Online Training Takes Off

WASHINGTON (04/18/2000) - As the federal government deploys new technology, and employees take on more responsibility to offset governmentwide downsizing, agency managers are faced with the dilemma of training personnel in less time -- and, in many cases, with less money. "As agencies continue to [downsize], the first thing to go is travel and, in essence, training, because travel is needed for most training programs," said Ira Hobbs, deputy chief information officer for the Agriculture Department and co-chairman of the CIO Council's information technology work force committee. Hobbs spoke March 29 during the 21st Century IT Workforce Commission hearing.

Online training courses designed to meet an agency's specific needs are gaining popularity among federal managers struggling to balance a skills- and worker-shortage with decreasing funds for training and travel. For example, the Defense Department has been utilizing interactive multimedia training to instruct new recruits and refresh seasoned soldiers' skills that might not have been used for long periods of time.

Universal Systems and Technology Inc. (Unitech), Fairfax, Virginia., is one of the vendors that has designed introductory CD-based and Internet-based courses for the Army, the Navy, the Marine Corps and the National Guard, among others.

Working with the customers, Unitech incorporates subject matter from experts with high-tech graphics, audio and video. Another firm, EpiTech Corp., Columbia, Maryland., announced in late March it was chosen to develop the U.S.

Coast Guard's first World Wide Web-based training system to teach users about the new Fleet Logistics System, which will track the agency's cutters and boats.

Those types of multimedia courses provide "as much training in one hour as in six hours of classroom training" because students are not distracted and programs can be adjusted to a student's level of expertise, said David Tuttle, senior vice president of corporate development at Unitech. "I don't see this as replacing all sit-down instruction, particularly laboratory instruction," Tuttle said. Instead, computer-based training can reduce classroom time by better preparing federal workers for the classes.

In the military's case, online training also can limit expensive time spent on firing ranges to test skills on weapons that soldiers may never have used before. In other cases, distance learning can help agencies save money on lodging and travel expenses, he said. Unitech's courses are based on requirements outlined by the customer, said Susan Malkus, Unitech's operations manager. The on-screen navigational toolbar in the training program can be standardized by an agency so that every course created for it uses the same format. In some cases, such as an instructional course on driving a truck, the presentation resembles a video game, a format with which many young recruits are familiar, she said. Video files show people demonstrating hand signals rather than forcing the students to decipher line drawings of hand signals in typical coursework. For the Marine Corps, a Web-based course on how to operate the M16 rifle shows students a model of the weapon inside and out. A test simulates lining up the scope to accurately shoot a target and provides instant feedback, unlike shooting a firearm at a firing range.

The Unitech courseware that is having the most impact across the Army is a set of CDs that test common tasks, such as operating the M16 rifle, navigating with a map and compass, administering first aid and wearing the right protective clothing for nuclear, biological and chemical attacks, said Col. David Raes, special projects officer for the adjutant general of the Iowa National Guard.

A soldier can self-test on the skills annually from his or her home computer or from anyplace in the world where he or she is deployed, Raes said.

"I think one of the keys to making interactive multimedia instruction engaging is making it real and the ability of the artists to really replicate the real piece of equipment...." Raes said. "The kids growing up today see high-end computer graphics and games, and they expect to see something similar to that in the training they're given."

Courses have been CD-based in the past, but now the military and other agencies are moving toward Web-based training, Tuttle said. Web-based programs enable instructors to immediately update courses without having to create new CDs, and they provide instructors with up-to-date data on a student's progress in the course, he said. However, the Internet won't replace CDs entirely. "It's handy to have it on a CD to pop it in a computer," Raes said. "If you are deployed in Bosnia, you may not have individual access to a telephone line. We see the need for deploying it both ways, but there certainly is a trend to make sure it's deployable on the Web."

All of the military services are looking at converting a significant amount of training to a computer-based, network-delivered format, Raes said.

"We are looking at having a tremendous amount of coursework...converted from podium-style instruction to computer-based classes," Raes said. "I think we are on the leading edge of what's happening and [we are] setting the pace."

Tuttle said Web-based training would be ideal for the Federal Aviation Administration, which needs to raise its air traffic controllers' awareness of the most pressing safety issues -- such as runway incursions. Most air traffic control training requires employees to travel to Oklahoma for several weeks to attend classes. Since October, the State Department, which has employees located around the world, has been using online training and in-house certificate testing to assist employees in obtaining additional skills.

The agency has seen an increase in the number of students taking courses, and agency officials say one of the contributing factors may be the ease of taking the courses. "A parent can review the material from home after their kids have gone to bed," said Bruce Morrison, dean of the School of Applied Information Technology for the Foreign Service. "People could do it on their own time, and they don't have to take time off work or travel far for the classes."

Since the program's inception, State has issued more than 270 certificates and an additional 173 employees are enrolled in classes, according to Patricia Popovich, deputy CIO for information resources management. The biggest obstacle for government is making the initial investment that will provide savings in the long run, Tuttle said. Although costs vary depending on the curriculum and graphic development needed, Unitech charges on average about $20,000 to $30,000 per seat per hour of training to develop a course.

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