Last week Fed UC spoke with Major Ken Witt of the United States Army National Guard. The National Guard recently received an Innovation award from the Federal Government Distance Learning Association (FGDLA).

Major Witt spoke to Fed UC about why distance learning is critical for the Guard, and how they are utilizing collaborative technology to improve the training and readiness of Guard troops.

Thank you for speaking with Fed UC, and congratulations on your FGDLA award. Can you provide a little background about you and the National Guard for our readers?

The National Guard is the oldest component of the armed forces of this country, having celebrated its 375th anniversary last year. Currently there are over 350,000 soldiers serve in the National Guard. These troops are supported through over 3,000 armories located across the United States and four U.S. territories.

My role over the past three years has been to manage and maintain “GuardNet” and implement new technology to modernize the network and improve service for voice, video and data systems. This network provides the connectivity and capabilities for the Distant Learning Classroom across the Army National Guard.

What events and trends led you to implement distance learning?

Due to the distributed nature of the Guard, our biggest issue is geographic dispersion. It’s vital for us to have effective and reliable ways to provide training.

The Guard constantly operates in all 50 states and four territories, with troops rotating on and off their 1 weekend/mo and two weeks a year commitments. On any given date, we have thousands of troops receiving instruction to stay current.

The requirement to maintain readiness at all times has naturally led to increased training needs. Every member of the Guard needs to complete all the training required by the U.S. Army. To provide the instruction to maintain readiness, we operate roughly 350 classrooms throughout the country. Many are located near major metro areas, but there are also more remote locations as needed.

An example of how we tailor to the needs of our soldiers is Hawaii. We don’t want to require air travel unless truly necessary, so we have interactive classrooms through out the State.

What tools and technologies support your distance learning strategies?

Our primary tool is GuardNet, which supports all the IT requirements for the Army National Guard and the Joint Force Headquarter.

We use GuardNet for learning applications, community outreach initiatives, administrative purposes and for facilitating the guard’s interaction with the U.S. Department of Defense.

GuardNet supports advanced, IP-based applications for distance learning. For example, an instructor can be physically located in Little Rock, Arkansas and train soldiers via VTC at other locations. The GuardNet backbone also supports SharePoint, VOIP, email and other applications.

We’ve recently implemented mobile classrooms in the past year, offering the same capabilities that can be moved to meet the training needs. This service is provided by large trucks that can deploy into a location and provide wireless connectivity to reduce set up time.

What new initiatives are you planning for distance learning and collaboration over the next 24-36 months?

Our focus over the next two to three years will be implementing new technology that consolidates distributed hardware platforms but at the same time provides the same or better services. The new technology should cost less to maintain and manage. We also plan to put in place more remote instruction without a physical instructor. Collaboration will be improved by more broad based distribution of course material.  An example of this is Guard University which offers online courses that are self taught and eliminates the need for instructors.

The end user experience and accessibility needs to continually improve for our soldiers, and it will.