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Virtual tools appeal to 'different kind of Airman'

Patrick Vincent, left, and John Ledet, contractors in the 333rd TRS from General Dynamics Information Technology, set up a “virtual machine” in Stennis Hall for access by students in locations around the world.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Kemberly Groue)

Patrick Vinson, left, and John Ledet, contractors in the 333rd TRS from General Dynamics Information Technology, set up a “virtual machine” in Stennis Hall for access by students in locations around the world. (U.S. Air Force photo by Kemberly Groue)

KEESLER AFB, MISS -- The 81st Training Group is pursuing distance learning over the Internet and virtual classroom innovations to reload the Air Force more quickly and economically. 

With cuts in training personnel and resources, technological advances are vital to mission success, according to Col. Prince Gilliard Jr., 81st TRG commander.

Colonel Gilliard, who came to Keesler from the Defense Information Systems Agency in September, is finding his previous assignment gave him valuable experience and insights that are paying off at Keesler. 

DISA is a combat support agency that plans, engineers, acquires, fields and supports global net-centric solutions for the president, vice president and Department of Defense. 

Digital immigrants "Think about where we came from -- electric typewriters to write reports, and we thought that was cool because we had correction tape," he recalled. "Today is different -- we're appealing to a different kind of Airman," Colonel Gilliard stated. "The way information was fed to us -- newspaper, television -- was very directed. Today's digital immigrants are able to get on a cell phone and grab the information or news they want." 

Using free Web tools Keesler is employing two free Web conference tools provided by DISA that offer two-way video, audio and a chat box, as well as the ability to provide visual aids to the students. The one currently in use is Net-Centric Enterprise Services E-CollabCenter. Trainers are now evaluating the second tool, the NCES Defense Connect Online, released earlier this year. 

In addition to distance learning, Keesler continues to enhance its in-residence training. One initiative, the Cyber Campus Training Network, was named an Air Force "best practice" last year. CCTN is a three-phase approach to creating a virtual training environment.

"The first phase consisted of virtualizing the 333rd  Training Squadron's server suite by using a thin client-to-virtual server combination," according to Master Sgt. Darrell Evans, instructor supervisor for the squadron's network administration training. 

Thin clients are components used in server-based and virtual computing. 

"Cost savings are immeasurable since we've effectively turned one piece of hardware into three or five or six virtual machines," Sergeant Evans commented. "Now instead of having a room cluttered with hundreds of pieces of hardware, we have a clean, user-friendly learning environment that's totally maintained and administered from a remote location by support personnel. 

"In the future, most of Keesler's training squadrons will be connected to a centralized, virtualized server core," he added.

In the second phase, other Air Education and Training Command bases are connected to the CCTN, minimizing costs and maximizing the return on investment. AETC instructors will be able to go to the students instead of the students going to the instructor. 

The final phase creates connections for all Air Force distance learning requirements. This phase gives the operational Air Force the ability to provide "just in time" training and skill awarding and certification from a student's home station by using a local desktop connection and a Web browser. 

The approach for this phase is led by the Air Force Communication Agency and supported by the Combat Information Transport System's program management office. The new training technologies assure continuation of the training mission in spite of unforeseen disruptions and make the most of every training dollar. Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 provided a strong impetus for finding ways to keep the training mission rolling in spite of natural disasters and other roadblocks. 

"Immediately after Katrina, Keesler had great difficulty accommodating TDY students in the numbers we had in the past," Colonel Gilliard pointed out. "That pushed us to explore distance learning over the Internet." 

Besides a solid contingency plan for training, Keesler's training team has noted other benefits from employing the new technologies. 

"Now we can teach classes over the Web from anywhere to any location around the world with an Internet connection," explained Capt. Randall Noel, instructor supervisor for basic communications officer training in the 333rd TRS. "Our students routinely attend from U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Pacific Air Forces locations. 

"We're also more flexible," Captain Noel continued. "Multiple students receive just-in-time training before short notice deployments without going TDY. Two students attended from hotel rooms while on leave, and five overseas students were added to the class roster the day training began. We were even able to push training to an Airman in Afghanistan, despite rocket attacks at his location." 

Computer-savvy students Captain Noel said today's computer-savvy Airmen are very comfortable in the online environment. 

"Our students have no problem with the virtual classroom, and they don't need a camera and microphone to participate in the class," he said. "The younger students have grown up using instant messaging and chat and have taken online courses in their civilian education. They're very efficient at interacting with the instructor and each other using the chat and messaging features." 

Cost is another reason for pursuing distance learning programs. In fiscal 2007, Keesler saved an estimated $380,000 by employing the new technologies. 

"You're going to spend $1,500 to $2,000 per student to bring them here for a one-week course," according to Capt. Keith Melancon, 81st TRG executive officer, who previously worked virtual classroom issues in the 333rd TRS. "Class sizes run from 12 to 16 students, so you're looking at $20,000 to $30,000 savings just by not making people travel. Your overhead doesn't increase, either."