EEOC fights scarcity with ingenuity

Vincent Monico considers himself a born teacher — he finds being in the classroom exciting. "You're performing on a stage; you're interacting with the audience," said Monico, a computer training specialist at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

He prefers face-to-face training sessions, but necessity has forced him to explore an online alternative. "We do a lot of training remotely because we don't have the money to travel," he said.

When Monico learned that even money for remote training was difficult to obtain, he improvised. He adapted free software that Microsoft ships with every copy of Windows 98 and Windows XP and used it to provide database training for EEOC's employees at field offices nationwide.

"We took something we already had on the computer, Microsoft's NetMeeting," he said. "It's meeting software, but we use it to do training."

Two years ago, Monico had his first opportunity to test the feasibility of using NetMeeting for remote training. After 20 years, EEOC was switching to a new database application for tracking discrimination cases.

Through trial and error, Monico adapted NetMeeting for training 1,600 people in EEOC's field offices to use the new case-tracking database, called the Integrated Mission System (IMS). Initially, he held weeklong remote training sessions in a few offices at a time. "Then we realized we could do a lot more," he said.

At one point, he and his colleagues were using NetMeeting to train 90 people at once. But there were challenges, he said. Because NetMeeting was not designed for more than about 15 simultaneous users, EEOC's information technology specialists had to devise an elaborate configuration that used a half-dozen laptop computers and desktop PCs as servers.

The system grew a bit too complicated, Monico said, so he began simplifying. He used telephone conference calls instead of NetMeeting's voice-activation features. He also disabled the video portion of NetMeeting but not its ability to display views of the IMS application.

Beyond adapting the technology, Monico also had to accommodate the needs of employees with hearing problems and other disabilities. "We're EEOC — we try to accommodate everybody," he said.

Although some employees wanted hands-on instruction, Monico said, the remote training seems to have been effective. "They're all using IMS, and they all seem to be learning," he said.

Michael Parmentier, a principal at the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton and a former director of readiness and training in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, said e-learning is not a cure-all. But when it is used to convey information that people need to do their jobs, he said, e-learning "really can do it better, faster, cheaper."

EEOC is planning to switch from Corel WordPerfect to Microsoft Word, so Monico's next remote training challenge will be to help almost everyone at the agency learn to use the new software. "They're resisting, so we're going to have to do a lot more training," he said.

New Horizons Computer Learning Centers, a training company that offers online and classroom instruction, gave EEOC employees one day of in-class training on Microsoft Word, but more is needed, Monico said. "People have specific needs, and everybody uses software differently," he added.

He expects to offer the training remotely to save money. In April, EEOC's inspector general, Aletha Brown, cited the lack of funding for skills training as a significant challenge for the agency.

Monico is exploring alternatives to NetMeeting. Two of them — Microsoft's Live Meeting and Interwise's iMeeting — have more bells and whistles than NetMeeting, but their greatest advantage is their ease of use. Employees would simply use a Web browser to gain access to the Web conferencing service. No awkward piggybacking or virtual private network would be necessary, he said.

Monico is not aggravated by the challenges; instead, he sees them as a natural part of the teaching job he loves. "The whole idea is to be creative, to figure out how to make things work for everybody," he said.

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