Army: Sign Up, Log On

WASHINGTON (08/14/2000) - The U.S. Army intends to kick off in January what officials describe as the largest educational portal in the world, and the highest-ranking enlisted member - Sgt. Maj. of the Army Jack Tilley - may be among the first to sign on.

Under a US$600 million plan dubbed Army University Access Online, the Army will administer a broad distance-learning program that will give soldiers the chance to earn college degrees and technical skill certificates online. Participants will receive an Army-supplied laptop computer.

The goal is to enable soldiers to complete degrees or technical certification requirements "any time, anyplace and anywhere they can take a laptop." Army leaders say the move will help recruit and retain soldiers and provide the service with the technology-savvy personnel that it needs.

Army officials detailed the new concept at the Army's Industry Day on Aug. 2.

Tilley advises the Army chief of staff on all matters related to enlisted personnel, particularly in areas affecting soldier training and quality of life. Tilley began working on his undergraduate degree a couple of years ago, but he said he has yet to choose a major.

Tilley has been with the Army for 32 years, and his resume details the key leadership positions he has held during that time, including tank commander, section leader, drill sergeant, platoon sergeant, senior instructor, operations sergeant and first sergeant.

"The soldiers have asked for this. We're giving them exactly what they want," Tilley said. When asked whether he would participate in the online education program, he replied, "You bet I will."

Tilley knows firsthand why it takes soldiers an average of 14 years to earn a four-year degree. The challenges include too many deployments or field training, long work hours, the rising costs of education, not enough class options and no readily available classes.

In fact, some soldiers earn more than enough college credits for a degree but can't get one because they've taken classes with so many schools, said Louis Caldera, secretary of the Army and innovator of the online education initiative.

The Army will reveal more details when it releases a formal request for proposals in September. But in initial briefings, officials said vendors would provide soldiers with a technology package that includes a laptop, a printer, Internet service, equipment warranty and maintenance agreements, and installation help-desk assistance.

The Army expects up to 20,000 soldiers to participate during the first year of the program, which will include only selected installations. The Army could expand the program servicewide and also include soldiers' family members.

The program earned a mostly positive reception from vendors attending the Industry Day event. Still, the program does have its skeptics.

"If the Army is going to give a laptop to every kid who signs up, people are going to sign up, and then you may never see them again," said one contractor, who requested anonymity. "If they count the number of laptops given out instead of the number of degrees awarded, I think they're going about it all wrong."

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