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Videoconferencing centers simplify IT training, cut VA expenses

Apr. 6, 2010 - 06:00AM   |  
By REBECCA NEAL   |   Comments
VA's new training system, the National IT Training Academy, went live in February with a national center in West Virginia and four regional centers in Texas, Colorado, Florida and Washington, D.C. ()

Terri Cinnamon used to spend all summer traveling across the U.S. to train the Veterans Affairs Department's 400 information security officers. With a new nationwide videoconferencing network, Cinnamon recently trained the same number of employees in just two weeks.

VA's new training system, the National IT Training Academy, went live in February with a national center in West Virginia and four regional centers in Arlington, Texas, near Dallas; Denver; Orlando, Fla.; and Washington, D.C. The structure allows employees to travel more often to centers closest to their homes for remote training and makes managing training easier for VA's administrators.

"I used to be gone all summer. My kids are loving having me at home instead of traveling," said Cinnamon, director of the academy and of VA's information technology workforce development. Most of her work is now confined to Washington and the West Virginia center.

Cinnamon trained the 400 information security officers in two three-day sessions she led from the national center in Falling Waters, W.Va., about nine miles north of Martinsburg, W.Va., on the Maryland border. Employees gathered in the three regional centers and in Washington to participate in the seminars.

The videoconferencing technology allows participants to see and interact with each other. Speakers can show slides and video to supplement their presentations. The main center has three 30-seat classrooms, while the regional locations can each seat about 30.

The $1.5 million Falling Waters center will save VA money quickly, Cinnamon said. VA plans to train many of its 7,000 information technology employees through it and the other centers this year. If all of those people had to fly to Washington and stay in hotels during training, VA would spend $3 million in travel alone, she said. The regional centers are in major airline hub cities, making it cheaper and easier for feds to travel. Hotels are also cheaper in cities such as Orlando or Denver than in Washington, she said.

Washington-area employees can train in the D.C. location or make the 1-hour drive to Falling Waters. Instructors from Washington also have a pleasant, economical day trip to Falling Waters, the main teaching center.

"It's far enough that they can leave that D.C. stuff behind," she said.

Trainers will use the system to teach application development, cybersecurity and chief information officer leadership training, she said. They can also run multiple operating systems, such as Windows and Linux, on a single computer.

"There's such a need to make sure our IT folks are well-trained so we can deliver services to our customers," Cinnamon said.

VA plans to open additional training centers in Albany, N.Y.; Salt Lake City; and Vancouver, Wash., by Sept. 30.

The centers provide trainers with more flexibility than they'd get from Webinars, as the centers offer IT professionals a range of software, operating systems and applications to test out hands-on training that wouldn't be available through Webinars.

VA's experiment is a good model for the rest of the government to follow, said John Sepulveda, assistant secretary for human resources and administration.

"When you consider the VA is the second-largest department, we need to be able to reach as many people as possible, and technology is at the heart of the ability to reach every one of them," Sepulveda said.

Cinnamon said she's had several agency leaders ask her about implementing similar systems, and it's likely other agencies already have the pieces needed to establish their own national training networks.

"A lot of agencies already do have videoconferencing. They just need to integrate what they already have," she said.

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