SSA offers satellite classes nationwide

The Social Security Administration plans to begin offering training classes this month via satellite to 220 offices nationwide.

The Interactive Video Training Network (IVTN) will link SSA field offices and processing offices so that new hires and existing employees who need advanced training can remain in their offices for instructions and will not be required to travel to other cities for weeks at a time.

"We are going to be able to give someone in North Dakota the same training as someone in downtown Chicago," said Stephen Kennedy, director of SSA's Office of Training. "The main goal is to provide every employee with consistent training so that we can provide world-class service to our customers."

All 1,500 SSA offices, including 1,300 field offices, telephone centers and about 90 state offices that evaluate disability claims, will be linked by the end of 1997.

Once fully deployed, the system will cost $73 million, and SSA will save $24 million a year in reduced travel expenses and increased productivity, according to an independent study SSA funded.

IVTN will first link 220 offices to SSA's headquarters in Baltimore, allowing an instructor to train hundreds of employees at one time. The system will use the FTS 2000 network and a satellite uplink operated by the Federal Aviation Administration in Oklahoma City, Okla.

The system is designed to work on SSA's $1.1 billion Intelligent Workstation/Local-Area Network (IWS/LAN), the contract that will be awarded this spring and that will place a PC on every employee's desk.

Corporations such as General Motors, Ford, J.C. Penney and Wal-Mart are installing similar long-distance learning networks. In the future, SSA plans to link its IVTN to these private systems to hold seminars on disability and Social Security retirement benefits that are now done in person.

Under the first phase, networks will be set up in designated rooms in a mix of urban, suburban and rural offices. Each node will have a large TV screen through which SSA employees will be able to ask questions on-line. They will also use an interactive distance-learning keypad manufactured by One Touch Systems Inc., San Jose, Calif., to answer questions or indicate that they have a question. The employee's name will appear in Baltimore on the instructor's screen, and the instructor can then activate the employee's microphone.

IVTN has received mix reviews from field managers. The technology offers many opportunities to be more efficient, but some training may be more effective if done in person, said Mary Chatel, former president of the National Council of Social Security Managers Associations, which represents 3,700 field managers and supervisors.

"A lot of good training happens in SSA when people are there to go through the steps," Chatel said. "Some people are shy about technology and about asking questions in a large group. I'm not sure this is the best way to go for all training."

The FAA and the departments of Veteran Affairs, Housing and Urban Development and Energy also have implemented long-distance learning networks.

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