E-Learning: The World's Largest Classroom

Naval Education and Training Command CIO Curt Jones has built a distance learning system to serve 1.2 million people -- active duty sailors and marines, plus reservists, retirees, civilian employees and family members.

It wasn’t exactly smooth sailing when the IT department at the Naval Education and Training Command (NETC) in Pensacola, Fla., set out to develop its e-learning system, now the nation’s largest. More than two years ago, NETC CIO Curt Jones began working on a distance learning system to serve 1.2 million people—active duty sailors and marines, plus reservists, retirees, civilian employees and family members.

The first order of business was to determine what the Navy could feasibly offer online. Web-based IT classes (of which NETC offers more than 950) were no-brainers. Skills training such as financial management, leadership and military-centric courses were trickier. The challenge was creating the right blend of online offerings, Jones says. "We had to look at things and say, We don’t need to do all of our training in brick-and-mortar schoolhouses, and we don’t need to do it all on the Web." In many cases, NETC used online classes as prerequisites for classroom training.

The Navy’s strict security firewall requirements, which are at odds with the very concept of distance learning, also posed a challenge. "That conflicts with this kind of curriculum where you want to use streaming video and animation that could become a risk to the rest of the community using the network," Jones says. His solution was to build a "shadow" dotcom site—a duplicate of the .mil site that mirrors the content and also doubled the cost of the multimillion dollar project.

Since its debut in May 2001, the Navy e-learning site is averaging 7,500 new users each month. More than 100,000 have registered for the 1,400 courses, which are free to eligible users.

The next step is to connect the e-learning system to a content management system (CMS) to help sailors throughout their careers. The Navy is essentially creating multitasking sailors—a project that will help cut required staff levels on Naval vessels. "The goals are to train the individual and train them in several skills, instead of pipelining them into one skill and saying, You’re going to be a mess cook all your life," Jones explains. "This CMS will help them and Navy career counselors figure out what are the skills you need to get the job you want."

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