Going the Distance for Training

John Klesch likes to describe the leadership and camaraderie he witnessed three years ago in an Army training course for National Guard soldiers: The instructor, a beefy, senior noncommissioned officer with a booming voice, entered the classroom and the soldiers immediately snapped to attention.

"I understand we have a birthday," the NCO bellowed midway through the class.

"Yes, sir," the troops responded in unison.

"Well, where's the cake?" the NCO demanded.

"Right here, sir," said one soldier, pulling a cake out from under his desk.

"So what are we waiting for? Let's celebrate!"

The dialog and impromptu celebration is hardly remarkable, except that the instructor was thousands of miles away from the soldiers, who were on a peacekeeping mission in Egypt. The U.S.-based instructor and students were linked through a two-way audiovisual system that enabled them to see and communicate with one another in near-real time.

As chief of the strategies branch in the Army Training and Doctrine Command's Futures Training Division, Klesch is a strong advocate of using technology to train people in disparate locations. The course Klesch observed was one of the Army's early pilot tests in distance learning. It showed the tremendous savings and training potential for the Army, which must continually provide updated training for soldiers and civilian employees in remote regions with dwindling resources.

For most federal agencies, the need for timely employee training has never been greater. Affordable, flexible training for large numbers of workers has become critical as agencies cope with tremendous organizational and technological changes brought on by downsizing and the implementation of such reforms as the 1994 Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act, the 1996 Federal Acquisition Reform Act and the 1996 Information Technology Management Reform Act.

With a few exceptions, such as where information security is a factor or developing student-instructor relationships is central to training, agencies are finding distance learning offers an affordable means of providing employees with everything from technical skills training to professional development.

Distance learning, or distance education as it is sometimes called, is nothing new. The term has been used to refer to everything from correspondence courses to teleconferencing. Today, distance learning typically refers to some form of interactive television. In some agencies, two-way audiovisual systems ensure students and instructors can communication with each other and see each other on large television monitors in real time. At other agencies, students see the instructor on a monitor in the classroom but the instructor does not see them; students interact with the instructor by dialing a toll-free telephone number or using a key pad linked to a terminal at the instructor's site.

As technology becomes increasingly accessible and affordable, more agencies are employing it to inform and train workers across broad geographical areas without having to foot big travel bills.

Affordable Training

Officials at the Energy Department's Safeguards and Security Central Training Academy in Albuquerque, N.M., estimate they have saved $11 million in training-related costs since 1993 through the use of distance learning. Much of the savings has resulted from reduced travel expenses.

The academy's director, Donald Cook, says that during its first full year of delivering courses via satellite-based interactive television the cost for training each student averaged $550-a significant drop from the $2,200 cost per student who otherwise would have had to travel to the academy. By 1997, he estimates the per-student costs for many interactive television courses will drop below $100.

"Trends in decreasing travel budgets and downsizing suggested we were going to have a problem meeting the agency's training needs if we didn't act on it," he says. The interactive television system can deliver programming to 22 Energy Department locations and more than 100 sites at other federal agencies and military installations. Each student has a small computer equipped with a keypad and a voice-activated response unit. Trainers can conduct tests, transfer data and conduct polls and surveys through the system.

To date, the academy has used distance learning multimedia technologies to develop and deliver more than 50 courses to 6,800 students. And the $11 million in savings does not take into account worker productivity that would otherwise have been lost due to training-related absences, Cook says.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development has found similar savings. In December, HUD opened a distance-learning center in Washington to transmit professional development programs to the agency's field staff and contractors. The center allows the agency to disseminate information faster, more cost-effectively and with greater consistency.

Two years prior to opening the center, HUD had used the U.S. Postal Academy's broadcast studio in Potomac, Md., and other commercial studios to conduct training via satellite. But the agency found it could cut costs by 80 percent with it's own distance-learning broadcast facility, agency officials say. Using the postal facility, HUD spent $2.5 million to provide 3,650 units of training, where a unit of training is equal to one person participating in one broadcast. With the new distance-learning center, the agency can offer 50,000 units of training at a cost of $1.8 million.

The HUD distance-learning center uses one-way video, two-way audio technology to transmit information, so employees see the instructor, but the instructor does not see employees outside the broadcast center. Employees at field locations use response keypads to signal the instructor with a question or respond to a question posed by the instructor. HUD staff at 56 downlink sites across the country can communicate with instructors at the center, respond to questions and signal an instructor when there are problems with the transmission. Student responses can be tabulated instantly and instructors can measure student comprehension. In addition, trainers can easily incorporate graphics, computer-generated an- imation and video into presentations.

"Three years ago, before we had satellite training capability, if we wanted to train 500 employees at a three-day course in a traditional classroom setting, that would have cost over $300,000," says Marilynn Davis, assistant secretary for administration at HUD. The high cost was due to travel, lodging and food expenses for employees. "For every training dollar we spent, about 56 cents were spent on non-training costs," she says. Now, the same 500 employees can be trained for $15,000 using the agency's new distance-learning center.

