FBI creates online training hub

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"Dual approach"

The FBI last month unveiled its Virtual Academy, an online training hub for cash-strapped local law enforcement agencies, which are struggling now more than ever to provide staff with crucial crime-solving skills.

From basic microscope procedures to more sophisticated methods of analyzing controlled substances, local jurisdictions have always leaned heavily on the FBI for training. The Virtual Academy, therefore, will serve first as a central enrollment and tracking tool for the FBI's existing classroom-based training efforts and later as a platform for distance learning.

FBI officials also plan to use the heavily customized learning management system as a basis for intergovernmental collaboration.

"In counterterrorism and after cases such as the Washington[, D.C.]-area sniper attacks, we realize that we need to work closely with our partners to become more effective," said Larry Walker, the FBI's training program manager for technical, professional and scientific job families.

As a result, the Virtual Academy will serve as an information-sharing tool by hosting the electronic exchange of resources and expertise among agents at different levels of law enforcement.

"Imagine a forensic scientist in Florida who is an expert on ballistics and a crime that has been committed in California," said Malcolm Patel, vice president of FBI contractor Meridian Knowledge Solutions Inc. "Someone in a lab out in California may well want to find this ballistics expert, so [he or she] would post a request in the system."

The FBI tapped Meridian in September 2001 to provide its learning and knowledge management system, Knowledge Centre, as the backbone of the Virtual Academy. To date, the agency has spent about $650,000 to set up the Virtual Academy and its internal learning management system.

Knowledge Centre's teaming room and teaming center capabilities were particularly appealing to FBI officials, Patel said. "Whether it has to do with a course or not, [the software gives users] the ability to collaborate, share documents and have thread discussions," he said.

Such widespread electronic collaboration is still a ways off, however. The agency has just finished installing the system and is in the process of registering more than 700 user agencies.

In its initial stage, which launched in early November, the Virtual Academy will displace the FBI's paper-based course catalogs used to solicit applicants from local jurisdictions. In fact, any registration for classroom-based training — whether at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., or in FBI regions — will filter through the Virtual Academy.

The "FBI is giving everyone in the law enforcement and forensic science community a central point for training opportunities — a way to see what is available and access applications," said John Newner, quality manager at the American Society for Crime Laboratory Directors' Laboratory Accreditation Board, which accredits the nation's forensics labs.

Determining what types of FBI training are available and when is important to local law enforcement agencies, especially because the FBI offsets all training costs and often transportation fees. "Once you leave the federal level, you quickly run into budget issues," said Newner, former deputy assistant director of North Carolina's State Bureau of Investigation's Crime Laboratory.

Although local agencies are eager for federal training opportunities, the process of registering for FBI courses has been hit or miss, Newner said. "Once a year, we would send in applications for all the possible courses and then sit there and hold our breath, waiting."

Now, individuals as well as agencies will have an easier time managing their law enforcement training and career paths. "With our customizations, we've set up personal rooms or individual development profiles that will serve as personalized learning tracts," said Ginny Field, an instructional systems specialist at the FBI.

The learning management system is designed to resemble a brick-and-mortar college or university campus, a factor that appeals to users, Meridian officials said.

"When you pull up a screen, you have an academy-looking map with buildings and trees," said Christina Muth, Meridian's program manager for the federal law enforcement market. "If you were looking for the course catalog, you would immediately know to go to the learning center. If you were after transcripts, you would go to the administration building."

The Virtual Academy will eventually incorporate online instruction, however, the FBI has not yet located all of the subject matter experts needed to complete electronic course offerings.

But the infrastructure for doing so is in place. "The content is the final piece. We have developed the templates," Field said.

Jones is a freelance writer based in Vienna, Va.

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