Florida Department of Corrections' Entry into Distance Learning. (Distance Learning)

Article excerpt

The Florida (DOC) distance learning may add a new dimension to the delivery of its training; but the concept is not unique. In fact, The Boston Gazette ran advertisements for shorthand lessons by mail in 1728 and the University of Queensland in Australia offered an external degree program in the 1890s. Columbia University offered correspondence courses in the 1920s, while other schools began using radio in the 1930s for instruction. With the development of the Internet, the concept of distance learning has become more universally accepted. For the first time, instructors can provide learning materials to students via distance learning and receive immediate feedback. Such a system allows students to feel a part of the classroom experience while being miles from the physical location.

The Florida DOC began exploring Internet-based distance learning in 1999. As with all state agencies, the DOC was charged with the task of providing more training with fewer resources. As staffing and funding became scarce, the agency asked the Bureau of Staff Development (BSD) to come up with new ideas about delivery methods for training. The bureau reviewed the delivery of all standardized courses and found that of those being taught, the new employee orientation, more than any other course, lent itself to an alternative delivery method.

During fiscal year 1998-1999, the department hired 2,569 new employees. With the average cost associated with the orientation class at $506 per person, based on the starting salary of correctional officers, training totaled $1.3 million that year. Also, according to DOC policy, this course required that a supervisor or someone at a higher level conduct the training. Departmental training records show that most classes consisted of six or fewer employees, requiring the department to present the orientation more than 400 times per year statewide. Training took supervisors away from their primary job functions for more than 160,000 hours annually. Although there are no travel data, common sense dictates that staff would have to travel on state time to present or attend orientation classes, thus reducing agency effectiveness.

When confronted with a diminishing work force and dwindling funds, the DOC began to explore the possibility of alternative training delivery methods. With the development of new technology, training was entering the information age. BSD reviewed the potential for using these new technologies to present training efficiently. The question was: What technology was best-suited to the training? The focus was directed at instructional outcomes, not the delivery method. The most important aspect of distance learning was to focus on student needs and developing class content. Once these elements were discussed and understood, BSD was ready to review the available technology.

Delivery Options

The first system BSD reviewed was the use of CD-ROMs. This medium would allow for mass production of the program at a reasonable rate, but the lack of staff assistance and the inability to update the material made this an unattractive option. BSD also discussed Internet-based distance learning, but there were some issues associated with that option, which were eventually overcome. First, the department already had the computer infrastructure in place; however, the system spans the gamut from older DOS-based systems to Windows 2000 and NT. Developing the Web-based material was not the problem; however, bringing the technology down to the lowest common denominator and still having a viable interactive program was the challenge. Although the department has an intranet, not all facilities have a fast Internet connection, thus making viewing images nearly impossible, with long download times and a high likelihood of system lockups. However, upgrades helped resolve this.

Finding the right team to develop the instructional content and create a Web site was the final hurdle. …