No deadline for colleges to enlist

The Army will award a contract in mid-December for the Army University Access

Online initiative, but it will never be too late for educational institutions

to enlist, according to Army Secretary Louis Caldera.

Army Education Online is a $600 million distance-learning effort to

enable soldiers to earn college degrees and technical certifications regardless

of where they are stationed. Soldiers will use an Internet portal to access

numerous colleges, universities and companies offering technical certificates.

One contractor or contracting team will act as the portal integrator,

offering access to multiple accredited distance-learning providers. Firms

that have shown an interest include IBM Corp., NCS Pearson Inc., Arthur

Andersen, Computer Sciences Corp., PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Science Applications

International Corp.

Companies submitted bids in October, but it will never be too late for

colleges and universities to sign on, Caldera said.

"We may have one or more companies that are the integrators. But in

terms of educational providers, we want many, including some who may not

decide to sign up for years down the line," Caldera said. "We didn't want

this to be a traditional procurement, where we pick one vendor and soldiers

would have one choice of educational institution. They don't have to all

be signed up at once. Personally, I would like to see scores, if not hundreds

of schools, attempt to appeal to our soldiers."

The ambitious effort will begin modestly in January, with classes offered

at three Army sites - forts Bragg, Benning and Hood - that offer the necessary

infrastructure and personnel for a promising start.

"Some of the biggest challenges will come when we start looking at the

connectivity in our foreign and deployed locations," Caldera said.

Army officials and educators say the Army initiative could have the

same impact on American education as the GI Bill of Rights, a major factor

resulting in an educated American workforce. But Caldera is more reserved

than some in assessing the impact of the effort.

"The potential for advances in distance education were certainly there

long before this program was thought of, and would be there regardless whether

this program existed or not, so at most I would give us credit for hastening

the day when very high quality programs are available," Caldera said.

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