According to Dian Stoskopf, director of the U.S. Army's Continuing Education System office, as of March 14, 2002, 15,834 soldier-students have signed agreements to participate in eArmyU, the largest military education initiative since the GI Bill (personal communication, March 14, 2002).
eArmyU, which is officially called Army University Access Online (AUAO), first started offering online asynchronous courses in January 2001; it is now nearing the middle of its second year of operation. Stoskopf added that funding has been allocated to accept another 17,166 students by October 1, 2002, for an estimated grand total of 33,000 students to be enrolled in fully online higher education degree and certificate programs through the Army's mass-online education operation (personal communication, March 11, 2002). By the end of 2005, the eArmyU program anticipates enrolling 80,000 students.
In its scope and rapid growth, this initiative marks a vital moment in the history of higher education in the US. While the resources behind eArmyU make it unique within the field of distance education, and while the program still remains in its early stages, it represents a significant test case for how broadly networked distance learning programs might be implemented on a mass scale. The future success of eArmyU promises to accelerate the adoption of distance learning technologies in educational institutions, and to encourage further networks among diverse organizations. In this article, I offer an overview of the services, partnerships, and infrastructure that make up this program, as well as an account of the major challenges that it must meet in fulfilling its mission.
eArmyU is facing this endeavor by placing its trust in the overall management services provided by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), the "integrator" who won the $453 million five-year contract in December 2000 to keep the Army on the right track. As part of its commitment to eArmyU, PwC has provided comprehensive information online to both prospective students and prospective academic providers. This information is available through the eArmyU portal site, which encompasses its 23 schools and 90 educational programs (to date), and offers guidelines for how institutions can apply and possibly become eArmyU academic providers.
In building the eArmyU portal, "we didn't want just a doorway to a bunch of schools," said Susie Johnson, eArmyU program manager (personal communication, August 2001). For instance, prospective students can utilize the portal's program search function as well as download a 337-page document with detailed degree maps of every program being offered. In addition, the portal provides online access to information about the entire application and enrollment process, including step-by-step tutorials covering the typical functions performed by students when they apply. Once students are registered, they get a user ID and password that gives them access to their classes and additional student services, such as online tutoring assistance, access to an electronic library, software downloads, program mentoring services, and technical support from a 24/7 online help-desk.
Prospective education partners can download the annual Request for Proposal (RFP) that PwC publishes and distributes. The RFP explains in detail the requirements for becoming an eArmyU member institution. Instructions on how to complete the RFP are also provided.
More important, however, is what happens when a student actually decides to enroll. When a prospective student walks into any of the Education Service Offices (ESO) located on an eArmyU-eligible base (currently there are five), he or she is first counseled and tested by Army personnel to ensure that the student chooses the online program that best suits his or her personal needs, not the Army's needs.
During eArmyU's first year, students were also assigned to PwC program mentors who were physically stationed at the educational centers. These mentors helped to orient students to the online learning format. They also provided technical help on how to use the "tech pack," which consists of a fully loaded Hewlett Packard XE-3 laptop and a portable printer, all pre-loaded with the appropriate software they needed to take their online classes.
These face-to-face mentoring services have been replaced by virtual mentoring services, whereby PwC program mentors now advise students via e-mail or telephone. Previously, students physically picked up their tech packs at the educational centers. Starting in March 2002, tech packs were delivered directly to students at their residences. Laptops are now loaded with a tutorial introducing them to online learning and instructions on how to properly use their hardware and software.
It remains to be seen how this new virtual element will affect student success rates and/or possible frustration levels in adapting to their new online learning environment. Nonetheless, to ensure their initiative, students must sign a contract in which they promise to complete 12 semester hours in two years, or pay eArmyU back out of their paychecks. Throughout their educational "tour of duty," students are fully supported by additional tutorials, 24/7 technical and general support, and career guidance services provided by PwC and its partners.
Beyond the simple logic of supplying a working portal and ample student services, eArmyU has relied on a range of PwC service partners to ensure program scalability, help develop a seamless interface between varied course management systems, and provide a range of specialized services for program participants.
