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Virtual learning: distance education for law enforcement.

Imagine a police department's roll-call room at noon, where 30 homicide detectives have gathered for in-service training on crime scene evidence. As the detectives watch, a leading forensic scientist at a university 200 miles away discusses the details of a recently concluded murder investigation.

A detective in the back of the room with a puzzled expression raises her hand. The detective's image fills the screen of a monitor at the front of the room as she asks about a blood stain found at the crime scene. A photograph of the stain now appears on the screen as the scientist answers the detective's question. Thanks to a videoconferencing system, the police detectives and the forensic expert are having a live, two-way training session despite the many miles that separate them.

Also called video teleconferencing, this technology is merely one aspect of an educational concept being implemented all over the world. Known as distance education, or distance learning,(1) it is the delivery of education or training, through a variety of means, to students separated from instructors and possibly from one another. For law enforcement agencies working with limited budgets, distance learning represents a cost-effective way to provide the training that their employees might not receive otherwise. Moreover, the technology that some programs use enables organizations to conduct long-distance meetings and seminars and tap a vast pool of expert resources.

This article explains the concept of distance education and features a number of agencies that have implemented successful distance education initiatives. It also presents guidelines that can help other law enforcement agencies start their own programs.


Technology has changed the way people accomplish tasks in every area of their lives, and education is no exception. At one time, correspondence courses provided the primary means for students to learn at a distance. Today, distance education can be as simple as a lecture prerecorded on an audio- or videotape or as complex as two-way, real-time audio- and video interaction using videoconferencing equipment. These techniques represent the limits of a broad spectrum that encompasses the two general categories of distance education: asynchronous and synchronous.(2)

Asynchronous Distance Education

Students who view lectures from prerecorded videotapes can do so from the comfort of their homes, with no interaction with the instructor or one another. This type of learning, which is known as asynchronous, does not require simultaneous participation.

Audio- and videotapes represent simple and affordable options for asynchronous education. More technologically advanced means include electronic mail and the Internet-based World Wide Web.

Because asynchronous methods involve no real-time interaction, they provide a flexible, convenient way of learning. Students who need the structure and personal interaction found in the traditional classroom, however, might prefer the interactivity provided by synchronous instruction.

Synchronous Distance Education

As its name implies, synchronous distance education requires the simultaneous participation of students and instructors. As such, it occurs in real time and, depending on the technology used, can provide two-way audio and video. Satellite training, for example, involves two-way audio but only one-way video. Specifically, students can see and hear the instructors but must ask questions or make comments using methods that, at the most, transmit their voices only. At the other end of the spectrum, certain types of videoconferencing allow participants both to see and hear one another.


Whichever delivery method they choose, law enforcement agencies around the country are using distance education. Administrators can use these examples to design similar programs or take advantage of the distance education courses the following organizations provide to members of the criminal justice community.

The Law Enforcement Training Network

Like a cable network for law enforcement officers, the Law Enforcement Training Network (LETN) provides subscribers with a variety of training and educational programs for a monthly fee. Viewers can tune in to both live and prerecorded programs on a variety of law enforcement topics.

LETN's satellite feed makes live programming possible, and shows come from such sources as the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Sheriffs' Association, and the FBI. Once recorded, these programs are broadcast numerous times during the course of a month. LETN's regular programs include Roll Call, 10 minutes of daily training; Command Center, 15 minutes of news, new-product information, and videos from law enforcement agencies in action; and LETN News, featuring law enforcement headline news.

LETN's Training On Demand (TOD) series provides training and testing in a video format. Law enforcement agencies can watch TOD Monday through Thursday, or they can order the videotapes and use them at their own convenience. Many TOD programs evaluate students' knowledge with pre- and post-tests and can earn students continuing education units with the Southern Police Institute at the University of Louisville or Pennsylvania State University.

Combining curriculum-based training with technology, LETN developed the Specialized Training Testing and Recordkeeping System (STTAR). STTAR comes with a desktop computer system that allows students to view live LETN satellite broadcasts. A VCR hookup makes it possible to record live programs or watch prerecorded tapes. Students can take pre- and post-tests on the computer and send them electronically to LETN for grading. The system's touch screen and voice instructions make computer literacy unnecessary. The STTAR program also serves as a paperless database, giving departments an easy and efficient way to track their in-service training.

Christopher Newport University

Recognizing the need to reach students who may find it difficult to attend on-campus classes, institutions of higher learning have been at the forefront of the distance education movement. Christopher Newport University (CNU) in Newport News, Virginia, offers an online bachelor of science degree in governmental administration with a choice of four concentrations, including criminal justice administration.

