RECRUITING Distance Learning

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eArmyU Program Helps Keep Soldiers Educated

The last man was drafted in the United States in December 1972. This gave rise to the Modern Volunteer Army (MVA) Program, which was designed to strengthen professionalism, enhance U.S. Army life and develop a modern accession system. To ensure a quality and trained force, MVA advertising moved through phases based on attracting and motivating a target audience of enlistment prospects. Advertising slogans since that time have ranged from “Today’s Army Wants to Join You” to the widely admired and highly effective “Be All That You Can Be” campaign, which was retired on Jan. 10, 2001. The Army adopted a new slogan, “An Army of One,” which was meant to focus on the strength and teamwork of the Army as a united force of many soldiers, while reinforcing the concept that each individual makes a unique contribution (Rosenberg 2001).

Despite shrinking manpower pools and concerns over the country’s recession, the quality of recruits was sustained over the years with the inception of important incentives for recruitment. These included the Veterans Educational Assistance Program (VEAP), the Army College Fund (ACF), and, in 1985, the Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB). Through the 1980s recruiting challenges continued with reduced advertising budgets, downsizing of the military and a strong economy that provided America’s youth with many other career options outside of the military (Evans 1993).

The military and, more specifically, the Army, have offered these various educational incentives in the past, which for the most part have been successful — serving as recruiting and retention incentives. Today, and for the projected future, the Army University Access Online (AUAO) program, or Electronic Army University (eArmyU), will go beyond these programs to benefit both the soldier and the Army. The soldier is given the opportunity to receive a quality education, while the Army retains an educated member.

It was the intent of former Secretary of the Army Louis Caldera to make educational incentives available to soldiers that boosted incentives for recruiting and retention. Most importantly, these incentives provided the basis for retaining educated Information Age-savvy soldiers. Members of the Army have many unique areas of their job that require more education. New equipment and weapons systems re-quire a more educated soldier who is prepared to face the new and changing environments that require a knowledge of science, technology, history, culture, law and human behavior to be successful (Burlas 2001).

The dilemma was, and still is, the need to educate the soldier and fit the education into the individual’s military schedule. Because of their unique responsibilities, soldiers are often in a difficult position when pursuing a college education. It was necessary, even mandatory, to provide education to the soldiers who are “mobile” by the nature of their career. Thus, the mobility obstacle and constant changes of learning institutions based on the myriad of military moves had to be addressed. Bringing the educational institution to every soldier, and allowing him or her to continue with the same institution or an institution of choice, is a solution for success; and distance learning is an avenue for educational success.

It was also important to find a variety of institutions both willing and equipped to take on the daunting task of educating a large number of soldiers in several different areas of study, all with varying schedules, located worldwide. And it was important that these institutions had instructors capable of developing online instruction. For the AUAO/eArmyU program, the Army supplied soldiers with up-to-date technology and equipment.

It was equally important that participating institutions were able to provide equipment compatible with communications and online instruction, including training and support for instructors. Accreditation responsibilities require that member educational institutions provide effective and credible course assessments, as well as ensure academic honesty of online students. Further, it is up to the institutions to overcome the lack of face-to-face interaction between students and instructors. Finally, efforts must be taken to prepare students for the new skills and responsibilities of online versus traditional learning.

The eArmyU Initiative

In August 2000, Troy State University at Fort Benning (TSU-FB) in Georgia was one of 29 colleges and universities selected to participate in the eArmyU program. The program was established to make certificate training, two-year, four-year and graduate-level degrees available to soldiers via distance learning. To include courses and soldier concentrations (i.e., the large number of soldiers, considering Fort Benning comprises more than 15,000 soldiers) an initial assessment was conducted to determine the demand by members of the Army. TSU-FB was selected based on its course offerings, proximity to Fort Benning and its more than 30 years of experience in providing college courses to military students.

