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VA mulling fate of e-learning project, one of 45 it suspended

Veterans Affairs Department personnel who worked on an e-learning project that top agency officials suspended this summer say the project should be terminated and officials are contemplating removing the contractor.

The department's Learning Management System was among 45 information technology projects that VA suspended in July because the projects either were over budget or behind schedule. Following a review, VA opted to cut 15 projects, give 17 another chance to meet the next deadline and restart 15 projects with a new contractor. LMS falls into the second category of projects that have one more chance, VA officials said on Friday.

Personnel who have worked closely on the system said the key problem with the project is the contractor has not adhered to advanced specifications that would make the system compatible with Defense Department training systems and other industry e-learning programs. The vendor, the e-training firm Plateau, has not built the system to fully conform to a collection of standards and specifications for Web-based e-learning called the Sharable Content Object Reference Model 2004.

The employees, who no longer work on the project directly, argued VA's learning courseware must be able to work with Defense modules because there is crossover in training between the two departments.

A VA employee who helped shepherd the program as a member of the team working on LMS, said the system was supposed to be compliant with SCORM 2004 in 2007, but by August 2008 the system still was not. At that time, personnel suggested to VA officials that they stop the contract until the vendor delivered full functionality.

The employee said team members were told to "dumb our deliverables down" and revert to an earlier version of SCORM. That meant VA essentially would develop an online book, where the user flips through pages to complete the course, rather than a more interactive system, according to the employee.

SCORM 2004 uses sequencing, a set of rules that specify paths that guide a student through the course. The technique tailors the path to the user's responses. For example, Defense offers a customized course on preventing and managing disturbing behavior that makes intelligent choices on lesson type based on the users' thinking. The timely instruction tells employees what warning signs to look for in other employees that might lead to violence in the workplace.

In 2007, VA awarded Plateau a contract worth more than $10 million to expand and accelerate the development of LMS. The company's services presently allow the department to deliver and track congressionally mandated training in cybersecurity, privacy, sexual harassment policy and other subjects.

More than 400,000 VA staff use the learning application's 4,000 or so courses. The company estimates that more than 6 million courses have been completed in 2009.

Plateau, which supports other federal agencies, maintains that the compatibility issue is minor in scope and called the criticisms false. "The experience to the end user is no different," said Paul Sparta, Plateau's chairman and chief executive officer. "The percentage of courses that use the advanced features that we currently do not support is minuscule, less than 1 percent of all [such] courses developed."

He noted that the high-level functions historically have been unstable from a security perspective. "Those advanced features were unnecessary and breached security and other concerns," he said.

SCORM is expected to be superseded with a more secure and simpler standard, Sparta added.

As of now, Veterans Affairs is allowing the program to continue providing training to staff, but is not allowing it to continue new development, VA officials said in response to the worker's concerns. The LMS project team is scheduled to meet this month with VA officials to apply for a restart, which involves a reevaluation of the program's approach and replacement of the program manager, contractors and some VA personnel. During the meeting, officials also will ask more questions about the contractor's current plan.

VA officials said they are aware the program is in trouble, but added they also have an obligation to offer employees online training. The department's new method of policing projects, the Project Management Accountability System, triggered the suspension. The pause is intended to give VA officials a chance to ask themselves whether a project's current path offers the best chance for success.

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