Dubbed CNU ONLINE, this asynchronous program allows students to access their classes via the Internet, download assignments to be completed offline, then reenter the system to turn in their work. To do this, students post completed assignments to an electronic mailing list, where the entire class can read them and make comments. The class uses the list to discuss other issues, as well. A chat-room function allows students to communicate with one another in real time. Professors usually use this capability to hold online office hours for student questions and concerns.

The Mid-Atlantic Police Supervisory Institute

Oftentimes, police officers who gain promotions into management find they are not quite sure how to supervise their former peers. Unfortunately, few resources exist to provide this type of training, and worse, the combined toll of work and personal obligations make outside education nearly impossible.

Recognizing this dilemma, faculty members from Christopher Newport University, the chiefs of several southeastern Virginia police departments, and other law enforcement executives founded the Mid-Atlantic Police Supervisory Institute (MAPSI). Conducted almost completely online, MAPSI courses give first-line supervisors a convenient way to learn supervisory, administrative, and ethical skills and earn college credit without missing valuable time from work.

Local students visit the campus to attend four Saturday workshops. At these seminars, guest speakers cover such topics as emergency preparedness, community-based policing, and employee discipline, as well as other personnel issues. Students who cannot travel to campus can view the program on videotape and e-mail the speaker later with questions or comments. In the future, the university plans to install videoconferencing equipment, which will allow officers from remote locations to view the workshops live.

The Online Police Academy

In today's complex policing environment, administrators may find it difficult to meet the training needs of their officers with only a limited number of qualified instructors. The Online Police Academy (OPA) of the Millersville University of Pennsylvania was born of the frustration some police trainers felt over this dilemma. With its World Wide Web-based delivery system, OPA links students and instructors from all over the world.

Both police officers and other interested students with a personal computer, a modem, and Internet access can attend OPA and earn continuing education units for course offerings, which include Introduction to Law Enforcement and Media Relations for Law Enforcement. After registering and obtaining a password, students access OPA's Web page, download course assignments, complete them, and send them to the instructor by modem. Discussions can take place in groups via an online conference or one-on-one using e-mail.

The FBI Training Network

Formerly the Law Enforcement Satellite Training Network, the FBI Training Network (FBITN) incorporates distance education into three of its programs. First, FBITN's "Viewpoints from the FBI Academy" series highlights the expertise of FBI Academy instructors. The show airs regularly on LETN, and tapes of prior broadcasts are available.

Second, FBITN uses satellite technology to present teleconferences on a variety of criminal justice topics. Programs feature a panel of experts from different law enforcement agencies and weave graphics and video clips into the discussion format. During each live broadcast, viewers can call or fax with questions or comments.

Viewers can tape the broadcasts themselves or purchase tapes through FBITN. Previously aired programs have included "Child Abuse and Exploitation," "Training and Technology," and "Cargo Theft."

The third component of FBITN's distance learning initiative is a pilot project that will enhance the FBI's ability to train its own personnel and members of the law enforcement community as well. To date, several FBI field offices, FBI Headquarters, and the FBI Academy have installed video teleconferencing equipment that allows them to transmit two-way audio and video in real time.

Equipped with a multipoint control unit (MCU), the FBI's system permits conferences among several sites at once. At the host site, four preset controls vary what participants view. One focuses the host-site camera, another directs the remote-site cameras, a third broadcasts any visual aids incorporated into the program, and a fourth allows the use of a VCR or computer. The system's "picture within a picture" feature broadcasts multiple views simultaneously, with the 27-inch monitor providing ample viewing space. A device known as a coder/decoder or, more commonly, CODEC converts the audio and video signals into data that can be transferred over specially designed phone lines.

Earlier this year, an instructor from the FBI Academy formally christened the new equipment during a long-distance training session with supervisors from New York, Washington, Louisville, and Tampa field offices. The interactive multimedia presentation served as a primer for conducting efficient and effective meetings.

In the future, the FBI's videoconferencing system will enable FBI personnel not only to receive the education and training they need but also to conduct meetings, discuss ongoing cases, handle crisis situations, and the like. Encryption software can overcome security concerns, allowing participants to discuss even sensitive matters.

Law Enforcement OnLine

The FBI's commitment to providing law enforcement with state-of-the-art training and education continues with the establishment of Law Enforcement OnLine (LEO). This new computer network, sponsored jointly by the FBI and Louisiana State University, provides a cost-free means for law enforcement officers to conduct research, communicate with peers, and, ultimately, take courses online.

