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how PricewaterhouseCoopers beat the odds and landed the big one

By Lisa Currin / June 2001

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When Louis Caldera, secretary of the Army, announced in July 2000 that $600 million would be spent over the next six years on a distance-learning initiative to bring a college education to any soldier who wanted one, every e-learning vendor in the U.S. sat up and took notice.

The linchpin of the Army's program would be an "integrator," a company or consortium that would act as coordinator, administrator, and overseer, bringing together a widely diverse group of colleges, universities, and technology providers into a seamless online system of course offerings and degree programs. Competition to be that coordinating vendor was fierce, the potential benefits enormous. Other than the substantial financial rewards, this was an opportunity to be the shining star in the creation of the world's largest education portal.

But the challenge was as daunting as the rewards were great. The Army wanted the program up and running in six short months—by January 2001.

"Time has been our biggest challenge," says Dian Stoskopf, director of the Army's continuing education system. "We were dealing with totally unrealistic time frames as to when things had to be implemented. It normally would have taken us a year to work through the contract process, and we did it in four months. We've met each milestone."

Potential vendors debated whether it was even possible to meet the Army's launch date. They formed coalitions, held meetings, dissected and analyzed the Army's RFP. Those that deemed it feasible laid out their proposals.

In December, the Army surprised many in the e-learning community with the announcement that PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) had been awarded the contract to develop and operate the Army University Access Online Program. PWC has a stellar reputation as a professional services provider, but was largely unproven in the distance-learning field.

What PWC Brought to the Table

"Their proposal came in with the right elements," says Stoskopf. "They had gone out and partnered with best-in-class providers to help us provide these services to our soldiers." In feedback provided to PWC by the Army, the company was commended for accurately capturing and articulating the Army's vision for its distance-learning program.

"Because of our sheer size and the resources at our disposal, we were able to weave an assembly of partners together into one integrated solution," says PWC's Barbara Lombardo, deputy program manager for student services with the Army program. "Another factor in our favor is that we have a very strong reputation in higher education. Our firm has served higher education for over a century, and we have a strong foothold in consulting to colleges and universities."

The solution created by PWC is completely "soldier-centric," and designed for ease of use, even by those with no computing background. The portal site, which is rolling out in stages, is the centerpiece of the program. "No matter which school you're dealing with, the look and feel of the portal is consistent," says Stoskopf. Students can seek information on enrollment qualifications or participating schools, and access their coursework—all without leaving

Since users aren't passed through to other portals, there's little danger of getting hopelessly lost on the Web. "We designed the portal so the soldier is able to access everything he needs to be successful in the program on that portal, without passing him through to other Web sites," says Lombardo. "That really differentiated us from the competitors." In designing the portal, PWC brought together a consortium of vendors ranging from PeopleSoft, which is providing the student administration system, to SmartThinking, which provides students with online tutoring.

Another factor that Lombardo believes was key to PWC's winning the contract was the development of the Council on Academic Management. "We created this council, comprised of real leaders around the nation in e-learning, to act as an advisory group," she says. "We have them involved in establishing quality standards for courses, and in making determinations as to how and who we add as education partners. We look to that advisory body to provide us with the academic dimensions of the program."

What the Soldier-Students Get

Each soldier approved to enroll is issued a laptop computer, printer, and carrying case—all free of charge. Soldiers are also provided with Internet access, a training session to learn how to use the equipment, and an onsite staff to provide technical assistance seven days a week.

At the moment, soldiers can choose from 61 degree programs and 800 courses offered by 20 schools. By June, PWC anticipates adding 10 schools and bringing the total number of available courses to 2,000. Stoskopf says she'd like to see more second- and third-tier colleges participate, which would give soldiers an even wider choice of courses. Lombardo says she has a list of 200 schools that have expressed an interest in participating.

How It's Going So Far

By all accounts, the Army University Access Online Program is wildly successful. Offered initially at just three Army bases—Fort Benning, Georgia; Fort Campbell, Kentucky; and Fort Hood, Texas—demand is far exceeding the number of available slots. Soldiers began lining up at midnight the night before enrollment began, just to be assured a place in the first class. As of March 30, nearly 4,500 soldiers had signed participation agreements.

"We had always planned to do a phased approach because we knew we couldn't handle a large load all at once," explains Stoskopf. "We met and exceeded the three-month student goal for the program in the first month."

In the first semester, 66.5 percent of enrollees signed on for an associate degree program, 30.6 percent for a bachelor's, and 2.8 percent for a master's. The program also lets soldiers sign up for certificate programs to gain proficiency in various technical skills. "What's interesting," comments Stoskopf, "is that 70 percent of the soldiers enrolling at Fort Hood are new students. We're attracting people who were previously not interested in education, for whatever reason."

Stoskopf says the program also seems to be having a positive effect on re-enlistments. To participate, a soldier must have three years of active service left to perform. To date, 364 soldiers have re-enlisted so as to be eligible.

Where It Goes From Here

The Army expects to enroll 15,000 soldiers in the program by year-end, and to have 80,000 participating by 2005. Ultimately, the plan is to offer the distance-learning option to soldiers' immediate families, but no time frame has been set for that objective. The Web portal will be fully operational by June 2001, when it will be integrated with legacy army systems to track a soldier's complete academic progress.

The program will roll out to eight more posts in the next fiscal year, and will eventually be available to soldiers around the world. Army Online is also drawing attention from the other services. "The other services are pretty jealous of what the Army has been able to create," comments Stoskopf, noting that the Navy recently sent out an RFP to create its own distance-learning program. PWC has a one-year contract with options for four additional years.


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