TSA sets out on e-learning path

After scrambling to meet aggressive deadlines for creating and staffing a new agency, Transportation Security Administration officials are now implementing a system to improve its training programs.

Using a learning management system developed by Arlington, Va.-based Plateau Systems Ltd., TSA officials will eventually manage the courses, career plans and qualifications of its 55,000 employees.

"The direction and the vision came from the top and remain there," said Nancy Watson, director of TSA's office of learning systems. "It's very important to make sure people are and remain certified on the systems they use."

Plateau's learning management system provides the back-end structure for several e-learning and classroom training programs. TSA chose the system to manage its employees' enrollment, reporting, course planning, resources and job qualifications.

The system is a piece of Lockheed Martin Corp.'s specialized security training contract for TSA's passenger and baggage screeners. The contract, awarded in May, has an initial value of $8.9 million for one year, with four one-year options. Plateau is one of several subcontractors, and the learning management system is set to launch in August.

If the various e-learning and classroom programs are the vehicles, Plateau provides the highway infrastructure, said Paul Sparta, Plateau's chairman and chief executive officer. "We're providing the software that will allow TSA to consolidate to a single management and delivery platform," he said.

"This is an honest indication of TSA's efforts to have centralized control of the information and deployment of the information," Sparta said.

The companies that provide the programs, which TSA officials said they have yet to identify, create content based on interoperable standards, which allow the learning management system to hook into and manage them, Sparta said. The goal is to have information on all the agency's learning programs available online so employees and managers can access their profiles or sign up for classes from computer kiosks at airports, Sparta said.

"Now a lot of that happens with a clipboard being passed around," Sparta said. "TSA grew out of nothing very quickly. A lot of that information was captured in local databases and on spreadsheets, mailed to headquarters and aggregated together."

An employee can log into the Plateau system and see a profile of courses and job qualifications. Similarly, administrators can access employee progress reports, organize schedules, review course tools and access exam reports.

Aiming to have a majority of their coursework available online, TSA officials are now focused on designing the classes. "It's our goal to put as much of the content as possible in a distance-learning format and use the learning management system," said Peg Halloran, TSA's director of distance learning. "We're not there yet. We're just developing the content and are in the process of getting it out the door."

An added challenge is deploying the system at 429 airports and other facilities, many of which are not yet wired to support it, Watson said. While the agency works to build the infrastructure to support the e-learning and learning management system, it must rely on a blended learning approach, such as the use of CD-ROMs, until all facilities are equipped.

Will Thalheimer of Work-Learning Research said that although learning management systems can aid in tracking skills and certifications, they are not what some agencies see as a "magic bullet" for solving training needs.

"They're helpful to enable organizations to organize their curriculum, but they're not enough. You need to make sure your learning design is good," he said. "The difficulty is some people think it's going to solve all [the agency's] problems."

For the system to be successful, the content has to be relevant and well designed. "You can have the fanciest organizational structure with these [learning management systems], but it doesn't matter if the content isn't good," Thalheimer said.

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Learning on tap

The Transportation Security Administration will use the learning management system from Plateau Systems Ltd. to:

* Monitor what courses need to be completed by a certain date.

* Send employees e-mail alerts about particular courses.

* Enable students to search a class catalog by position to view the required courses they must complete.

* Provide students with a job's qualifications and the courses that can fulfill them.

* Allow administrators to access individual employees' progress reports, organize schedules, review course tools and access exam reports.

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