Virtual Learning

If you ask most employees how they prefer to receive training-via satellite in a distance-learning format or in a traditional classroom setting-they'll tell you they prefer the traditional classroom, says Amy Peters, director of the HUD Training Academy's Program Technical Training Institute.

"People generally feel they receive more personal attention in a traditional classroom setting," she says. However, once employees get used to using the keypad that allows them to interact with the instructor during satellite broadcast training they generally feel comfortable. Because employees log in using their Social Security number, the instructor immediately sees students' names when they use their keypads to ask questions. The instructor can then call on students by name, which helps to break down barriers resulting from the electronic format.

Also, the keypad used in the HUD system has a button employees can push if they are confused by something the instructor says. This is particularly helpful for the instructor, who cannot see the employees receiving the broadcast.

"One of the most important aspects of distance learning is that it forces the instructor to be more structured and focused in his or her delivery. In a classroom setting, you're more apt to stray from the subject, but with the distance-learning format, you're more apt to stick to your script," says Peters.

Jamie Padilla, assistant director of the Energy Department's Central Training Academy, agrees. "Our whole training force had to be retrained," she says. "If you're an instructor used to looking at students across a classroom for feedback, this can be a difficult adjustment." She suggests distance- learning instructors conduct pop quizzes and randomly ask students questions to gauge how well they're covering the material.

As far as the impact of the technology on students, they generally fall into two camps, she says. Some are intimidated by the technology and are therefore reluctant to interact with the instructor, while others feel less intimidated because of the relative anonymity of distance learning compared with traditional classroom training.

Distance learning can also provide students with a more intimate environment for training, says the Army's Klesch. If a student has a choice between attending a course being conducted in a large hotel ballroom or taking the same course via interactive television in a smaller classroom or conference room at his or her workplace, many prefer the distance-learning format, he says.

Klesch says the Army's pilot test using distance learning to train National Guard troops in Egypt showed that instructors need not be present in a classroom to command the attention of students, something that had been a concern for some military leaders. "The NCO [instructor] had a real presence in that class," he says, "even if it wasn't physical." Test scores in that course and the many other courses the Army has conducted in virtual classrooms have shown no discernible difference in students' ability to comprehend and retain information in a distance-learning format.

Mary Ann Tatman, director of the Veterans Affairs Department's audiovisual communications program, says the VA's 200-site satellite television network linking VA health care facilities has enabled the agency to enhance training for employees by broadcasting programs produced by universities and other federal agencies that broadcast an analog signal. All facilities in the network have equipment capable of receiving programming from any unencrypted Ku Band satellite, which enables the VA to broadcast programming from other sources, such as the Defense Acquisitions University, Centers for Disease Control and the Social Security Administration.

Most VA broadcasts last one to two hours and offer continuing education credit for health care professionals. Like the HUD distance-learning system, VA's is one-way video and two-way audio. To interact with instructors or lecturers, employees dial a toll-free number displayed on a television monitor. In the future, Tatman expects students will have interactive key pads to communicate with instructors. The VA is planning to test them soon at 25 sites.

"One of the biggest advantages of this system is we can reach many, many more people that we could before, and we can be sure they're all receiving the same information," says Tatman. "This is very good for transferring late-breaking news. It would otherwise be extremely rare that we would be able to gather together several hundred people in one sitting."

Technology Evolution

Agency training experts don't believe distance learning will ever completely replace traditional classroom training.

"We'll never be able to eliminate the need for face-to-face instruction," Klesch says. Because team building and unit cohesion are so important to the military, few courses the Army offers are conducted entirely using distance learning.

Still, Klesch and other experts predict distance learning will play a greater role in the federal workplace as technology evolves and becomes more affordable.

By today's standards, the equipment used in the Army's pilot test in Egypt three years ago is primitive, says Klesch. During the pilot, for example, there was a lag time in the audio transmission, so soldiers would see the instructor mouth the words a couple of seconds before they heard what he said. The Army is now conducting such training in real time worldwide, Klesch says.

He anticipates training will move from an almost exclusively instructor-controlled enterprise to one where students play a much larger role in determining the training they receive. For example , he envisions a time when a student will take a diagnostic test to determine his strengths and shortfalls in a particular subject area. The results of the test could be used to tailor a course specific to the student's needs.

He also predicts students will receive more simulation training in the future. A reserve gunner in Rockville, Md., for example, could be electronically linked to a unit participating in an armor exercise being conducted at the National Training Center in California. The gunner could hone his skills without incurring the travel costs and with less disruption to his civilian life.

The Army has already begun deploying mobile distance-learning training facilities. For example , if commanders decide troops in Bosnia need a specialized course in mine detection, a course can be rapidly prepared and broadcast to such a facility in the field.

"If there is an urgent need for training, we can pull together the best instructors and put together a quick and dirty course to meet the need," Klesch says. That kind of use of distance learning is only going to increase as the technology becomes more sophisticated, he says.

As encryption methods improve and secure transmissions can be conducted through the Internet, agencies, especially those that deal with issues of national security like Defense and Energy, no doubt will turn more frequently to distance learning to meet burgeoning training requirements.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
X CLOSE Don't show again

Like us on Facebook