Users need nothing more than a personal computer and a modem to access LEO's many features, which include

* Custom Web-type pages that present general law enforcement information using text, graphics, audio, and video

* Areas reserved for members of special law enforcement groups, such as the National Association of Technical Investigators and the National Executive Institute

* Bulletin boards, maintained by both general and specialized law enforcement groups, which allow users to download information for themselves and post messages for others

* E-mail for secure, one-on-one communication between LEO members

* A library of law enforcementrelated articles written by leading experts.

Although the exchange of information afforded by communication systems such as LEO technically qualifies as distance learning, the true distance learning component of LEO will allow members to take classes online. FBI National Academy students most likely will represent LEO's first class.

Southern Illinois Forensics Science Centre

When the state of Illinois hired 85 forensic scientists for its 8 regional laboratories, someone had to train them. Normally, new hires travel to the Forensics Science Centre for training. Unfortunately, the size of the training facility and its staff compared to the number of students made the centre a less-than-ideal site. For state administrators, the time seemed perfect to institute a distance education program, and they selected videoconferencing as the way to do it.

At a cost of about $25,000 each, the state's eight regional laboratories feature complete systems with conferencing software and CODEC equipment. Each site also has two 27-inch monitors, a camera that focuses on the audience, and a document camera. The centre's upgraded system has two 31-inch monitors, as well as a tracker camera that follows instructors as they move about the classroom.

The centre's investment has yielded substantial dividends. With its videoconferencing network in place, the centre took recent college graduates with little or no work experience who were separated in some cases by hundreds of miles and turned them into forensic scientists. In addition to providing training to new recruits, the centre uses its videoconferencing equipment to conduct meetings and in-services and even has held a remote deposition.


Some readers already may have decided the distance learning program they want to implement. Others may have thrown up their hands in frustration and confusion. Given the vast array of options available now, in addition to the rate at which new technology develops, how can administrators choose the best option for their agencies?

By Getting Help

Administrators should seek assistance before they establish distance learning programs. Organizations that have implemented similar programs can offer guidance. In many areas, schools, libraries, cable companies, and correctional facilities offer distance education. Professional associations, such as the United States Distance Learning Association and the Federal Government Distance Learning Association, can provide assistance. Commercial vendors can help, but in their zeal to promote their own equipment, they might not be the best source for objective advice.

The best source of information may be an instructional designer. This person does not have to be a professional who earns a living designing courses. A graduate student from the local university might have just as much knowledge and might work for the experience alone. By getting this much-needed help, administrators take the first step toward implementing successful programs.

By Conducting a Needs Assessment

First and foremost, instructional designers conduct needs assessments. Simply put, they determine what kind of system will best meet their client's needs. To do this, they ask such questions as: What purpose will the training/education serve? What kind of courses will the agency present? What audience will it target? Is real-time instruction important, or should user convenience prevail? What level of interactivity should exist between instructors and students? How much money does the agency have to spend on the program?

With the answers to these and other questions, instructional designers can find a technology that most closely matches the agency's criteria. Satellite training, for example, can provide training for large groups of people at one time. However, the technology's one-way video limits interaction between instructors and students. In addition, to receive live satellite programs, agencies must buy a dish; a KU-band dish (the most common) costs around $10,000. Additional costs apply for agencies that initiate the training from their own sites.

Computer-based videoconferencing represents another option. Each training/learning site must have a high-end computer and special conferencing software, in addition to lines to transmit data. The quality of the transmission depends on these lines and is proportional to installation and monthly fees.

Yet, even the most expensive lines cannot keep pace with fast or extensive action. As a result, a department planning to use its system to train officers on defensive tactics, for example, probably should choose another method. And, although it is difficult to train large groups using this technology, for long-distance meetings and other events involving smaller numbers of people, video teleconferencing works well.


Satellite training and videoconferencing represent two delivery methods that can prove expensive for law enforcement agencies. Fortunately, other means that cost less may meet the agency's needs instead. For example, using a personal computer with a modem and Internet connection, the right software (available free from Cornell University(3)), and a camera that costs around $100, small groups can meet for training or discussion. Audio conferencing connects participants via the telephone. And, a number of training programs come on videocassette.

Whatever the cost, agencies can find ways to pay for distance learning programs. The Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center(4) defrayed 75 percent of the cost of its videoconferencing training program through a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance. The rest of the money comes from law enforcement agencies that receive the training.

Community policing has shown police departments that they cannot fight crime alone; training should be a collaborative effort, as well. Partnerships with community residents and business leaders can secure needed equipment and funding.

When the Los Angeles Police Department needed computers, Los Angeles businesses made sure they got them.(5) And, when the Farmington Hills, Michigan, police and fire departments needed new equipment, city residents voted to increase property taxes to pay for it.(6) In addition, by banding together, agencies not only can pool resources, but they also can increase their bargaining power with vendors.

