The Army Marches Into Online Learning

The Army Marches Into Online Learning
Initiative seeks participation of minority-serving institutionsWashington
T he forces steering higher education’s shift towards online and distance learning have mostly favored the wealthiest and most prestigious institutions over the not-so-wealthy and less celebrated schools. Nevertheless, an ambitious initiative by the U.S. Army may help spur the inclusion of minority-serving institutions and community colleges into the mainstream of higher education’s growing distance learning sector.
The U.S. Army launched this month the pilot phase of what is the single largest distance learning program established by a U.S. government, non-profit or corporate entity. In December, the Army awarded professional services/management consulting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers a five-year, $453 million contract to establish and operate the Army University Access Online Program. PricewaterhouseCoopers won the contract as the coordinator of a team of 29 higher education institutions.
“This strategic alliance with PricewaterhouseCoopers and its unique team opens a new doorway to personal growth; allowing America’s soldiers to earn post-secondary degrees or technical certifications online anytime, anywhere, anyplace, while they serve,” says Louis Caldera, secretary of the U.S. Army. “This cutting-edge cyberspace program will provide unprecedented educational opportunities for our soldiers.” 
The Army views the online initiative as a means to boost its recruitment efforts. In 1999, the Army’s sought to sign up 74,000 recruits. Efforts fell short by about 6,300, or 8.5 percent.educating soldiers
“With this program, we’re telling them they don’t have to choose between a college education and serving their country,” Caldera told The Industry Standard magazine.
While distance education experts and advocates have hailed the Army’s push into online learning as a momentous endorsement of higher education’s investment in distance learning, there’s been growing concern that minority-serving institutions and schools serving rural and less affluent populations could miss out on becoming viable players in distance learning.
Higher education officials believe a “digital divide” exists between affluent institutions and less wealthy schools. A number of historically Black institutions fall into the category of schools that are struggling to develop and maintain an advanced information technology infrastructure. According to a HBCU Technology Assessment Study released by the U.S. Commerce Department last year, less than 25 percent of students at HBCUs bring their own computers to school, while nearly 50 percent of their counterparts at other colleges and universities own computers. In addition, 30 percent of all colleges recommend computer ownership by their students, while only 15 percent of HBCUs do.
“When we look at the new assessment of networking and connectivity among HBCUs — a report authored by NAFEO and underwritten by the Department of Commerce — we have both encouraging and ominous news . . . the digital divide that characterizes the country characterizes college campuses, too,” according to Robert L. Mallett, deputy secretary of the U.S. Commerce Department.       
Recognizing that minorities are disproportionately represented in the Army among total personnel, the initiative has actively sought the participation of minority-serving institutions. Among the 29 colleges and universities included on the PricewaterhouseCoopers team are historically Black North Carolina A&T State University and two  Hispanic-serving institutions. Seven community
colleges are also on the team.
In addition to schools, the PricewatehouseCoopers team includes high tech companies: Compaq, TurboTec Computers, Fiberlink, Precision Response Corporation, Saba, PeopleSoft, Blackboard, Lesco, Intel Online Services and SMARTHINKING.com.Viability
North Carolina A&T in Greensboro is one of a few historically Black institutions that
offers fully accredited online degree programs, according to officials. Hampton University is the only other known HBCU to offer
complete online degree programs.
Dr. Marcy Johnson, director of distance learning at North Carolina A&T, says PricewaterhouseCoopers and other bidding teams sought the school’s participation largely because it had full online degree programs. It’s possible for schools that don’t have degree programs to participate in the Army program because their online courses can be taken as electives by soldiers pursuing a degree at another school, according to Johnson.  
“We have 90 online courses, which will be available to those participating in the Army program,” Johnson says, adding that North Carolina A&T offers two complete online degree programs at the moment.
Despite the fact that only one HBCU is represented on the PricewaterhouseCoopers team, the company is allowed and expected to bring in more schools as partner institutions, according to Army officials.
Initially, the program is enrolling active duty Army soldiers at three bases in the startup phase, which began Jan. 15. An estimated 12,000 to 15,000 soldiers will participate in the program in 2001. Over five years, the program is expected to enroll an estimated 80,000 Army personnel in degree and certificate academic programs. The three bases participating in the distance learning start-up phase are Fort Benning, Ga.; Fort Campbell, Ky.; and Fort Hood, Texas.     
Soldier-students who enroll in the program will be issued laptop computers and provided Internet access at no cost. In addition, the technology package consists of a printer and access to a technology service help desk. That laptop and printer become the soldier’s personal property once 12 credit hours have been completed within a two-year window. Books and course tuition are free. 



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