online education military, online education
Amel Emric/AP
During a peacekeeping mission in Bosnia in 2003, U.S. soldier Cpl. Andrew L. Cumings, of
Moorhead, Minn., kept up his college studies using the Internet.

Online Education Proves It Can Go the Distance—to Iraq

October 08, 2009 07:00 AM
by Liz Colville
Cheryl J. Wachenheim, a North Dakota State University professor, was deployed to Iraq in 2008, but continued to teach classes online from her base in Iraq, highlighting the popularity of online learning.

Armed With Her Laptop, Wachenheim Worked Two Jobs

Wachenheim, a captain in the Minnesota Army National Guard, was deployed to Balad, Iraq, just north of Baghdad, in August 2008, but she didn’t let her duties interrupt her ambition. She simply took her laptop with her to Iraq, where she conducted micro- and macroeconomics classes online—two during the summer of 2008, one in the fall and one in the spring of 2009, for between 20 and 75 students, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

Wachenheim and nine of her comrades bought a satellite dish and “dug holes in the sand all over the base so they could run wires underground and into each of their trailers,” The Chronicle’s Ben Terris writes. Stationed in one of the most risky places in Iraq—its nickname is “‘Mortaritaville’ because of its location in the line of fire”—Wachenheim worked as a medical-logistics officer.

“But despite emergency alarms that sent everyone on the base ducking for cover and occasional mortar explosions nearby,” Wachenheim said, according to Terris, “concern for her safety really was not one of them.”

As Wachenheim’s superior at North Dakota State observes, there were bound to be “X factors” involved. Indeed, “[t]here were the dust storms that knocked out satellite Internet connections and kept her off the base for days,” Terris writes, “and there were military emergencies that shut down all ‘nonessential’ Internet use.”

But Wachenheim “always seemed to find a way” to get in touch, one of her students told The Chronicle, and she seemed to relish the opportunity to keep in touch with the other half of her life while at war. “Combat sounds really fascinating in movies,” she told Terris. “It's really not. What became most interesting to me was hearing from my students, whether it was about why their [problem-set] curve shifted one way or about someone's sister getting married.”

Background: The rise of virtual education

As more students are given the option to take online courses, the University of South Florida’s The Oracle looks at some pros and cons of the learning method, and summarizes a recent study by the Association of Public Land-grant Universities. The study found that “70 percent of faculty found online courses inferior or somewhat inferior to classroom instruction when it comes to learning.” Some teachers surveyed felt that “classroom interaction” is an “invaluable part of education,” and 64 percent said that online courses are actually “harder to put together.”

The Oracle reports that professors must be given the tools needed to better conduct online courses. “If teachers don’t like teaching online, it will prove difficult to increase the quality of the courses.”

Although online courses for college-age and adult students is already common, virtual classes for grade school students is emerging—and quickly growing in popularity. As Liam Julian of The New Atlantis, a publication of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, wrote in an article this spring, “Online courses offered on-site at public schools—an approach known as ‘blended education’—are an increasingly popular option.” Some students are even electing to modernize homeschooling by taking online classes exclusively.

This does pose some challenges: “[C]yber-students need discipline, motivation, and self-direction,” Julian writes, “—just the qualities that they may have been missing in the real classroom in the first place.”

Related Topic: Adult learners turn to the Web and social media

In August, the American Public University System reported on the launch of College Choices for Adults, a Web site that aims to help adult learners find the information necessary to choose "an institution offering degrees through distance education." Created for "busy adults," the site is full of helpful insights, such as what is taught in each program and how other students in the program performed. The site is part of a growing chorus of support for continuing education and online learning in the recession.

Reference: Online college courses and degrees; Collaboration tools for educators

FindingDulcinea’s Web Guide to Online College Courses and Degrees lists reputable sites that can help you design an online education using credible online institutions, whether you’re looking for a couple of courses or a full degree.

Wachenheim used the popular collaboration tool Blackboard to communicate with her students and share assignments. Other tools of this caliber include the free Google Sites and findingDulcinea’s own free product, findingEducation, which supplements collaboration and sharing tools with helpful tips for improving online learning and research.

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