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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.

About the Author

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.

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