Distance Learning: 5 Tips for Success

A recent article by Military Times discussing the most popular schools for active duty and veteran students using Tuition Assistance and G.I. Bill programs stated the “most popular colleges cater to troops by taking classes to them.” This should be no surprise, after all one of the largest hurdles college bound military members face is access to classes.

Like any potential student who is also holding down full time employment, military members often find that it is not practical to attend Monday thru Friday classes. Traditional colleges have addressed this problem by offering night and weekend courses, but if you are in the military you may soon find that this option does not address conflicts resulting from deployments or irregular duty schedules. Even if you are lucky enough to have a duty schedule which allows you to attend course part time, it will take much longer to complete a degree due a schedule which is usually interrupted by inevitable transfers. New duty stations means new schools and possibly lost credits – which means lost time and money.

Distance LearningThis is why the next aspect of the Military Times article should come as no surprise. The two most popular schools with today’s military members and veterans are University of Phoenix (G.I. Bill) and American Military University (tuition assistance). One reason is that both schools provide liberal credit for professional experience. Another reason is both also offer distance learning, often allowing students to obtain a degree without ever stepping foot in a traditional classroom. But are they right for you?

I had the opportunity to take advantage of distance learning several times when I returned to college as a working adult. Hopefully, some of the lessons I learned will assist you in make the right choice for your future.

1) Have regular access to a computer with reliable internet access. Most modern distance learning courses are web based, so access to a computer with reliable internet access is a must. Each program will have different requirements depending upon what operating systems are utilized, but your smartphone or tablet will not be enough.

2) Have a strong reading and writing foundation. In a traditional classroom, students with marginal reading or writing ability may be able to compensate through face to face interaction with instructors or peers. However, in a distance learning program, almost all course work is based upon reading comprehension and the ability to write articulate reports.

3) Have solid time management skills. Although online courses are more flexible in terms of when you study and complete course work, there will still be due dates and minimum work requirements. Most classes will require you to log in a specific number of times per week and upload assignments before specified deadlines. You should also expect to spend at least 3 hours per credit hour per week on studying – a level equal to traditional programs.

4) Understand the testing procedures. The majority of programs utilize one of two testing procedures, either proctored exams or timed online exams. I have experienced both and each has advantages as well as disadvantages. Proctored exams require access to an approved proctor (which may or may not include your unit education officer or a local librarian). Online tests are heavily structured, timed programs and test your knowledge by limiting your ability to research each question. You must determine which is required by your desired program.

5) Take advantage of financial aid. Obviously, there are many distance learning programs which qualify for financial assistance including both the G.I. Bill and tuition assistance. However, there are several programs which may not qualify. Look for programs offered by well-established institutions accredited by national or regional education councils. If there is any doubt, contact a local VA representative.

Selecting a program can often be the most difficult aspect of returning to school. Simply entering “distance learning programs” or even “top distance learning programs for veterans” will return thousands of results, many sponsored by the school offering the program or “for fee” services offering to match you to a likely school. Prior to blindly clicking on links and wading through pages of biased or useless information, try the following sites first:

  • VA GI Bill Database – Allows you to search for schools approved for G.I. Bill programs and provides contact information. Additional information concerning specific allowances for distance learning and a helpline is also available.
  • USNews Interactive Website – Allows you to search for programs matching your specific needs such as degree, area of study, state and even cost per credit. You will need to enter personal information such as name, address and email to receive final results, so you can expect to be contacted by schools offering programs which match your search criteria.

By comparing the results of both sites you will be able to determine the ranking for a particular school and insure it is approved for G.I. Bill benefits.

Good luck and good learning!

Tom Burrell

Tom enlisted in the US Marine Corps Reserves in 1987. Following service in Desert Storm, he transitioned to active duty with the US Coast Guard. In 1997 he left the USCG to pursue a position in conservation & maritime law enforcement. Tom is currently a Captain and he oversees several programs, including his agency investigation unit. He is also a training instructor in several areas including firearms, defensive tactics and first aid/CPR. In 2006 Tom received his Associate’s Degree in Criminal Justice from Harrisburg Area Community College and in 2010 a Bachelor’s Degree from Penn State University.
Tom Burrell
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