For example, to PwC's and the Army's benefit, there's the Council on Academic Management (CAM), which is the Sloan Foundation-sponsored team of people in the online higher education community nationwide who are advising eArmyU. Lead by Frank Mayadas, program director of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's Asynchronous Learning Network, CAM has formed a number of committees to advise PwC and the Army on such issues as academic quality, program scalability and standardization, and tuition pricing. "A lot of our thrust is to select best practices and share what's going on (from Sloan Consortium institutions) so everyone comes up to speed rather than have to rediscover what services are working best and what pedagogical approach is working best," said Mayadas (Lorenzo, 2002, ?Ç¬? 52).
The other eArmyU partners and service providers, in addition to CAM, are what eArmyU calls "learning technology partners": Blackboard, Saba, and PeopleSoft. As presented on the eArmy portal, Blackboard and Saba support the implementation of online learning tools and the learning platform and management system. PeopleSoft helps with the management of education support services.
Fiberlink is the ISP (Internet Service Provider). As stated in a U.S. Army Public Affairs Office press release (January 25, 2002), solider/students are currently accessing their classes from Australia, Honduras, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Belgium, Japan, Egypt, the United Kingdom, Kuwait, Singapore, Germany, Korea, Macedonia, Italy, and Jordan.
Other partners include Precision Response Corporation for 24/7 student help desk services; SMARTHINKING.com for online tutoring services; MBS Direct for textbooks and course materials; Michigan Virtual University for career guidance services; and GALILEO, which is the digital library provided to eArmyU students by the University System of Georgia and the Southern Regional Education Board. Intel Online Services provides management support for online applications to ensure timely, scalable growth, whereas LESCO provides a variety of services?¢‚Ç¨‚Äùranging from on-site technical assistance to administrative support and mentoring services.
Regarding scalability, some academics may be skeptical about eArmyU's ability to ramp up to large numbers so quickly and still provide suitable education and student services. The PwC response is that there is a "carefully managed rollout plan" in effect that "is driven ultimately by Army funding," said Barbara Lombardo, PwC senior deputy program manager. She added that the important factor to remember here "is that the whole portal and program are designed for scalability; it was a key design feature . . . we will grow programs to scale up in conjunction with the growth of soldier/students engaged in the program" (Lorenzo, 2002, ?Ç¬? 62).
Currently, according to Lombardo, the number of empty available seats for new students exceeds the demand (personal communication, March 11, 2002), so any serious questions about the program's ability to effectively handle increased enrollments have not surfaced.
As the program ramps up to an estimated 33,000 students by October 2002, new challenges will arise, especially in the area of providing effective student orientation services to students unfamiliar with online learning. The eArmyU institutions themselves, however, should have strong student orientation services already in place that can be easily utilized by eArmyU students.
Integrating Varied CMS Functions
Some of the new criteria in the 2002 RFP deals with course management system (CMS) functionality requirements that academic providers must have. Some distance education providers utilize more than one CMS vendor, plus their own home-grown varieties, which can be problematic for students. Those enrolled in multiple courses under multiple course management platforms obviously have a more complicated learning curve than a student required to use only one CMS. To help alleviate a courseware Tower-of-Babel effect, eArmyU wants all course management systems being used by their academic providers to have similar functions.
"We're looking for some very specific functions that are embedded within these systems," said Lombardo. Some examples of these functions include "the ability to download documents, the ability for instructors to create and update assignments, the ability for instructors to create quizzes and surveys?¢‚Ç¨‚Äùthe kind of functionality that one would expect in a course management system that is user friendly" (personal communication, August 2001).
The use of multiple course management systems also forces students to have multiple sign-ons to get to their online classes, meaning too many user IDs and passwords. To eliminate this problem, "PwC is developing APIs (application program interfaces) that will actually do the handshake between the portal and the classroom, so that the solider will have a single sign-on," said Johnson (Lorenzo, 2002, ?Ç¬? 69).
