An Army of Distance Learners
One of the largest collaborative distance learning activities operating right
now is the eArmy University. It began enrolling students two years ago and they
now have had over 50,000 enrollments. A group of colleges and universities each
offer their own individual degree or certificate programs but many of the student
support services are offered through a portal created and managed by a team
within IBM Corp. The eArmy U management team used to be a part of PwC Consulting,
but with the late unpleasantness involving accounting firms and their consulting
activities, IBM was able to purchase them.
I serve on an advisory group for the eArmy U and have had the opportunity to
watch the progress of the organization as it grows. The students are soldiers
who may be almost anywhere in the world signing on to their class. This has
posed some interesting challenges. To serve these diverse and scattered students,
the eArmy management team has borrowed a concept from business known as Customer
Relationship Management or CRM. The eArmy U's CRM system/database is available
to all those who serve students. If a student has a technical problem and contacts
the Help Desk, the person there records the nature of the problem and the steps
taken to reach a solution in the CRM database.
He or she also can see whether the student is "on pace" in current
courses or in the program in general. If the student is not on pace, the Help
Desk person can suggest an intervention. If the student needs tutoring, he or
she is referred to Smarthinking, an online tutoring company. If the student
needs to find an appropriate course in which to enroll, he or she is put in
touch with an advisor. On the other hand, if an advisor discovers a student
is having technical problems, the student can be connected to the Help Desk.
All these interactions are tracked and the next person with whom the student
is in contact d'es not have to ask the student to tell his or her story again.
Since implementing this CRM system, the IBM team reports the speed of problem
resolution has increased dramatically.
Retention is a problem that all institutions face that seems more difficult
to manage in online courses and programs. This was true for the eArmy University
as well. The soldiers who choose to participate in the eArmy U agree to complete
12 semester hours each year. It is not hard for a student to fall behind in
trying to reach that goal. To help students stay on track, the management team
launched Operation Eagle. The Eagle Team members became mentors for students
who are not on pace to meet their 12-hour credit goal. When a student is identified,
an Eagle team member contacts that student by phone or by e-mail. Through this
simple intervention, just under half of these at-risk students enrolled in courses
to get them back on pace.
While none of these systems are unheard of in higher education, what is unique
about eArmy U's activities is the scale and scope. The rapid scaling of the
system to support students is interesting: Enrollments in eArmy U went from
0 to 50,000 in two years. That's impressive in any educational activity. The
management team runs the support system for all eArmy U students regardless
of the institution in which they are enrolled. The accomplishments and strategies
of the management system probably have more import for a statewide system than
for most single campuses. There may be lessons here for state planners in the
current budget-cutting environment.
Sally Johnstone is founding director of the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET) and serves on advisory groups for state, national, and international organizations to help plan and evaluate eLearning projects.