In short, the money to pay for distance learning exists; agencies merely need to use creative approaches to obtain it. As one expert said, "'It's not in the budget' is the anthem of the unimaginative."(7)


A few decades ago, many people feared they would lose their jobs to computers. Instead, the job market has exploded; even the most sophisticated technology needs people to make it work. Likewise, the success of distance learning initiatives often hinges on the people involved in their implementation. First, proper planning and forethought are needed to create classes and events that will involve participants and hold their interest even after the "wow factor" wears off. This means moving from the traditional lecture format and incorporating dynamic, multimedia presentations.

Next, students need to learn how to learn in this manner. They may find being on camera disconcerting or the time-delay inherent in some systems a hindrance.(8) To help overcome these obstacles and to help lead the discussion and involve participants, trained facilitators must be present at each site.

Instructors at the Southern Illinois Forensics Science Centre discovered that site facilitators played a critical role in their students' success. Facilitators who made sure students understood the material had more students pass.

Finally, all instructors must be trained in the theory and practice of using technology as a teaching aid. In short, "technology without sound instructional integrity will fail."(9)


The cornerstone of any law enforcement organization is its ability to educate and train its personnel. Yet, this decade's belt-tightening has left most agencies unable to bridge the gaps that exist in their employees' knowledge, as well as the physical distance between employees and the training sites available to them.

Moreover, some criminals continue to take technological leaps ahead of the officers tasked with pursuing them. A number of law enforcement administrators still debate the merits of installing computers in their departments or establishing a presence on the Internet. Many will continue to vacillate even as defendants walk away unpunished or their departments lose costly lawsuits because they failed to train their officers. Rather than wonder whether they can afford to implement distance training in their departments, law enforcement administrators should ask themselves if they can afford not to.

Where To Go for Help

United States Distance Learning Association 800-275-5162 or 510-606-5160 On the Internet:

Federal Government Distance Learning Association On the Internet:

The Distance Learning Resource Network 800-662-4160 On the Internet:

American Society of Law Enforcement Trainers 302-645-4080,

International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training On the Internet:

Program Contacts

For more information on the programs featured in this article contact the references listed below.

LETN Glenn Dreyfuss, program manager, 972-417-4343

Christopher Newport University and MAPSI Professor Tom Dempsey, 804-594-7097,

Online Police Academy Jacob Haber, 302-654-9091, or

FBITN SSA Tom Christenberry, program manager, 800-862-7577, or

Law Enforcement OnLine Contact the police training coordinator at the local FBI field office for more information

Southern Illinois Forensics Science Centre Robert Gonsowski, laboratory director, 618-457-6714


1 Although this article uses the terms "distance education" and "distance learning" interchangeably, some experts make distinctions between the two. See, for example, Virginia Steiner, "What is Distance Education?" which distinguishes between the delivery of distance education by instructors and the receipt of distance learning by students. See also Leigh Maxwell, "Integrating Open Learning and Distance Education," Educational Technology, November-December 1995, 43-48.

2 Virginia Steiner, "What is Distance Education?" [online article]; available from; Internet; accessed January 28, 1997.

3 For a free copy, go to

4 For more information, contact Director Ed Pavey, Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center, P.O. Box 647, Hutchinson, Kansas 67504-0647, 316-662-3378, fax 316-662-4720, e-mail, on the Internet,

5 Richard Abshire, "Training and Technology," FBI Training Network teleconference, January 8, 1997.

6 See William J. Dwyer, M.S., and Melissa Faulkner Motschall, Ph.D., "Making Taxes Less Taxing, A Public Safety Millage Campaign," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, December 1996, 15-18.

7 Supra note 5.

8 For an enlightening article that compares the experiences of high school, university, and community college students taking two different courses, each delivered via videoconferencing, see Patricia Comeaux, "The Impact of an Interactive Distance Learning Network on Classroom Communication," Communication Education, October 1995. See also Chere C. Gibson and Terry L. Gibson, "Lessons Learned from 100+ Years of Distance Learning," Adult Learning, September/October 1995, 15; Marcia Baird, "Training Distance Education Instructors, Strategies That Work," Adult Learning, September/October 1995, 24-27; and Ellen D. Wagner, "Distance Education Success Factors," Adult Learning, September/October 1995, 18-19, 26.

9 Patricia Boord, "Training and Technology," FBI Training Network teleconference, January, 8, 1997.

Mrs. Waggoner serves as an associate editor for the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin at the FBI Academy.

Special Agent Christenberry serves as an instructor at the FBI Academy and a program manager for the FBI Training Network.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Federal Bureau of Investigation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Christenberry, Tom
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Oct 1, 1997
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