Currently, the eArmyU program offers 87 programs from 24 different educational institutions (originally 29 institutions). Through eArmyU, soldiers have the chance to earn a certificate, as well as an associate’s, bachelor’s or master’s degree from a home institution, while taking courses from multiple colleges and universities. TSU-FB offers nine areas of study through 11 associate of science programs, five bachelor of science programs and three master’s programs. The university offers five degree programs to eArmyU students: two associate’s, two bachelor of science and one bachelor of arts. TSU-FB has learning sites worldwide. Its student body includes active-duty soldiers and officers, military dependents, military retirees and civilians.

Following an extensive Army review, PricewaterhouseCoopers was awarded the $453 million eArmyU contract to serve as the program integrator and provide distance education for an estimated 80,000 soldiers over the next five years (Burlas 2000). Three active-duty Army posts (Fort Benning, Fort Campbell and Fort Hood) were selected as test sites for the program. Incentives included distribution of a laptop and printer that became the property of the soldier after completion of 12 semester hours, free tuition and books, free Internet access and maintenance, as well as free technical support.

Requirements included Internet and distance learning instruction that took into consideration that the soldiers were subject to frequent and extensive temporary duty. The hardware and software requirements provided to the soldier-students included:

  • Compaq and Turbo Tec computers
  • Fiberlink Networks ISPs
  • Saba and PeopleSoft database support
  • Blackboard (LMS)
  • Intel online services (hosting services)
  • SMARTHINKING.com (online tutoring)

eArmyU was developed as a major retention tool, allowing soldiers to earn college credits or certifications at low or no cost while serving on active duty. The eArmyU program serves the dual purpose of giving soldiers access to quality education while serving worldwide, as well as providing the basis for needed, educated soldiers. The eArmyU program makes the Army the largest broker and customer of distance learning in the United States. The program is expected to grow from three Army posts to 113 nationwide, with an estimated 80,000 soldiers who will be offered online courses over the next five years (Emery 2000).

The Army is also committed to creating the largest educational portal in the world. The program is budgeted at $500 million over six years to provide soldier-students with tuition assistance, textbooks, laptops, help-desk support, Internet access, academic counseling, extensive course offerings, institutional choices and a command climate that will create a true lifelong learning community (Hoffman 2000). Offering courses and teaching soldiers through this medium presents a new set of considerations that one may or may not encounter with traditional students. Some of these considerations present problems, but most of them are very positive from a teaching standpoint.

The eArmyU initiative was devised to provide enlisted soldiers with the opportunity to earn college credits, degrees and technical skill certifications while serving on active duty (Hoffman 2000). Although there are no easy answers to the questions concerning distance learning, there are some considerations that should be included in the debate on this subject. A realistic, honest appraisal of the overall goal of an institution in implementing a distance learning program could very well provide answers to these questions. The eArmyU program, like many online learning programs, provides soldiers with many advantages, including:

  • No time spent commuting to class;
  • No travel costs;
  • The ability to continue their military job while taking courses;
  • The ability to budget time to learn;
  • Learning options that are not constrained by the geographic location of the soldier; and
  • A key side benefit of learning new technologies and technical skills.

Classes for TSU-FB are offered in-class, in the evening, on the weekend, as well as via videotape or the Internet. In March 2000, TSU-FB began offering undergraduate courses in a distance learning format. By April 2000, it became part of the eArmyU program available to selected enlisted soldiers in the Army. Finally, in January 2001, TSU-FB began enrolling and offering Internet courses to soldiers of the eArmyU program.

Going the Distance

Across the country, most colleges and universities are in some stage of implementing a distance learning system. Other institutions are either planning entry into this field or vigorously defending their decision not to pursue distance learning students. As has always been the case, change in established institutions is slow and usually faces a good deal of resistance. This resistance to distance learning has mostly been centered around the loss of personal interaction between the instructor and the student (Carnevale 2001). Further, in “A Virtual Revolution: Trends in the Expansion of Distance Education” (Kriger 2001), statements indicate that too many distance courses center on teaching a collection of facts, rather than on giving students a broader understanding of a topic and different ways of thinking about it.

