Army boosts e-learning

In an effort to shift its online education offerings from simple content to a more complete e-learning environment, the Army last month announced a major expansion of its agreement with SmartForce, an e-learning company.

SmartForce will provide Army personnel worldwide with a Web-based, e-learning solution through its hosted MySmartForce platform, said Kevin Duffer, director of federal sales at the Redwood City, Calif.-based company.

"This is the largest federal migration to our hosted platform, and we think it fits well with agencies' strategies to consolidate and be hosted where possible," Duffer said.

The Army entered into an enterprisewide contract with SmartForce in 1998 with about 880 course offerings, which grew to more than 1,300 courses by September 2001. The Army has hosted the coursework internally since 1998, but the company will take over the hosting under the new deal, said Gary Bushover, senior federal account manager at SmartForce.

In addition to offering more courses, the upgrade also includes online mentoring; an online help desk; additional resources, such as white papers and other research; and the ability for users to personalize the site, Bushover said.

Robert Schwenk, deputy director of the Army's Chief Technology Office, said the new system would enable Army personnel to take advantage of the best technology available.

The online offerings are for personnel ranging from active-duty soldiers to reservists, regardless of their mission, Schwenk said. "There are a variety of requests and needs depending on their work and what their organization's mission is...and SmartForce offers courses on basic word processing on Microsoft [Corp.] Word or Access — to Cisco [Systems Inc.] routers — and technical certifications for Microsoft."

Cushing Anderson, program manager for learning services research at IDC, said the Army's decision to move to a hosted environment is complex because "only recently have the technology and privacy issues been addressed sufficiently to make this type of system appropriate for Army needs." He said that the Navy, the Air Force and the National Guard are also exploring integrating e-learning and hosted solutions for training their members.

"There is risk in every solution," Anderson said, adding that the Army's decision was based on the fact that continuing to manage the solution internally was riskier than having SmartForce take over.

The Army's Schwenk said he'd like to have more than 150,000 users on the new system next year, "and with the new technology available, I think we'll be able to realize that goal."

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Tying it together

The Army is putting the finishing touches on a system that will integrate its e-learning program with its Web portal and record system, which keeps track of students' training activities.

The system will link from the Army Knowledge Online (AKO) portal to the Army Training Requirements and Resources System (ATRRS) and to SmartForce-hosted coursework, said Robert Schwenk, deputy director of the Army's Chief Technology Office.

ATRRS manages student input to training, establishes requirements and programs, manages class schedules, allocates class quotas, makes seat reservations and records student attendance.

Soon, students will be able to log on to the AKO site to get to MySmartForce, the SmartForce platform. At the same time, students will be able to receive official credit on their record once they complete a course, and in the future, the system may also keep track of promotion points, retirement points or users seeking college credits, Schwenk said.

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