Online Education: Enhancing Learning Outcomes for Those Who ServeJohn P. Aldrich | Vice President of Military, Veterans and Community College Outreach, American Public University System
Online education has dramatically reshaped the higher education landscape in the United States.
While there are many similarities between traditional and online education, by design, elements like student demographics, the use of asynchronous learning systems and modes of instructional delivery make online learning markedly different. Recent technology enhancements—including improved broadband service and use of mobile devices—have opened the door for adult, non-traditional learners who may have otherwise been unable to attend traditional classes.
This is especially true for active military service members. In the past decade, attending college online has become the preferred choice for service members, especially when considering their lifestyle of recurrent permanent duty station changes, increased operational tempo and frequent deployments. In these scenarios, attending college in an asynchronous classroom environment that offers 100-percent online degree programs is the ideal choice for service members. With the challenging lifestyle of today’s service member, frequent deployments and longer working hours due to recent reductions in the active-duty force, servicemembers are gravitating toward online learning. In 2012 alone, the Department of Defense (DOD) reported that 76 percent of service members participating in the tuition assistance (TA) program used it for some type of distance learning program, primarily online, and more recent DOD data shows that this trend is accelerating. In 2014, the DOD noted that 83 percent of all TA users engaged in some form of online learning specifically.
Studying online affords service members greater flexibility since they do not have to attend a physical campus or be in class at a prescribed time. Instruction and homework can happen anywhere, at any time. Generationally, it makes sense that today’s military embrace online learning as most service members are Millennials, and for this digitally savvy generation, studying online comes naturally. Veterans and spouses of active-duty service members gravitate to it for similar reasons. Veterans, like any other adult learner, find it difficult to attend college in a traditional setting when faced with the realities of working and, often, family commitments. Military spouses face many of the same challenges as their civilian counterpart; however, when you factor in the unique lifestyle of the military, the challenges they face increase exponentially. Frequent changes in duty station once meant that the military spouse had to change schools when their family transferred to another duty station. Attending college online, however, has assisted many of them in achieving their academic goals. Those who choose to study online don’t have to be concerned with losing credit each time they transfer, saving them both valuable time and money. Due to the nature of frequent deployments and increasing operational tempos of their active-duty spouse, military spouses typically spend a great deal of time as a single parent. Studying online can allow more time with their families, especially when their spouse is deployed.
In keeping with its growing popularity, the quality of online learning has also increased. While some skeptics in academia continue to deem online learning inferior to traditional face-to-face instruction, many employers tend to care more about the career relevancy of a prospective employee’s field of study, their GPA and their institutional accreditation than they do about the specific school or mode of delivery. In fact, in a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, college presidents say that the quality of online learning is on par with that of traditional learning, and are offering fully online degree programs through their extension campuses just like Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Pennsylvania are doing. For its part, American Military University has become the leading provider of education to the U.S. military, while our parent American Public University System has received several prestigious industry awards and honors for academic quality, and operational best practices in online learning.
While the debate about online learning quality will likely continue, online programs will also become even more commonplace as a valuable option in meeting the unique educational needs of today’s military community.
Author Perspective: Administrator