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Army's learning cloud means accessible class materials

Apr. 18, 2013 - 08:55AM   |  
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Army learning institutions are making course materials that were once hidden behind online firewalls more accessible, on students' mobile devices and in their homes.


Army learning institutions are making course materials that were once hidden behind online firewalls more accessible, on students' mobile devices and in their homes.

A one-year Army pilot program is aimed at helping students learn by unshackling course materials from the service's increasingly tougher cybersecurity measures — which are fine for operational computer networks but perhaps overkill for Army schools, say officials close to the effort.

The Command and General Staff College, based at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., is the first to implement a cloud computing solution that takes nonsensitive course materials from a dot-mil environment to a dot-com cloud. The cloud is managed by the Washington, D.C.-based Blackboard Inc., which furnishes similar learning management services to academic institutions around the globe.

“You're seeing more students bringing their own mobile devices to class, and they are used to accessing their class materials wherever they're at, whether it's a soccer game, the library or waiting for the bus,” said Lt. Col. Ben Ring, who leads the program at CGSC. “But when students came here, we were restricting them.”

The Army Distributed Learning Program is considering plans to place nonsensitive educational material for noncommissioned officers in a dot-com environment. It may also duplicate the CGSC effort at other institutions, like the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., and the Army Sergeants Major Academy at Fort Bliss, Texas, said Helen Remily, the ADLP capability manager.

“The bottom line is the Army's training and education is no longer episodic at brick and mortar institutions. It's a continuum of learning that occurs throughout an individual's Army career, leveraging distributed learning technology,” Remily said.

At CGSC, students and faculty can now access course materials using a Blackboard user name and password combination. It's the right amount of security, Ring said, because the materials are considered public domain, but the school wants to limit access to students to preserve academic and copyright integrity.

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“It's a fine balance: You want to make your data secure but you also want to make it accessible,” Ring said. “Do you need a Fort Knox-like prison to guard a day care center?”

The school does not use the private cloud to manage content for courses containing sensitive or classified materials, Ring said. Those materials are segregated and secured within another information system that requires a Common Access Card to access.

Feedback has been good, Ring said, from among the 300 students at CGSC who are taking advantage of the pilot program, as well as some distance-learning students and students taking the school's prerequisite course.

The Army generally does not permit the use of mobile devices, which are deemed unsecure, to access its networks, but there has been an exception at the college. Still, course materials were not formatted to display properly on mobile devices and there were other technical complications.

By contrast, Blackboard offers an app for mobile devices which is much easier to use, Ring said. The app is available at the Google Play and iTunes stores.

Before the pilot program, students and faculty at the college accessed course materials through Blackboard that were located on Army servers at the school. Users first had to log into the Army's intranet, Army Knowledge Online, which authenticated their identities.

One problem was that when AKO or any of the Army's remotely-located cybersecurity systems would go down, students would lose access to course materials. To most working soldiers, Saturday might be the ideal day to take the network offline for maintenance, but not for students who study at all hours.

Worse, students were getting abruptly booted from the network when it went down, losing access to materials in the middle of a test or for an entire day.

“For students, it's a 24/7 mission, someone's always taking a test or watching a video, so someone's always affected,” Ring said. “We have this documented and it led us to ask whether there other better ways of doing this than the current way.”

The switch dovetails with the release of the Defense Department cloud computing strategy, Ring said. Once the Army sends its schools' data from Army servers to Blackboard's privately managed cloud, Army personnel will no longer be responsible for the technical oversight.

So far, CGSC has sent its first officer course satellite site to the Blackboard-managed hosting data center and as of early April, the school was in the process of migrating the Advanced Operations Course blended learning program as well.

The school is set to transfer all its officer courses taught in resident- and distance-learning, including the warrant officer and School of Advanced Military Studies courses.

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