Virtual training saving the Navy time, money

Online training

One of the United States Navy's smaller training centers highlights how virtual training can save big. The 27-member staff of the Naval Safety & Environmental Training Center provides training to some 10,000 Navy personnel and government civilians around the world in 37 courses each year.

Commander Greg Cook said his command began several years ago to look at virtual training as a way to deliver training to students in some courses, sensing looming budget cuts.

The center rolled out a blended eLearning model in 2011 that it brands "Global Online," and its virtual enrollment has grown from 60 initial students to approximately 800 in five classes in 2013, with plans to expand to more than 2,500 students in fiscal 2014.

The command uses an open source educational tool called Sakai – hosted by the Naval Postgraduate School – for the asynchronous training component and Defense Connect Online for the live sessions with instructors. Students can take their classes from anywhere in the world and view their instructors from any personal mobile device.

Cook said his command conservatively estimates that for each student who participates in virtual training, the command saves $800 to $1,200 in travel costs, plus per diem expenses and recovered productivity. Classes that the center hosts range from one to five days long, but students don't have to expend extra time dealing with travel and may – depending on the rigor of the virtual training – be able to continue their duties.

"It used to be either we travel to 9,500 students per year or they travel to us," Cook said. "I think we need to be looking at this technology and make the most use of it we can. We are doing more robust training in the same amount of time while saving students travel and per diem cost, travel time and lost productivity. We're not pushing virtual as a wholesale training solution, but we are using it strategically where it makes the most sense."

Courses that require physical participation, where a student must try on gear, scale a wall or demonstrate other physical skills, are not applicable to the virtual environment, according to Al Melcher, Learning Standards Officer for the Naval Safety & Environmental Training Center. Those courses are still taught onsite, through the command's mobile training teams offsite, or through video tele-training (VTT) remote sites, though VTT will be defunded later this year, Melcher said.

While some courses will always require hands-on instruction, Cook said many courses work as well or better in the virtual environment than they do in lecture halls.

The command's students are able to interact with an instructor on a daily basis because Global Online requires instructors to commit at least an hour per day of live virtual instruction, addressing a challenge typically inherent in distance learning and sometimes even in college lecture halls: a lack of cognitive learning.

Cook said students are asked to do assignments rather than cycle through the PowerPoint presentations of a nonexistent instructor. Because of the combination of tools available in the virtual environment, they're called upon to retrieve information online, essentially forcing active participation.

"Beyond the cost savings, we're seeing an increase in knowledge transfer, and that's really important," Cook said.

"In this venue, because of the availability of using their own personal devices within their environment, the freedom and choice of students is much greater, the availability of training is greater, and we've found that leveraging these tools together provides a training mechanism that increases over and beyond what traditionally you'd have in a lecture-based classroom environment," Cook added.

There have been some challenges as the center has expanded its virtual training, however. Bandwidth is a problem for some students, especially those who go against the center's preference and train while at sea. "Not all ships have high bandwidth, and the video can get a little choppy," Cook said.

Another challenge is change management, Cook said, noting that some managers are of the mentality that online courses are easy enough to do "after hours." The increased rigor of the Naval Safety & Environmental Training Center's virtual course offerings now has some students telling their bosses the coursework might cut into work time.

"Some students need more time to take their classes," Cook said. "Change isn't always easy."

Yet the change to make virtual training a priority is saving the Navy and taxpayers money, and is a method Cook said many other agencies could try, too.

"We have to use the resources we have as they become scarcer," Cook said. "We're facing cuts and our customers are facing cuts."

About the Author

Frank Konkel is a former staff writer for FCW.


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