The Tuition Dilemma
One key issue that is attracting significant interest revolves around tuition pricing as it relates to adding new academic providers to eArmyU. The Army has individual tuition-payment agreements with eArmyU academic providers; tuition costs vary from institution to institution. When it comes to the decision-making process for accepting academic providers into eArmyU, the official stance from the Army and PwC is that schools are not precluded from getting accepted into eArmyU based solely on what may be perceived as relatively high tuition rates (Lorenzo, 2002, ?Ç¬? 55).
However, I talked with one high-level distance education administrator (who wished to remain anonymous about this particular issue) from an institution with a relatively large and successful distance education program that applied for acceptance into eArmyU in 2001 and was not accepted. The administrator explained to me that PwC stated, in no uncertain terms, that this particular institution's tuition cost was considered too high in relation to other institutions already in the program. Another anonymous administrator?¢‚Ç¨‚Äùfrom a private institution with a large and successful distance education program with relatively high tuition rates?¢‚Ç¨‚Äùexplained to me that they felt apprehensive about investing their time in the application process this year, but did so regardless of what they perceived as very low chances of being accepted into eArmyU.
Arnone (2002) notes that PwC has indicated that eArmyU academic providers should have tuition rates in the range of $153 per credit hour for undergraduate courses and $300 per credit hour for graduate courses. Arnone also mentions that a number of private institutions currently in the eArmyU program have voiced concerns that their relatively higher tuition costs have resulted in low enrollments. This logic stems from the fact that each solider is allotted $3,500 annually to cover the cost of their education and thus has to be tuition cost-conscious when applying for admittance into any particular institution.
On the surface it seems that tuition pricing is a complicated issue that has yet to be fully resolved, as questions arise among prospective and current academic providers as to whether or not eArmyU has established a balance between cost-effectiveness and academic quality. Perhaps when the next batch of new eArmyU academic providers is announced, which Stoskopf estimates to be sometime in May (personal communication, March 11, 2002), we will see if the selection process shows any particular bias toward schools offering the lowest tuition pricing.
As eArmyU strives to meet the inherent challenges of providing effective student services, smoothly scaling up to meet demand, building a seamless online learning infrastructure, and ensuring that fairness is the rule when selecting new academic providers, another extremely important question comes into play. How can eArmyU's success, in terms of student learning outcomes, be measured in an enterprise of this scope? For instance, can assessment and evaluation be measured through a comprehensive system of criteria that are employed across different courses in a particular field of study? The answer to such questions related to eArmyU learning outcomes remain to be examined over the long term.
In the meantime, as the program moves forward, the bottom line is that eArmyU is bringing technology-enriched distance education to a new mass audience of 21st century learners.
EArmyU is a natural promotion and catalyst for the overall expansion of online teaching and learning into the future. Its success holds a promise of continually developing key collaborations between institutions that may have otherwise never joined together. It also holds the possibility of educating tens of thousands of students who will return to civilian life with an eye toward furthering their education, as well as their children's, via distance learning. These factors alone give eArmyU unprecedented significance in the history of higher education.
Arnone, M. (2002, February 8). Army's huge distance-education effort wins many supporters in its first year. Chronicle of Higher Education, 22, A33. Retrieved March 28, 2002, from http://chronicle.com/weekly/v48/i22/22a03301.htm [Editor's note: Electronic access to this source is limited to subscribers only.]
Lorenzo, G. (2002, January). eArmyU: A work in progress for managing large-scale online education. Educational Pathways. Retrieved March 28, 2002, from http://www.edpath.com/earmyu.htm
U.S. Army Public Affairs Office. (2002, January 25). eArmyU meets first-year goals and expands in 2002. Washington, DC: U.S. Army Public Affairs Office. Retrieved March 28, 2002, from http://www.dtic.mil/armylink/news/Jan2002/r20020125r-02-003.htmlcard gamespc gamesaction gamesbrain teaser gameshidden object gamespc game downloadssimulation gamesshooter gamesbest pc games