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Published in Print: January 10, 2001, as Technology Update

Technology Update

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Army's New Cyber-School Opens Doors For Online Learners

The U.S. Army will open its fledgling online university this month, and officials predict that, within five years, it is likely to enroll as many as 80,000 soldier-students annually—making it one of the largest online universities in the world. Technology and education experts say the huge program, costing $453 million over the next five years, will likely spur the development of new methods and technologies to provide distance learning and online courses at every level of education.

"Not only is this a forward-looking investment, but an investment that will have an impact on everything that is going on in all of our educational communities," said recently retired Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., who chaired the congressional Web-based Education Commission. The panel spent 10 months studying the potential of the World Wide Web as an educational medium. Other advocates of online learning echoed Mr. Kerrey's optimism about the project's potential for helping K-12 education.

"I think it's an excellent idea, long overdue," said Theodore D. Nellen, an adjunct education professor at both Fordham University and the online teacher-training program at the New School University, the institution Mr. Kerrey will now lead. Mr. Nellen—a Vietnam War Army veteran who took correspondence courses while serving in the military—taught a "Cyber English" course at New York City's Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers before recently becoming a college professor. He expects that the Army's online university will offer soldiers many new career paths, including letting them prepare to become public school teachers after they leave the military.

The online university will offer college-level courses in a wide range of academic subjects that, when fully rolled out, will be accessible to American soldiers equipped with laptop computers worldwide.

The Army hopes its program will stem the outflow of soldiers who decide not to re-enlist because they want to pursue college studies. It will also be seen as an attractive benefit to new recruits who are hoping to earn college degrees.

"This is the largest e-learning program of its kind," claims Michael Sousa, a designer of online-delivery systems at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, the systems-integration company in Arlington, Va., that the Army selected to assemble and manage the program. The company, which manages online training for many companies worldwide, unveiled a list of high- tech companies and educational institutions that will take part in the Army project. For example, Washington-based Blackboard Inc.—which builds education "portals" that deliver courses for universities and corporations—will be responsible for the technological platform that will provide the courses.

The courses will be at the undergraduate and graduate levels, provided initially by 29 universities, colleges, and community colleges that are all members of the Army's Service Members Opportunity College, which requires its members to accept credits earned at member institutions. More educational institutions will be added over time, said James J. Schiro, the chief executive of PricewaterhouseCoopers.

All the courses in the Army University Access Online Program will be accessible through a Web site at

About 12,000 to 15,000 soldiers will take courses online this year, the Army estimates, with the initial pilot trials taking place at three Army bases: Fort Benning, Ga.; Fort Campbell, Ky.; and Fort Hood, Texas.

Soldiers enrolling in the program will be issued laptop computers and printers and be provided Internet access at no cost to them. They'll be allowed to keep the laptops and printers after they complete three courses, Mr. Schiro said.

After the pilot trials, the courses will probably be offered for free, or at a low cost, to all soldiers, according to Secretary of the Army Louis Caldera.

Currently, the Army pays 75 percent of the tuition for soldiers who attend college while in uniform, with the soldiers picking up the rest. But many military men and women cannot take college courses, because of constraints of time, geography, and the nature of their duties. Program officials hope the online program will break down those barriers.

The Army, which requires enlisted men and women to have high school diplomas, also stands to gain a measure of flexibility. Some colleges will likely offer remedial courses and General Educational Development programs through the new online university, Mr. Caldera said. "We might say [to a potential recruit lacking a high school diploma], we'll sign you up for a GED program [online], and we'll pay for it," the secretary noted.

Last Pitch for E-Learning:

Last month, before the nation knew who its next president would be, the U.S. Department of Education issued a new national educational technology plan, which officials hope will live on in the incoming administration.

For More Information

The full report, "e-Learning: Putting World-Class Education at the Fingertips of All Children," is avaible from the Department of Education. (Requires Adobe's Acrobat Reader.) The department also provides an executive summary.

The plan's five new goals, identified during 18 months of study, are:

  • All students and teachers will have access to information technology in their classrooms, schools, communities, and homes.
  • All students and teachers will use technology effectively to help students achieve high academic standards.
  • All students will have technology and information-literacy skills.
  • Research and evaluation will improve the next generation of technology applications for teaching and learning.
  • Digital content and networked applications will transform teaching and learning.

In a written statement that accompanied the report, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said: "I invite Congress and the new administration to continue to support state and local education leaders in harnessing the best of the information age for education. This is an opportunity for our children that the country cannot afford to miss."

—Andrew Trotter

Vol. 20, Issue 16, Page 6

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