I understand the importance of using new technologies in teaching, but as a doctor of criminology who has been removed from the collegiate academic arena for nearly 20 years, I am encouraged at the prospect of being able to teach online or through videoconference courses. I am encouraged that distance learning will enhance the learning effort. And, from a criminal justice/public service/military standpoint, distance learning is a perfect fit for the varying schedules of nontraditional students with common course and degree goals.

In general, college instructors realize the valuable connection between themselves and their students simply by virtue of their presence in the same room. The question is: Can this connection be effectively maintained through distance learning? There is an inherent assumption in distance learning that any relationship that is established between a student and an instructor by virtue of the traditional classroom environment will be lost in a distance learning format. In part, because of this assumption, administrators opposing distance learning become instant her'es among faculty.

Conclusion

The main question has often centered on whether colleges and universities should pursue distance learning alternatives. For many institutions of higher learning, the answers are not easy based on resident students’ attendance, personal interaction and a variety of rationale for teaching in the classroom. However, American soldiers do not always fit into the typical student mode. They are more likely to be older, with a family, working full time and under a constant mission that may involve deployment at any time.

Distance learning programs are much more readily supported when the overall objective is at least, in part, making educational opportunities available to those not easily served. One could probably make a convincing argument that our country has so many institutions of higher learning, in so many different parts of the country, that there are virtually no educationally underserved populations. If remoteness of location is the only criterion used in this argument, it may indeed be valid. However, there are other barriers to individuals seeking a college education.

TSU-FB has accepted the challenge of bringing education to the soldier via eArmyU. In fact, TSU-FB has become the No. 1 institutional provider for the eArmyU program. There is a true understanding of commitment to the military and customer service that is essential when working with students who have unique occupational criteria to address, not to mention a myriad of other common and unique challenges that soldiers face in distance learning, including:

  • Transcripts;
  • Evaluation of degree plans;
  • Providing eArmyU portals with student data;
  • Matching resources and staff to enrollment growth;
  • A centralized management system for international growth; and
  • The ongoing dependence on technology.

A key to success is physical presence at each installation, which I expect will expand in the future as eArmyU grows. A second key is providing flexible services with a goal of maintaining accreditation standards. TSU-FB has established a close working relationship with PricewaterhouseCoopers and has established a successful blueprint for expected future responses. It has a truly dedicated and unique faculty and staff who are well acquainted with the military culture. The school has accomplished, and continues to improve, the key guidelines of distance education established by the American Federation of Teachers (Kriger 2001).

Today’s soldiers must now not only prepare for war, but also for tomorrow’s technology. They must adapt to change in the face of the unique situations of today’s military as well as those of a continuously changing world. There is a constant tug on the soldier’s time to focus on a mission, family and education. So, eArmyU may indeed be a solution to not only providing an education for today’s soldier, but also to retaining educated soldiers for the future.

For more information on eArmy U, visit www.earmyu.com.


References

Burlas, J. 2000. “Distance Education Contract G'es to PricewaterhouseCoopers.” Army News Service, 14 December.

Burlas, J. 2001. “Soldiers Register for eArmyU.” Army News Service, 24 January.

Carr, S. 2000. “Army Bombshell Rocks Distance Education.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 18 August.

Carnevale, D. 2001. “Teachers’ Union Report Criticizes Businesslike Approach to Distance Education.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 31 August.

Emery, G.R. 2000. “Army Project Boosts E-Learning Prospects.” Washington Technology, 16 July.

Evans, T. W. 1993. “The All-Volunteer Army After Twenty Years: Recruiting in the Modern Era.” Army History: The Professional Bulletin of Army History. 27: 40-6.

Hoffman, K. 2000. “Army Announces Distance Learning Program.” Army News Service, 11 July.

Kriger, T. J. 2001. “A Virtual Revolution: Trends in the Expansion of Distance Education.” American Federation of Teachers.

Rosenberg, E. 2001. “Army under fire for its new recruiting slogan.” Naples Daily News, 18 February.

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2002 issue of THE Journal.

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