Army breaks down classroom walls

Enclosed by a moat, Fort Monroe, Va., is rich in history. After the War of 1812, when Great Britain captured and burned Washington, D.C., the U.S. government reinforced America's coastal defenses. Construction of Fort Monroe, on the southeastern tip of Virginia, began in 1819, making it the first post in a new system of coastal defenses. In the early 1830s, Robert E. Lee served there as a lieutenant, and the fort served as a base of Union operations during the Civil War.

Today, the image of the historic fortress contrasts sharply with the modern training operations housed inside at the Army School of Cadet Command, which is using the Internet and CD-ROMs to train students across the country. The Distance Learning School of Cadet Command (DL SOCC) fulfills the school's training mission while improving the quality and reducing the cost of education.

The School of Cadet Command's mission is to provide instruction for the officers and noncommissioned officers who train Army ROTC cadets at universities. The DL SOCC e-learning course is composed of 37 modules, including lessons on mission management, performance assessment, resource management, retention strategies and medical requirements. The course has been in use for about a year.

DL SOCC grew out of a larger software contract — the Cadet Command Information Management System — that American Management Systems Inc. began work on in 1998. "We modified that contract to include distance learning," said AMS principal Nancy Hite.

AMS and the School of Cadet Command converted 39 traditional class sessions' worth of material into electronic format for the distance-learning system in 18 months, Hite said.

"We had a group of subject matter experts write the modules and then coordinate with AMS to get them in production," said Maj. Timothy Pike, com-- mandant of the school.

The process involved taking traditional class sessions of material, such as lectures and presentations, and converting them into electronic files. It also included the creation of audio and video elements, such as recording instructors demonstrating basic first-aid procedures, to help make the overall presentation more engaging and interactive.

To manage the 37 courseware modules and provide student administration features, AMS had selected the Pathware learning-management system, owned by Macromedia Inc., in 1998. AMS then chose Macromedia's Dreamweaver and Coursebuilder products to build the DL SOCC courses to work with Pathware. When IBM Corp. acquired Pathware in 1999 and integrated it with LearningSpace 4.0, from IBM subsidiary Lotus Development Corp., the Army school placed an order for an upgrade.

Subsequently, IBM installed Learning-Space 4.01 and removed Pathware early this year. Using a LearningSpace database utility to convert the Pathware database format into LearningSpace 4.01 format, the transition went smoothly, Hite said. "We were using the Microsoft SQL 7.0 database, so we didn't have to change that, and nothing else changed," she said. LearningSpace 4.01 works with IBM, Oracle Corp. and Microsoft Corp. databases. The school installed LearningSpace 4.01 on a Dell Computer Corp. Power-Edge 6300 with dual 500 MHz processors, 1G of RAM and a 13G hard drive running Windows NT Enterprise 4.0.

The most difficult challenge in managing DL SOCC has not been the system itself, but a problem that arose last year when students tried to log on to the Web site via certain Internet connections, Pike said. Often, they were connecting from a modem using a university system or an America Online Inc. account. "We had this running off a .mil domain when most of our students were dialing in from .com domains," Pike said.

The .mil domain contains a high level of security with many firewalls. Although the information on DL SOCC is not highly secure, students trying to connect from a .com domain experienced delays. Consequently, three months ago, the school replaced the DL SOCC .mil domain with a .com domain. Since then, there have been fewer connectivity problems. The e-learning system has saved the School of Cadet Command time and money. "We were flying 400-plus students from across the country to Fort Monroe, housing and feeding them for two weeks in a local hotel, and there were time constraints on the Cadet Command staff," Pike said.

"The cost savings associated with DL SOCC is an average of $109,000 per year in transportation and lodging," said Paul Kotakis, chief of Cadet Command public affairs. The savings reflects what it would cost to host about 460 students per year.

Pike said the use of e-learning has also improved the quality of education. "Each instructor says things differently, and instructors don't say the same thing the same way every time," Pike said. "This way, we know every student is getting the same base of knowledge."

E-learning systems enable all students to have access to the most effective instructors, said James Lundy, research director for knowledge and information management at Gartner Inc.

"The success of a classroom depends on the skill of instructors," he said. "When you automate it, you can leverage the skills of the best instructors so every student gets the benefit of that, not just the students who happen to be in that class."

Lundy said he expects to see increased use of e-learning systems. "I see it moving away from its early-adopter hype cycle to mainstream adoption."

Gerber is a freelance writer based in Kingston, N.Y.

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