Educational Leaders Offer Advice on Serving Online Military Students

Closing the civilian-military divide in higher education is a growing focus for educators and a need for the service people enrolled in their programs.

by Suzane Bricker / December 8, 2016 0
Members of a cyber protection unit with the Hawaii Air National Guard conduct cyber defense operations during a training exercise in June. As cyber warfare takes on an ever increasing role, the Guard announced plans to activate additional cyber protection units spread throughout 23 states by the end of fiscal year 2019. Those units are part of service-specific cyber requirements and provide additional capabilities to deter cyber threats across a wide array of platforms. Photo by Airman 1st Class Robert Cabuco/Released

Imagine you are a dean at a major university, and one of your online students just emailed you because his instructor flunked him for not completing an assignment. It seems he was deployed unexpectedly and did not meet the deadline posted on the syllabus. His instructor does not accept late assignments and would not listen to his explanation after the fact. How would you deal with such a situation?

Educational leaders are addressing these kinds of issues more frequently across the country as a wave of new technology enables knowledge transfer on a virtual platform. Military learners may log into their online classrooms from remote locations around the world, and they need education leaders to have an idea of what they're going through. 

What is missing from these leaders' repertoire is solid statistical data to understand who military learners are and what resources they need to promote their successful learning outcomes, according to a report from NASPA, a group of student affairs administrators in higher ed. The report sheds light on the “civilian-military divide” that refers to the absence of knowledge about dropout rates and lack of degree completion among these learners. Being able to assess objectively how to facilitate the needs of military students and provide resources that will help to ensure successful degree completion poses challenges when the numbers are just not available.

“I think it is difficult to be a good leader if you don’t understand the day-to-day challenges [these students face],” said Keith Hauk, associate vice president for veterans’ initiatives at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC).

The retired colonel earned a bachelor's degree from the United States Military Academy at West Point and master's degrees at the Naval War College and Colorado School of Mines. Now he applies his education knowledge and military experiences to ensure that online military students are recognized for their unique talents and academic abilities, and can receive support from the university and their peers.

Because 70 percent of UMUC’s military students are enrolled in online courses, one of the main challenges Hauk faced was devising a way for these learners to interact on a virtual basis to support each other and increase their academic success. To tackle this challenge, he came up with the idea of creating an online social media tool that functions as a virtual student union. Hauk was motivated to create this tool because he had 29 years of experience in the military and understood what might help them.

Military learners appropriately named the tool UMUC Checkpoint, and about 1,600 to 1,700 users access the social media site at no charge. They can chat with each other and view content that instructors post, such as documents and pictures.

In New York, Columbia University is planning to launch a new initiative in the spring that's designed to meet the needs of military learners as they transition between service, virtual classrooms, the workforce and academia, said Curtis Rodgers, vice dean of the School of General Studies at the university. The Veterans Center for Transition, Integration and Leadership will include a massively open online course as part of its efforts.

“There is big, big information gap out there, more specifically when it comes to assisting veterans in successfully transitioning into an educational environment after they have taken time off for service," Rodgers said.

The School of General Studies is well equipped to meet this challenge because it was founded in 1947 to largely accommodate the educational needs of World War II veterans. In the post-9/11 era, enrollment figures for military learners have continued to increase, from between 40 and 50 students in 2003-2004 to 430 today. And the center is being designed to ensure that the future success rate of these learners equals the rate of their more traditional peers.

At Ohio's Antioch University Online, both military and nonmilitary learners can access a virtual support network to help them succeed. That's the most effective way to help them transition, said Joe Cronin, director of undergraduate studies and professor at Antioch University Online. 

He added these resources are available to Antioch students who self-identify that they need them, but the information exchange is not done in the classroom so no one will feel singled out.

"We should establish a discourse where different perspectives are appreciated," Cronin said, "and we have the right resources in place for students with certain needs that are not acknowledged or understood.”