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February 29, 2012

The Challenges of Veterans and Online Learning

The Challenges of Veterans and Online Learning

Written by Kevin K. Dean, Academic Assessment specialist for SUNY Empire State College’s Center for Distance Learning

A college degree can be life changing for military members. Those who attend college while in the service are more likely to stay in the service longer (Garcia, Arkes & Trost, 2002). Studies also show that military learners who earn degrees get promoted faster. Earning a college degree also has positive effects once one is out of the military and in the civilian world.

Currently, unemployment is highest for veterans ages 18-24 years, which is also the age when they are most likely to have first been deployed. Going to college is more than just an option for our nation’s veterans—it’s a chance for them to re-integrate without having the additional pressures of finding work added to an already stressful time in their lives.

With the flexibility inherent in online degree programs, the options for higher education during post-service life are availableAs a veteran, and someone who has counseled thousands of veterans while working for online colleges that are military friendly, there are a few things that all veterans should know before attending college online.

First, online students fail at a higher rate (Xu & Jaggars, 2011). Veterans tend to take online classes because they are working and have families—the very indicators that online learning will be harder to complete for the non-traditional student. This circumstance can be mitigated through careful planning, certainly a veteran’s strong point given experiences in the service. Studies show that learners who are engaged and follow a plan have a better chance of success (Lee , Lim & Grabowski , 2010), which is why it is very important for veterans attending college online to build a strong support network of family, friends and co-workers to help them obtain their goals of completing their online coursework and eventually their degrees.

Second, it is important that veterans attending college online use resources available to them. For military students this means “learning how to learn.” Given the time I had spent away from academic life while in the service, it took me a long time to feel that I had “caught up” to the students who directly attended college and were familiar with academic writing and associated expectations,. Most online colleges offer tutoring. Some use services, such as Smarthinking. I ask all veteran students in my military transitions class to submit at least one paper to the tutoring service so that they can see why feedback is important and how it can help them better understand the academic writing style and how it differs from military style.

Last, veterans attending college online need to use the planning and execution skills taught in the service to accomplish their goal of completing and earning their degree. Online learning can be somewhat of a misnomer, because the learning actually takes place in a variety of settings. Sometimes being away from the distractions available on the internet and being able to study wherever you are can allow for greater clarity and concentration. My experience has been that student veterans who use the skill-sets learned in the military are the most successful because they feel empowered by the learning process.

A veteran of the U.S Army and New York Air National Guard, Kevin K. Dean is academic assessment specialist for SUNY Empire State College’s Center for Distance Learning, where he supports the assessment of prior learning for college credit and individual degree program review. His primary interests are in military education as it relates to post-secondary education. He designed and teaches both the lower and upper level military transitions course for Empire State College and helped design the veterans’ programs and benefits course and the military cultural competency course for Empire State’s graduate certificate program in Veterans Services. Email him or visit his blog

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