The use of e-learning within government agencies is one area where the government leads much of Corporate America in widespread adoption, the development of innovative applications and its incorporation as an essential component in agency-wide learning initiatives. In fact, discussions with eight different agencies revealed significant successes that serve as powerful examples of e-learning’s potential. In many cases, these successes demonstrate how organizations can maximize dollar investments and learner value by working cooperatively with other units within their own walls, as well as with partner agencies and affiliates.
E-learning success hasn’t come easy. The obstacles faced by many agencies – from challenging budgets to technical issues to widely diverse and distributed workforces – can make those faced by business seem paltry. Consider the Department of Veterans Affairs, with 250,000 employees across the United States and 325 medical centers and regional offices. Or the Coast Guard, the smallest of the armed services, with thousands of small bases and ships, which has the lion-sized responsibility for guarding our shores.
This article offers examples of e-learning innovation and best practices occurring in six different government agencies.
Early Adopters and Visionaries
Jerry Sparks, distance learning program manager for the Federal Aviation Administration, was thinking about learning system standards long before some of us had even touched a computer. The FAA has been using computer-based training for more than 20 years. More than a decade ago, the agency realized that it needed an automated system to track and manage the hundreds of courses then delivered to air traffic controllers, technicians, engineers and flight standards inspectors. Since Sparks’ department was responsible then, as it is now, for providing the service and infrastructure for the FAA’s extensive distance learning, he was thrown into the uncharted territories of LMS interoperability issues, development and delivery standards and user navigation.
“Back then, virtually all LMSs were custom,” said Sparks. “And of course, this created real problems. For instance, much of the training for aircraft and aircraft maintenance was delivered via CBT by manufacturers like Boeing or McDonnell Douglas. As different, newer operating systems and infrastructure technologies were introduced, even simple file compatibility became problematic.”
Sparks and other professionals throughout the airline industry recognized these common problems and resolved to address them. The Aviation Industry CBT Committee (AICC) was born in 1988. The FAA is the only government member of the organization, which focuses on developing technical standards and guidelines for the development and delivery of learning management systems and other learning-related technologies.
“The first standard we created was for the playing of audio files,” said Sparks. “By the mid-90s, as the overall demand for LMSs grew, our work was suddenly recognized. Essentially, the AICC’s standards work really made the LMS market possible.” Today, almost everyone in the learning profession is familiar with the term “AICC-compliant,” which denotes a product’s compliance with one or more of the organization’s guidelines and recommendations (called AGRs) spanning delivery platforms, interoperability, navigation and other areas.
The Department of Veterans Affairs “walked the talk of distance learning” for many years, according to Joy Hunter, acting dean of the VA Learning University and chief learning officer of the VHA Education System. The agency’s learning initiative encompasses: an extensive satellite broadcast system, begun more than 20 years ago to distribute timely information to all VA medical centers and regional offices; a content distribution network that brings satellite programming and a variety of video-based training to computer desktops; a comprehensive online learning catalog that provides all VA employees a centralized source of all learning resources – from online training courses to conference proceedings to broadcasts; and more than 1,500 Web-based courses spanning IT skills, IT certification, personal development, accounting and finance, management and even preparatory courses for the GED.
“Information is not valuable until an employee needs to know it,” said Hunter. “We’ve always looked at ways to use technology to bring information to employees at the right time. Because our workforce is so diverse, we also try to provide a variety of resources to support individual learning styles.”
According to Hunter, the VA has gone to great lengths to avoid duplication of effort and investment in learning among its three divisions, the Veterans Health Administration, the Veterans Benefits Administration and the National Cemetery Administration. The agency cooperates closely with partner agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Defense, for distributing timely, often critical information needed by VA and partner employees. The VA is also working with the Office of Personnel Management’s GoLearn initiative (discussed later in this story) for future enhancements to learning offerings.
