Students for life

A soldier, having completed a tour at an Army base in Europe as a radio communications specialist, is now headed to the Pacific Rim to perform a similar job, but using different communications equipment.

Traditionally, the soldier would have received his or her formalized training within the walls of a school at the Army Signal Center (ASC) at Fort Gordon, Ga., before being deployed, but would have been unavailable for active duty during instruction.

But if the soldier is a student in the Army's University of Information Technology (UIT), training can take place whenever and wherever it's needed, and the signal specialist can be in the field in about half the time, said Col. William Wilson, director of training for ASC, which is the home campus of UIT.

"In the field Army, there's always a percentage of soldiers that are not available because they're in training or in school," Wilson said. "We're not eliminating resident schools, but not necessarily using them to train whenever you need to know something. It's the ability to do that without being tied to institutional facilities."

UIT, which will offer its first online course next month, combines distance learning, simulations and other high-tech training methods with traditional classroom instruction to teach soldiers in the classroom to those in the foxhole.

Soldiers needing training on communications equipment, for example, might be able to take a class at ASC via the Internet, or they might download a simulation of the switching setup being used at their new assignments on their desktop computer.

Although managed at Fort Gordon, UIT is more of an organizational structure for training resources than a bricks-and-mortar building. "It's hardware, software, facilities, connectivity and people brought together to provide lifelong learning materials and support," Wilson said.

UIT is the result of a new approach to education in the Army. The key concept is lifelong learning, a policy that the Army officially adopted last August.

It's what the civilian world calls professional development, having already experienced such things as being able to earn a graduate degree without ever stepping inside a classroom, Wilson said. The assumption is that soldiers will continually update their skills as their assignments change and as the military's mission evolves — without having to enter a physical classroom.

"We want to instill in the new soldiers coming in that once they finish their initial training, they should continue to learn and grow professionally and personally throughout their entire lifetime," said Lt. Col. Edwin Kuster Jr., chief of the Initial Entry Training Division at the Army Training and Doctrine Command (Tradoc), which oversees the service's training programs.

An Evolving World

Embracing UIT is even more crucial as the Army attempts to function in a rapidly changing environment, Kuster said. The Cold War era of fighting is over, and the war on terrorism requires different tactics.

"Before, we could carry a big stick and beat [the enemy] about the head and shoulders until they got the message, but I'm not sure these guys get that message," Kuster said. "Since last year, our enemies have become more shadowy, and they're not dumb. They use computer networks to gain access into our systems. We need to change our mentality on how to deal with these folks."

Fort Gordon has taken the lead on lifelong learning, but the concept has garnered support across the Army. Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, endorses the idea of lifelong learning and includes it his briefings, and the other Tradoc schools embrace it as well.

Robert Helms II, director of strategic initiatives at the Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina, a nonprofit scientific research and technology development organization, is overseeing the technical support for carrying out the Army's lifelong learning master plan.

Helms, who has been involved with introducing virtual reality into the Army's learning environments since the early 1990s, worked on a 1999 study that found "technology-assisted lifelong learning was the optimal learning approach for the Army."

UIT reflects that finding, he said. The program supports lifelong learning in four basic ways: specific training for work assignments; computer-based simulations useful for equipment training; an online resource center for online courses and related materials; and the virtual campus concept, which enables soldiers to train whenever and wherever they are based (see boxes).

To benefit from the resources that UIT offers, soldiers must have access to another universal service tool: the Army Knowledge Online (AKO) portal, Wilson said.

The portal provides Army news, distance-learning opportunities, e-mail accounts, a search engine, chat capabilities and an enterprise collaboration center for Army personnel around the world. "AKO authentication is required to enter UIT," Wilson said.

Col. Robert Coxe Jr., who manages AKO as the service's chief technology officer, said that using the portal as a "single point of entry" for UIT makes sense and leaves the door open to expanded opportunities in the future.

"Right now, they're in the thinking phase. People are just beginning to get a true understanding of what AKO can help do for them," Coxe said. "With AKO, students come to one place to get to [UIT], and mentors can go to one place to get at their students."

Coxe said he liked the "building-block approach" that ASC is taking with UIT, especially because it can "ultimately be exploited by expanding to other schools. They can use our infrastructure as the glue to slip modules in."

In August, UIT will make its first ready-for-training simulation available to students and launch the first Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) course to be taken entirely online, via the online resource center. MOS courses are tailored for the Army's more than 200 job classifications.

The Army has made tremendous progress considering that it adopted the lifelong learning concept last August, Wilson said. The challenge now is evolving "our professional culture for the requirement for lifelong learning."

That means transforming training and education with the same passion that is being applied to the Objective Force concept, the Army's vision of supplying troops with technology so they can deploy more quickly and more effectively than the current light forces, he said.

In fact, lifelong learning will be an important part of the Objective Force, because it requires training soldiers quickly on the latest high-tech tools.

The Army's current IT training programs cannot keep up with the changes in technology, Wilson said. By the time new soldiers arrive at their first unit, the technology they learned during training is often outdated, he said.

"Every 18 months, there's a major change in IT and [soldiers] are only in the physical schoolhouse for a short period of time," he said. "They have got to be constantly learning, [and that] needs to occur individually and for units."

Changes Upon Changes

The impact of UIT will begin with the individual soldier, but ripple throughout the service.

Ubiquitous education opportunities will put well-trained soldiers on the field faster, although students will have to take a higher level of personal responsibility for their education, Wilson said.

Field commanders also will benefit because they can address sustainment-training challenges by providing "just-in-time, on demand [learning resources] to soldiers and leaders involved in both formal training as well as duties and activities in other locations," he said. Those training resources for follow-on assignments include signal equipment simulations, MOS course software and the ability to reach an expert via the online resource center.

UIT also will affect the National Guard Bureau and Army Reserve, which require members to be in uniform only about 39 days a year for training. The ability to take entire courses online with simulations at home will improve readiness, Wilson said.

"Providing soldiers more time and opportunity to participate in lifelong learning are two benefits," said Maureen Lischke, the National Guard's chief information officer and program executive officer for information systems. "This will help improve readiness in the Guard because soldiers can take courses, or portions of courses, without leaving their communities."

Online courses also could improve retention rates. One of the reasons soldiers leave the Guard, Lischke said, is that they are required to leave their primary job for weeks or months to attend training courses on-site.

"Research has shown that distributed learning can be as effective as resident-based training, and in some cases more effective," Lischke said. "In addition, as courses are redesigned, they can be tailored to meet the Army's emphasis on" assignment-oriented training.

Kenneth Hunter, deputy director of the Center for Human Resources Management at the National Academy of Public Administration, said NAPA supports any federal initiative encouraging lifelong learning and included that recommendation to agencies in a report released last year.

Laura Callahan, deputy CIO at the Labor Department and co-chairwoman of the CIO Council's Workforce and Human Capital for IT Committee, agreed. "We are very interested and encouraged by the approach the Army is using to provide education opportunities to their personnel on a global scale," she said.

The CIO Council looks forward to learning more about UIT "and how they will be measuring the benefits and knowledge-transfer effectiveness to Army personnel, [because] the efforts at Fort Gordon may transfer to other federal agencies that are addressing similar competency gaps," she said.

Callahan also said that UIT could also reap governmentwide dividends, because e-training is one the 24 e-government initiatives that support the President's Management Agenda, and that area "would benefit from the lessons learned the Army has developed and will continue to refine as they implement their lifelong learning concept."

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