Military Tunes to Virtual Classroom

Article excerpt

High-tech suppliers to set up global distance learning systems

The potential for saving billions of dollars while improving training for military service members is the driving force behind the Pentagon's $800 million investment in so-called distance learning programs during the next five years. Distance learning-the ability to train and teach from remote sites using computers-is increasingly becoming more popular at the Defense Department, officials said. This trend, additionally, is resulting in a growing number of partnerships between government agencies and industry suppliers-joint ventures aimed at developing new solutions to the challenges of creating classrooms in cyberspace.

The Defense Department's approach to distance learning is part of a project called Advanced Distributive Learning (ADL) initiative.

ADL makes "learning available to the total force," said Michael A. Parmentier, director of readiness and training for policy programs at the Defense Department. It creates an "open forum for broad public and private collaboration among defense, federal agencies, technology suppliers, private businesses, national workforces," he told a conference earlier this year sponsored by the Defense Modeling and Simulation Office.

Up to 30 percent in cost savings could be achieved from ADL, "while satisfying education and training requirements," said Parmentier. Those savings would result from "leveraging private sector intellectual and financial investments" and the application of industry standards and courseware. The goal, he explained is to "avoid reengineering learning content every time the [computer] platform changes."

One industry player in this effort is Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), a major defense contractor. The firm has developed distance learning systems for government agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Education. Part of the technology underpinning ADL is the software that makes it possible to "re-use" learning objects known as Sharable Content Objects (SCOs), explained Raye Newmen, director of human performance at SAIC New Media Systems, Vienna, Va. The SCOs "are encapsulated instructional units that teach at least one instructional objective using a particular learning strategy, media, and evaluation method," said Newmen.

SCOs are tagged with a rich set of data fields containing comprehensive information about the object. He believes that SCOs designed with the new generation of intelligent tools will enable subject matter experts to develop "virtual schoolhouses" for the Defense Department. Once identified, germane SCOs could be strung together to create lessons and entire courses.

Newmen currently is writing an ADL handbook for the Air Force. The company also is the prime contractor working on the Army ADL structure. It is, additionally, assisting the Navy with a distance learning program. The Navy's IT-21 programusing commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products for information systems-has given the Navy an ability to field an interim ADL operational capability by January 2000.

But despite the growing emphasis on distance learning, Newman believes that the "organizational impact of distance learning is being neglected ... Organizational structures have been slow to accommodate the potentials of the new educational technology.

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"With reduced manning and increased operational tempo, today's warfighter can't afford much time away from duty in the traditional classroom, while the increased speed of technological evolution requires more and more training," said Air Force Gen. John H. Campbell, vice director of the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA).

"Distance learning capabilities extend to the bases, posts and stations or forward to deployed forces," he said in an interview, "Just-in-time training permits training in place, immediate performance enhancement, and increased readiness. …