OPM upgrades online training site

The Office of Personnel Management Thursday announced upgrades to its online learning center for federal employees, a site that has attracted about 37,000 registered users since its debut five months ago.

The enhanced version of www.golearn.gov will provide 3,000 additional online course options and will allow users to join "communities of practice," where they can interact with others developing similar career competencies. For instance, law enforcement officers can take courses to supplement their hands-on training sessions and executives can take leadership classes. Students can meet to discuss courses in "lounges" on some floors of the virtual school building.

"[OPM's e-learning site] is good government at its best," said Connie Patrick, director of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, which has started providing training courses through the site.

With only three "residential" training facilities, the FLETC would have a hard time meeting a demand for training that has nearly doubled in the past year, Patrick said. Now students can study rules, laws, and procedures online and arrive at the residential facilities ready for firearms practice and other drills that are impossible to perform on a computer.

OPM officials said they expected the number of site users to grow as a result of the upgrades.

"This is a great day for employees, who have access to a larger number of convenient educational job aides," said OPM Director Kay Coles James, in a statement. "This is a great day for managers who rely on employees for staying on the cutting edge in their jobs."

The improvements mark the second phase of the e-learning site, which OPM launched in July 2002. Initially, the site, which was an extension of the Transportation Department's Virtual University, offered about 30 free courses supported by a software package from West Des Moines, Iowa-based GeoLearning. Plateau Systems, an Arlington, Va. software company, won a multimillion-dollar contract to provide additional support for the second phase.

As one of 24 electronic government initiatives designed to make the federal government more efficient and citizen friendly, the site has already achieved tangible, measurable results, according to Norm Enger, the project manager for human resources-related e-government projects at OPM.

The enhanced site will generate savings by reducing tuition costs and eliminating the need for employees to travel to training sessions, according to James and Mark Forman, associate director for technology and e-government at the Office of Management and Budget. Taxpayers will save $1.19 billion over the next 10 years, James estimated. They will also gain "smarter, more productive employees," she added.

In addition, the site will eventually eliminate redundant training efforts within the government, Forman said. Over the past decade, there was a gap in the online training options available to federal employees, so agencies developed their own programs to fill the void, Forman explained.

For instance, the National Security Agency and the Treasury Department's Franchise Business Activity office in San Antonio, run FasTrac, a five-year-old e-training site used by the Senate and 55 agencies, including the Navy and the Health and Human Services Department. The General Services Administration developed FedLearn, which offers training packages to more than 70 federal customers, including Social Security Administration and Defense Department.

There are about 60 separate places where federal workers can find online courses now, Forman said. Each of these sites cost about $1 million to launch, he estimated, resulting in at least $60 million in waste because of redundant programs.

OPM and OMB plan to eliminate the redundancy by forcing all of these individual sites to merge with golearn.gov, Forman said. This change will become a reality when agencies see the 2004 budget, he said, because the budget does not provide funding for agencies to continue running individual training sites indefinitely.

SmartForce, which formerly offered about 1,500 free courses to Army civilians, soldiers, guardsmen and reservists, merged with SkillSoft, a Nashua, N.H.-based software provider in September 2002 and has since joined golearn.gov. The transition has gone "exceptionally well" so far, said Kevin Duffer, director of government and education markets at SkillSoft.

The Defense, Labor, Transportation and Treasury departments and the General Services Administration have already joined golearn.gov.