The events of Sept. 11, 2001 and the ensuing terrorism threats have highlighted the value of the agency’s learning investments in a way that no formal ROI study ever could. “Within hours of the World Trade Center attacks, we had information broadcast to our employees from the Department of Defense, which partners with us in times of crisis. More recently, we’ve been able to keep our medical professionals informed about the latest information related to smallpox vaccinations through our partnership with the CDC,” said Hunter.
From Brick-and-Mortar to Click-and-Mortar Learning
Two examples of agencies that have more recently embraced e-learning as a critical complement to traditional training programs are the U.S. State Department and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC). Although the programs differ in scope, purpose and audience, each has seen significant success.
The Foreign Service Institute’s School of Applied Information Technology (SAIT), part of the State Department, uses e-learning courseware and online mentoring for self-training and to supplement instructor-led programs.
“E-learning gives us the ability to customize training to fit the very different needs, educational levels and cultures of our employees,” said Janette Corsbie, distance learning program director for the SAIT. The Foreign Service Institute has approximately 30,000 employees worldwide. Training offered by the SAIT ranges from the ongoing skills development of IT professionals to training end-users in foreign service offices on desktop applications.
According to Corsbie, the State Department was the first federal agency to initiate a pay incentive program for IT professionals who met industry certification requirements. Incentives are awarded as recruitment bonuses for top professionals who join the agency and as bonuses for employees who advance skills. Online mentoring, which gives employees the ability to ask questions via e-mail or instant messaging, is used by approximately 80 percent of employees taking courses. “This service is critical to the success of self-training because it makes up for the lack of interaction typically gained in a classroom setting,” said Corsbie.
On the other end of the skills spectrum, the U.S. Embassy in Panama City is actively using e-learning courses as part of a classroom-training program for Microsoft Office Specialist certification. Under the direction of Information Systems Officer Bethany McDow, the program begins with instruction on the use of e-learning, a concept unknown to most students. Subsequently, e-learning courses are used during class and later for further self-paced study.
“This blended approach cuts down on required class time and also saves on the purchase of classroom training materials, which are very expensive,” said Corsbie. Another benefit is that the agency can offer consistent training worldwide. Corsbie cites the department’s executive mandate for ongoing skills development for much of e-learning’s success. According to Corsbie, even Secretary of State Colin Powell has taken several e-learning courses.
Ned Futoran, program manager for the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center’s Distance Learning Program, currently on special assignment with the Department of Homeland Security, was integral in introducing e-learning into FLETC’s distance learning curriculum and is now assisting with the development of training requirements for the new agency.
Indeed, Futoran and others involved in the distance learning for FLETC have many best practices to share. One of the government’s few consolidated agencies, FLETC serves the employees of 150 local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. Needless to say, this is a highly diverse audience – ranging from local police officers to border patrol and customs agents to the Secret Service.
Since its beginnings in the early ’70s, much of FLETC’s training was delivered at the agency’s 4,000-acre headquarters in Brunswick, Ga. However, with recurring budget cuts and a growing demand for training, the agency began to investigate the potential of distance learning about four years ago. A pilot program was implemented two years ago, and the program became fully operational in January 2002.
Today, the FLETC Distance Learning Program gives officers and agents access to more than 1,700 off-the shelf courses in business skills, management, communication and technology, as well as 35 custom courses in highly specific areas such as electronic crime, DNA, vehicle searches and roadblocks. Many courses are used as pre- or post-requisites to on-campus or other leader-led training. The agency has developed HTML templates and an electronic support system to assist subject-matter experts in developing Web-based material. FLETC’s custom content is increasing by as many as 200 curriculum hours each year.
The agency has seen immediate benefits from the program. A documented, one-year research program was conducted in conjunction with two Florida sheriffs’ offices to offer Web-based training for state-mandated re-training requirements, as well as courses for college credit and personal development. The program showed savings of approximately $296,000 in travel-related expenses alone. Because the cost of providing training to the officers was dramatically reduced to only $576 per officer, both departments could dramatically increase training offerings and train more than twice as many personnel as before.
