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A Virtual Success

Center debuts tablet computers into learning process.
How did it go?
Better than you think

 

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Students in the Program on Terrorism and Security Studies get started in their studies at the Marshall Center with tablet computers supplmenting their work. (DOD Photo by Karlheinz Wedhorn/RELEASED)

By Jason Tudor
GCMC Public Affairs

GARMISCH-PARTENKIRCHEN, Germany (April 4, 2014) – More than 100 tablet computers were given to people from 70 countries last month, part of an experiment at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies here.

The idea was to see if tablet computing could solve a problem of printing too much paper, giving faster access to course materials and enabling deeper connections between participants at the joint U.S.-German Marshall Center. The experiment was conducted during the Program on Terrorism and Security Studies, the DOD’s premiere transnational course on counter terrorism taught at the center.

The inclusion of digital connections would enable more robust learning, according to the PTSS deputy director, who said using the tablets felt like business as usual to the 70 participants. The others were issued to faculty and staff members.

“It seemed the participants were not surprised at all that we would be using them for content access,” said U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Daryl DeSimone.

The issuance of tablets, IPads, was not without challenges, including technological infrastructure, staffing turnover and more. Before the tablets could be enabled, 13 wireless points had to be set-up and the devices needed to be configured to access a DOD network. Also, the network itself needed “backbone” upgrades to increase its speed.

DOD and others provided assistance in making this happen, but most of the work was done by U.S. Air Force Lt. Col Bryan Hasty’s Marshall Center information technology team. He said the upgrades were done with “no significant downtime” for the center’s network and helped PTSS students work without hindrance.

“It was a tremendous effort,” Hasty said. “There were several projects that needed to be put in place to enable the success rollout of a mobile device program.”

John Mann took the technical lead on configuring the tablets in the summer of 2013, though some of the preparation had been done by others prior who had left the staff. Mann said there were 52 security items that had to be in place before the tablets could be deemed DOD compliant. There were also a number of applications added to read news, store data and more.

“I'm extremely happy this initial deployment was a success. There was a lot of work done and time spent by many people from multiple departments to make this deployment finally happen,” Mann said.

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Participants from Mexico and Nigeria check out PTSS course material online. Without the iPads, the alternative would have been thousands of sheets of paper kept in clumsy binders created at a substantial cost. (DOD Photo by Karlheinz Wedhorn/RELEASED)

Once all the pieces were in place, participants were able to access the network through one of the protected WiFi points and access course materials from the center’s alumni web portal “GlobalNet.” Eliminating the time spent making 10,000 copies, plus the saved paper, preparing binders, fixing jammed copiers and more makes the use of tablets more inviting, said the person who oversees much of that copying, Robert Talenti.

“The savings could amount to more than $50,000 each year,” the chief of the Marshall Center’s visual information division said.

Participants could also access the internet with the same restrictions that are in place for almost all DOD networks. Further, only Marshall Center issued tablets could access those wireless points. Commercial devices were locked out.

The center delivered course information through its internet portal, GlobalNET, which serves the Marshall Center alumni community, but has transformed itself over the past 24 months to become a content-delivery system for all resident courses and some outreach events.

"Students signed in wherever they had internet access and clicked into a closed site dedicated to their class to access course materials, Marshall Center and area information, and participate in discussions," said Dean Dwigans, whose alumni programs team did a lion's share of work to get content posted to the system "This group site and access will continue once the students return home, allowing continued networking and future professional development opportunities.

GlobalNET also serves as a professional and social platform for the five Defense Security Cooperation Agency-run regional centers, including the Marshall Center and its 10,000 alumni, and more than 10 other DOD-related organizations, such as the NATO School in Oberammergau, Germany, and the Partnership for Peace Consortium.   "Having the course material available through GlobalNET now allows participants early access from home and via the iPads, or any other device with internet access, including personal devices," Dwigans said. For PTSS, hundreds of readings or web links to readings, slides, biographies, videos, photos and other content was posted in the English and Russian language. "GlobalNET has been a perfect fit to the eCampus initiative and the use of iPads. It allows easy delivery of content on a secure site via any computer with internet access.  This means courses can have a virtual beginning and ending, which can extend the resident experience and support continued professional networking -- a key part of the Marshall Center mission.

"It provides all students a smooth and consistent user experience and transition from registration, through a resident course, and then into the alumni program.  The alumni program coordinates, maintains and supports all uses of GlobalNET to facilitate a consistent user experience, contact with the alumni, networking, sharing of information and provide professional development and resources, however, making GlobalNET work is an across the Marshall Center team effort," Dwigans added.  

The tablets also needed to be made part of the resident in-processing effort. That duty fell to Dennis Dolan and his participant affairs team. Dolan said his team created a rigorous means of accounting for each tablet issued, including waterproof labels and signed receipts. The participants also received briefings on the user agreement and how to operate the device.

“The issuance ran very smoothly,” Dolan said. “It wasn’t difficult; just time consuming and tedious. There really is no interesting way to issue equipment to that many people in a short time.”

All the tablets were returned at the end of PTSS, Dolan said, and some students who were staying on for another course continued to use them. Hasty had first-hand knowledge of seeing how the students used them during class.

“I presented [during the PTSS] and had the opportunity to sit beside a class member that was using the tablet to pull up the PDF of the slides and follow along. Well, sort of. He actually was going through the slides a bit faster than the presenter,” Hasty said. “He then opened a browser, did a search, made some hand-written notes, and when Q&A time came, had a very good question.”

DeSimone also kept an eye open during several of the seminars that took place.

“At times, when a speaker was not keeping their attention there were a small few who took the opportunity to read news or do something else,” he said. “Largely though, they did not create any real distractions any more than participant mobile phones. It turned out to mostly be a nonissue.”

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A student from Africa checks out Marshall Center Director Keith W. Dayton's bio via the Internet before a lecture begins. (DOD Photo by Karlheinz Wedhorn/RELEASED)

The experiment continues the “e-Campus” effort started at the Marshall Center in the winter of 2012 and championed by Dr. Robert Brannon, the dean of the College of International and Security Studies.

“We all need to continue working toward better use of the technology that is available to us to communicate and collaborate,” said Brannon in March 2013. “The Marshall Center should be a learning environment that encompasses all aspects of our programs and participants, encouraging students to connect and to be connected – to our courses, to us, and to each other. We should be better connected than we are today – across our region and our campus - across our courses.”

Mann, who serves in more than one role at the Marshall Center, agreed that there’s room for improvement. He said a typical school or college will issue tablets out at the beginning of the year or semester. So, there may be three deployments over the course of a year. The way the Marshall Center is structured is a bit different in that it has many short-term classes along with a year-long master’s class as well.

“The most important thing I learned from this experience is how time consuming deploying and managing 100+ devices can be. If we as an organization move forward with tablets being issued to most classes along with staff, it will be essential to have either a team of people involved or to have a dedicated mobile systems administrator. Otherwise the program simply will not be sustainable from a technical/production standpoint,” Mann said.

Hasty said the PTSS tablet experiment was a good first effort, and that more will follow.

“This is the first baby step towards a huge step forward to a potentially more active learning environment. As our capabilities improve and those are incorporated into the learning model, we should be able to achieve one of our goals of continually adding to our networks of security professionals.”