VA maps out plan

Not long ago, the widow of a World War II veteran drove into Washington, D.C., to ask about her benefits at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

She went to the building's entrance, looking for help. But the guards told her she was at the wrong building and turned her away, giving her another address a mile away.

This happens often because people don't know where to go or how to find information, according to VA officials. But that is about to change.

The agency, which serves an aging population of 24 million veterans, has long been looking for a better way to communicate. VA.officials have found it with a product called the learning map, developed by Root Learning Inc.

The Ohio-based company has designed a map to help veterans find their way through the complex maze of VA benefits. The map is now on posters that are distributed to VA hospitals, shopping malls, libraries and unemployment offices, and officials are planning to take it online.

Alonzo Lewis, managing director of the health care practice at Root Learning, describes the learning map as a portal. "You click it and you'll be able to dive down deeper," he said.

"Our hope is that it will be a way for people to have greater access," said Robert Means, director for research and development with the employee education system at the VA in Cleveland.

Means said the Web-based approach would allow veterans to get just the information they need, filtering out auxiliary data instead of losing them in a maze of information.

"They will be able to click on the map and go deeper into the topic area they want, find out more information and who to contact," Means said.

Although simple in concept, the idea is the result of developing another learning map for VA employees to make sure they comply with organizational, financial and policy changes.

"Learning maps were a starting point to other things we did organizationally," he said. "This is a health care department with 200,000 health care professionals. Few know about changes that have subsequently affected everyone's lives."

But Means and others realized the concept had great potential to reach out and engage the very people that the VA is trying to help. And they also are looking at providing it in other languages.

"The veterans love it because they get new information, information they normally wouldn't get," said Lovel Henderson, the assistant chief of volunteer services for the VA's Medical Center in Cleveland.

"It has all the information — where to go, how to go, when to go, what number to call," he added.

Take for instance, burial at a national cemetery. If a veteran goes to the VA's Web site (www.va. gov), it takes at least three clicks to get to the National Cemetery Administration's page about burial at a VA cemetery. But the learning map will have a picture of a cemetery and clearly indicate where to go with one click of the mouse.

"It's got a lot of information, and it helps to answer a lot of questions that come up from our members," said John Caipen, an American Legion representative from Kent, Ohio, and a Korean veteran.

The VA map is to be posted later this year on the agency's Web site and on kiosks that will be located at VA facilities across the country. The kiosks will give veterans access to the same learning map as well as the same ease of clicking to the right place for information.

"Learning only makes sense in the context of a person's own life. With learning maps, we're hoping it will allow veterans to make sense [of information] and use it," Means said.

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How a learning map works

A picture on a Web site reflects specific activities that, when clicked on, link users to related information.

Want to know about education? Click on a picture of a student in a graduation gown. Need health care information? Click on the image showing a doctor examining a patient. Then keep clicking deeper into the subject to get the information you are looking for.

With a learning map, users can navigate a site without knowing official terminology. It simplifies the search process by using pictures and makes it possible for users to move quickly through a portal.

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