SSA offers Web training to site staff

The Social Security Administration plans to hire a vendor to develop an in-house World Wide Web training curriculum and teach Internet-related classes to agency employees who contribute to the SSA Web site.

The six classes would be offered sporadically for a year and would be open to all 43 employees who contribute to the Web site, said SSA Webmaster Bruce Carter.

"We didn't see anything that put together all of the courses we thought would be of value," he said. "We were trying to put together something a little more formal than just, 'Take this course here, this course there.' "

Before putting out a bid for vendors, the agency tentatively had concluded that no other agencies had developed their own curriculum for Web development. SSA looked for agencies that had a Web-development curriculum but could not find any.

Carter said the people who work most intimately with the Web site have vastly different levels of technical expertise. Some, he said, have computer programming backgrounds, and others were liberal arts majors in college and have little or no technical training. The idea of the coursework, he said, is to at least bring all employees up to a minimum level of Web competency and to provide more advanced training to employees who are interested in higher-level Web design and development.

Courses would range from introduction to Hypertext Markup Language to Web design to Java scripting, Carter said.

Rich Kellett, the head of the General Service Administration's Emerging Information Technologies Policies Division, said Web training has become key to the success of agencies' Internet efforts.

Kellett said Web development is becoming more complicated, with Webmasters needing to know languages like Java and Practical Extraction and Reporting Language as well as HTML and Microsoft Corp.'s Word. In addition, Webmasters need to stay on top of advances in hardware, as audio and video applications become more and more popular on Web sites.

But dealing with the Web requires more from Webmasters than just technical knowledge, Kellett said. Because agencies communicate with the public through Web pages, Webmasters also must be familiar with policy issues, such as privacy, security and what constitutes public information.

"So Webmasters are really being taxed," Kellett said. "It's an extremely challenging kind of job. I think Webmasters need a lot of help in training."

Carter said formal Web training for employees will enable SSA to post information on the Web at a faster pace than in the past.

"I often have to spend a fair amount of time with people to get them started," Carter said. "They say, 'We have these documents, and we want them on the Web, but we have no idea where or how to start.' "

The coursework, said Larry DeWitt, a historian with SSA, would have helped him several years ago, when he decided to put together a SSA history Web page.

It was the summer of 1996, and to build the SSA history page, DeWitt found an employee who already was working on Web pages and asked him to help.

"I would literally stand behind his chair and watch him as he did it," DeWitt said. "That's how I learned."

Now, the SSA history Web site is second in size as a history page only to the site for the National Archives, said DeWitt, who also is the Webmaster for the history site.

When the history site was created, there were few employees involved with the Web site, he said. Times have changed.

"Now it's becoming more institutionalized and widespread," DeWitt said. "I definitely see a need to have this, to have more systematic training. Imagine how hit and miss it was when I stood there and looked over somebody's shoulder."

The curriculum will revolve around broad topics, such as HTML and Web design, but it also will be tailored to the needs of federal Webmasters, who have to wrestle with unique privacy, security and other issues.

The agency is waiting for bids from vendors before estimating how much the training will cost. Only small businesses are eligible for the contract. The agency hopes to start the classes next year.

The most popular service on the SSA Web site enables people to request online a statement of their Social Security benefits and a listing of their lifetime salary, Carter said. That information is mailed to the requesters, he said. The agency briefly offered the information over the Internet several years ago but came under attack when critics charged that the service wasn't secure enough to stop criminals and others from illegally getting Social Security information about other people.

The company intranet lists job postings, has software training guides, information about the federal health plan, an agency phone book and more, Carter said.

Soon, the intranet will include library reference materials for agency employees.

"We'll be taking our professional librarians and training them in online skills," DeWitt said. "They will be prime candidates for these classes."

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