NPS classroom technology really taking off

GC VILLAGE — Back when the National Park Service’s Jim Boyd began working at Grand Canyon National Park in the spring of 1988, he made 20-minute training videos with essentially no equipment.

Jim Boyd hopes to have a program per week by the end of next year.

Beginning his 14th year, Boyd now heads up a program in which students in one corner of the country can learn from an instructor thousands of miles away.

"We’ve been planning this for six years," said Boyd, who is the distance learning coordinator for training and development. "We were close to three years in and we had no money. Just since last October have we found out we did have the money and the proposal was approved."

Boyd’s referring to a state-of-the-art learning environment which he hopes will eventually link 90 percent of the National Park Service employees together.

"We received $750,000 for TEL stations," Boyd said. "The TEL hardware is what’s needed for distance learning. We installed six in December and in February, we began the process of installing 24 more. One of my goals is to reach 90 percent of our employees."

TEL, which stands for Technology Enhanced Learning stations, are paid for through a partnership program. The larger national parks pay for about 75 percent of the cost while the smaller parks may pay as little as 15 percent. Boyd said he’s about "50-50 on my money" with the parks that have participated so far.

Boyd, who received the Department of the Interior’s Meritorious Service Award earlier this year for his work at Albright Training Center, said that in 1994, the NPS "tore itself apart and put itself back together again" in terms of its training methods at the national level.

"Out of that, came a training and development strategy ... to start using technology to train employees," Boyd said. "We were trying to reach employees who were not traditionally served, such as lower-level employees. We never did it before, but see some real advantages along those lines."

In the past, employees had to physically travel to Albright at Grand Canyon or Mather Training Center at Harper’s Ferry, W. Va. So, the NPS went into the private sector to take a look at computer and satellite-based technology. But funding was a problem.

"Then something changed. Congress allowed fee demo money to be used," Boyd said. "Up until a few years ago, it was used for park-specific problems. Congress said they could use it for administrative things. That helped pay for the hardware in the field and basically kick-started the program."

The advantages to using this type of training technology has its obvious advantages. For example, the majority of NPS employees, about 1,300, work in the Washington, D.C.., area. Three TEL stations will be installed there for those employees to access, even though a few may need to travel up to an hour to reach a station.

"By June 1, we’ll have roughly 60 sites installed," Boyd said. "With 100 sites, I can get real close to the 90 percent. We’ll probably have 140 by the time we’re done."

In the near future, NPS employees in places like Hawaii, Alaska and the Virgin Island will be able to receive training through the TEL stations.

Instructors get ready for a class in a studio somewhere in the country. The NPS does not currently have its own studio, but uses those of other agencies, such as a Fish and Wildlife studio West Virginia, a Bureau of Land Management studio in Phoenix and a Department of Energy studio in Albuquerque.

"Our goal is to have our own studio, probably in the DC area," Boyd said. "It will be a great communication tool. If the (NPS) director wants to talk to the masses, that would be possible."

The classes are live, naturally, and the instructors receive a class list ahead of time so it’s known who is online.

"Interacting is fairly easy," Boyd said. "We tell them to not hesitate to break in. It’s really been working slick. It’s just like being in the classroom."

The students dial-up using a phone bridge and use a push-and-talk microphone to communicate with the instructor. Questions asked can be responded to nearly immediately.

"We’re trying to keep our class sizes to 50-75 students, just so the student feels they’re in a smaller group," Boyd said. "The key part of this is being interactive. Students need to be able to ask questions and use the push-and-talk microphones."

Instructors can use graphics-based teaching tools, such as power-point presentations, and even use video clips. In that case, a CD is sent out ahead of time for students to access. The instructor controls what students will see at the TEL station.

Programming is being developed aimed at supervisory training. Boyd said the NPS director recently announced that all supervisors need 40 hours of classroom training per year.

"It can be tough to take 40 hours out of your year," Boyd said. "(Through this method) they can do two hours at a time."

Some courses are offered four or five times a year. By the end of 2002, Boyd hopes to have at least one program per week for NPS employees.

"We’re looking at all kinds of things to put on it," he said.

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