By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
PRESIDIO OF MONTEREY, Calif. - A pilot program that gives students at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center unprecedented access to language training resources is proving so successful that it's being expanded throughout the school.
The pilot, launched Feb. 1, enables 200 students studying Dari - a dialect spoken in Afghanistan - to tap into materials and capabilities offered through the educational, or "dot-edu," network, said Jonathan Russell, the language center's chief technology officer.
Instead of operating in the dot-mil domain that's often hampered by security and bandwidth restrictions, students in the pilot use the same network that supports accredited civilian colleges and universities.
The Naval Postgraduate School, also in Monterey and one of the few military institutions operating in the edu domain, provides the access through an agreement between the two schools.
"We physically connected 200 students to the NPS network, and we gave them access to mobile devices, a robust wireless network, more bandwidth … to improve network speeds and access to some open-source technologies," Russell said.
This includes a wealth of material about Afghanistan and its most widely spoken language, including al-Jazeera and Voice of America broadcasts, foreign-language newspapers and tools such as Skype and Google Earth.
"All of our curriculum is audiovisual-based, so it involves lots of large-file formats and tons of storage," as well as access to authentic materials, Russell said.
But the military network simply wasn't designed to accommodate that. For example, prohibitions on external drives made it all but impossible for students to download material from classroom "smart boards" onto their computers, or to electronically submit homework assignments. The center's work-around was to position stand-alone computers not connected to the network around the school, used by both students and their instructors to exchange files.
"The military network is an operational network that's security-focused," Russell said. "We are very much like a university."
The transition to the dot-edu network has been revolutionary, students told Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta during his visit last week.
"It's been night and day," said Army Spc. Eric Morales, who like other students in the pilot, spent his first semester at the center studying under the dot-mil network before the pilot program kicked off.
"This innovation lets us go on to open-source websites in order to quickly gather the information we need and link up with websites that have our target language on them," said Army Sgt. Noah Mott, another Dari student. "We as a military unit have been able to use them in a way that better helps us understand our foreign language."
Mott called the transition a huge benefit, particularly in light of the highly compressed training cycles at the center. The basic course for Dari, one of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn, runs just 47 weeks.
"We have these students for a short amount of time and are trying to get them to very, very high proficiency levels in their target languages," Russell said. "So if I can get them just two minutes a day extra as far as getting them time on task, that is huge.
"And that is at the base of what the edu network is," he continued. "We are trying to optimize the network so they can have access to the information they need very fast in the manner in which they want to get it."
Officials at the center are so impressed with the pilot program that plans are under way to expand it to the entire institute.
The transition required an extensive review by a panel of Defense Department, Defense Information Systems Agency and service representatives, who gave their official go-ahead to the plan in April, Russell reported. U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, which oversees the language center, approved funding for the project in July.
Now, the school is in the process of procuring the required equipment so it can begin building out the network and data center this fall.
If all comes together as planned, Russell and his staff plan to begin migrating students off the global information grid
"By fall 2012, we should be fully migrated to the edu network," he said. "At that point, we will be giving students the same tools the leading universities are using -- giving them connectivity and putting them at the forward edge of learning."