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Technical mission

W&J training will keep National Guardsmen wired around the world

Sunday, July 27, 2003

By Joe Smydo, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

These students, accustomed to reveille, won't complain about an 8 a.m. class.

Washington and Jefferson College has a Defense Department contract to provide information technology training to the National Guard, the hybrid state/federal forces that respond to crises at home and overseas.

The day is coming when guardsmen in the world's hot spots will consult Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), electronic maps or other computer tools with training orchestrated by W&J.

From the new Vilar Technology Center, W&J will provide remote instruction to Guard leaders, information technology officers, civilian employees and GI Joes, perhaps as far away as Kosovo. It's an unusual alliance between one of the nation's oldest liberal arts colleges, accustomed to grooming doctors and lawyers, and a military trying to be ever more ready and mobile.

Charles Hannon, chairman of W&J's information technology leadership department, was hired two years ago to design a program for the regular student body integrating computer technology into the school's traditional curriculum.

The college didn't want a standard computer science program providing little context for computer know-how. Rather, W&J said it wanted students to understand how technology shapes the natural sciences, fine arts and other disciplines and to learn how to use technology to solve problems in a variety of fields.

"We don't want the technology to overwhelm us. We want to be the ones who feel empowered and responsible for the things happening to us," said James S. Dlugos Jr., the college's vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty.

That's why W&J named the department information technology leadership. Students studying art may avail themselves of the information technology department's "new media" courses, while those planning careers as scientists may take Hannon's "data-mining" courses.

Now Hannon is developing mini-courses that will help guardsmen see how technology may be put to work for them. Topics include geographic Information Systems, basic operating systems, mobile computing and information security safeguards such as firewalls and encryption.

In some cases, Hannon said, Guard leaders don't understand the computer resources at their disposal. In other cases, he said, officers who have been promoted need additional training for their new jobs. Hannon said the Guard, made up of Army and Air units, needs to better coordinate information technology training across the 50 states, Washington, D.C., and three territories.

Lt. Col. Chris Cleaver, public affairs officer for the Pennsylvania Guard, said a lack of coordination is an "Achilles' heel." He also said the Guard needs help staying on top of advancing technology.

While some face-to-face classes are possible, guardsmen won't be invading the W&J campus for training. Most instruction will be offered through the Internet or video conferencing.

Cleaver said he envisions Guard members receiving the training while deployed in far-flung places, saying there's little for the soldiers to do during down time. He also raised the possibility of guardsmen earning information technology degrees from W&J online.

"The sky's really the limit once you have everything up and running," Cleaver said.

But the training also will be convenient for guardsmen at home. Hannon said the Guard hopes to establish a network of video-conferencing sites so that a guardsman is never more than 50 miles away from one.

Hannon said he has traveled to the Guard's education center in Little Rock, Ark., to better understand the Guard's training needs. He said he will be working closely with the Guard's top technology officials in each state and territory.

Governors or the president may call out the Guard, composed of part-time solders who respond to disasters such as floods and earthquakes and have traditional military duties.

Cleaver said about 3,400 Pennsylvania guardsmen -- more than from any other state -- are deployed now to places including Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. The Pennsylvania Guard tomorrow will take over the peacekeeping mission in one sector of Kosovo, Cleaver said.

W&J and the Guard were brought together by a person with a foot in both worlds, U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Johnstown, who studied one year at W&J and played football at the school before his service with the Marines in the 1950s.

Murtha is ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee panel that oversees defense spending, and he has a reputation for sending defense contracts his district's way.

He helped W&J secure a $1 million contract to begin developing the program in 2002, and now he's pursuing an additional $1.7 million to kick the program into action. The spending bill is in the hands of a House-Senate conference committee, Murtha spokesman Brad Clemenson said.

Clemenson said Murtha, who received an honorary doctorate from W&J last year, supported the contract because of gaps in the Guard's computer training. In many cases, Clemenson said, Guard members need to learn programs to more efficiently perform administrative chores such as purchasing supplies.

"That's where technology is moving faster than the training," he said.

Hannon said the first online training for the Guard may begin in the spring.

One student has graduated from W&J with a minor in information technology leadership; no student yet has completed a major. The department will be based in the Vilar Technology Center, opening this fall.

In some ways, the Vilar center is a monument to W&J's history -- funding for the imposing stone building on Beau Street came in part from alumnus Alberto Vilar, who made a fortune in mutual funds and has made W&J and the performing arts the beneficiaries of his philanthropy.

But the building's interior, with sleek computer labs and a video-conferencing center, shows how W&J is keeping up with the times.

The Defense Department contract helps to raise the image of a school trying to break into the top tier of the nation's liberal-arts colleges.

It also broadens the college's experience with distance education. Unlike many schools, W&J offers no degrees online, and Dlugos said the school must determine how the traditional W&J education, featuring a close professor-student relationship, can be provided over the Internet.

Dlugos said the experience also will benefit the college's Office of Lifelong Learning that oversees programs for nontraditional students and W&J's Center for Learning and Teaching that explores the educational process.

"We learn when we teach," Dlugos said.

Joe Smydo can be reached by at jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 724-746-8812.

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