers, a global consulting and systems integration firm, analysts said.

"It's good for the industry to see large consulting and systems integration firms get involved," Derman said. "PWC and other large firms have strategic relationships with the federal government and the Fortune 500. If they are hearing questions about e-learning, it's a good indication there is a strong demand for it."

The Army initiative, if it is successful, will speak volumes about the ability to get an education over the Internet, said Trace Urdan, an e-learning analyst with San Francisco investment banking firm W.R. Hambrecht & Co.

"There are still a lot of people who think it's hokey and can't possibly be effective. If it really becomes mainstream and an accepted part of what it means to be in the Army, that will speak to the skeptics" and reassure skittish corporate buyers, Urdan said.

Colleges and universities are watching the deployment of eArmyU closely. Its success could boost the bottom line for schools offering courses through eArmyU. It could also encourage them to bring online education to their campus-based students, Urdan said.

"What's interesting is these universities are interested and willing to grant real credit. It begs the question of whether they will be prepared to offer their degrees on the Web to anyone," he said.

Previously, the academic community had questioned whether it was possible to develop an educational portal that would meld admissions, administration and a host of other services among far-flung institutions, Chaloux said. Now, they're more willing to try new things, he said.

"Two to three years ago, institutions were asking, 'Can we do this?' They were saying 'We still need to protect our turf, but maybe we need to look for partnerships,' " Chaloux said. "The shock wave was that the government was committed to making this happen. I think it spurred on a significant and rapid development within the technology community" that allows both competition and integration, not unlike the banking industry's network of automated teller machines.

Ultimately, eArmyU will spur the development of other portals to address critical education needs, such as nursing and teacher certification, Chaloux and Kidwell said.

"If this kind of an integrated portal worked for Army personnel, would it not work for business executives or banking executives in a particular area? Think about providing all these services to airline mechanics," Chaloux said.

Within a year, Kidwell said, government agencies will begin exploring ways to deliver common training courses across agencies.

Kidwell said eArmyU will redefine higher education, a system traditionally defined by campuses and classrooms. Whereas colleges and universities own their assets, from libraries to residence halls, eArmyU doesn't.

"If you don't own the entire chain, you can source the best assets: You can get the best bookstore, the best library, the best degrees. You are able to bring in best of breed from all sources at a more reasonable cost," she said. "It's a model that has not been built anywhere else. It is going to change the industry tremendously."

Even so, most organizations will need a system much smaller and simpler than eArmyU, Anderson said.

"Most large organizations need five or 10 ? not 25 ? different degree programs. But from a sheer scale point of view, it is something we should all be watching. If [the Army] can do it, any of us can do something," Anderson said.

In the end, it won't matter if the Army meets its short-term goals for eArmyU, Anderson said, because it has bought into a long-term system that's here to stay.

"If not much has changed after six months or a year, that's OK," he said. "This is something that is going to last forever. It's like putting into place military housing. There are going to be some snafus, but for most people it's going to work out really well."

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