Futoran believes more and more emphasis will be placed on distance learning within all government agencies. “Not only does distance learning aid in delivering timely, uniform information to employees at cost-efficient levels,” said Futoran, “but it’s also the only way we can meet the intensified training needs required of government agencies since 9/11.” As Futoran points out, much of our country’s homeland defense depends on the first responders of local and state agencies that typically do not have large training budgets.
Innovation in State Government
Established success in the use of learning technology isn’t confined to the federal government. The state of Washington has been recognized by the Center for Digital Government as the leading digital state for the past five years. The widespread and rapid adoption of Washington’s E-Learning Network (ELN) is one support point for this award, according to David Dobson, e-learning program manager for Washington’s Department of Personnel. “E-learning is seen as strategic to our state’s mission of providing efficient government and excellent service,” said Dobson.
ELN includes about 1,200 off-the-shelf courses in IT skills and certification, as well as topics such as accounting, sexual harassment and diversity in the workplace. It serves as a centralized e-learning provider for 83 state agencies and more than 70,000 employees. By taking an entrepreneurial approach, actively marketing its offerings and assiduously avoiding administrative obstacles, ELN has gained widespread acceptance across state government as an important learning resource in less than two years.
Dobson cited examples of state agencies that have used ELN as the primary training for major IT initiatives, including the Department of Fish and Wildlife, which used e-learning to assist in migrating from Novell to Microsoft, and the Department of Labor and Industries for its Windows XP conversion. Courses in Microsoft Office and other desktop applications are widely used throughout the state.
The ELN program avoided sticky budget issues by charging just for services used, rather than taking an up-front percentage of an agency’s budget, and by partnering with the Transportation Virtual University, a joint initiative of the U.S. Department of Transportation and the B2B Learning Network, to minimize startup costs. The terms and conditions for taking courses clearly state that an employee has permission to take the desired course and understands that his or her employer will be charged. E-mail notifications to supervisors are also automatically sent to employee supervisors. By relying on these simple procedures, rather than trying to implement a more complex and sophisticated authorized sign-in procedure, the initiative was implemented more quickly, and the Department of Personnel isn’t viewed as a policing agency for training.
The next phase of ELN, which will be launched this year, will incorporate state-specific content into the course library and will widen its access to include schools and universities.
The newest – and most ambitious – of all e-learning programs is the Office of Personnel Management’s Gov Online Learning Center, or GoLearn. According to Michael Fitzgerald, program manager for the initiative, the mission of GoLearn is to centralize and unify e-learning across government agencies. “Right now, most training is done in agency silos,” said Fitzgerald. “GoLearn will help reduce costs, minimize duplication of effort and increase training consistency.”
Currently GoLearn, launched in July 2002, offers links to various online resources and 41 off-the-shelf courses in areas such as communication, customer service, project management, Microsoft Office and IT security. Fitzgerald said planned enhancements for this year include for-fee courses (including access to the SkillSoft business skills library and NETg’s IT skills library), custom courses, an architecture and infrastructure to support blended learning and integration with FLETC’s distance learning program. Webinars, collaborative events, online mentoring, career road maps and communities of practice are also part of the GoLearn vision.
“GoLearn is one of the government’s major e-government initiatives,” said Fitzgerald. “We’ve got support from the highest levels. We’re actively working with at least 50 agencies at all levels to take advantage of best practices and to understand their needs. GoLearn is the way e-learning will be strategic for our government.”
No matter how the future unfolds, it’s clear the role of learning technology will expand throughout government agencies. Corporate America would do well to heed the best practices and lessons learned from these and other innovative government programs.
Dorman Woodall, director of e-learning strategy for SkillSoft, has been involved in training for more than 20 years. Woodall has been actively involved with the development of learning programs for several government agencies, including the FBI, IRS, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Marine Corps.