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Military Perspectives and Interests in an Expanding Online Learning Environment

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Military Perspectives and Interests in an Expanding Online Learning Environment

Gregory Bishop

Introduction

Exploring the expansion of the online learning model, this article examines how this expansion has influenced the military student.  Looking at the online and for profit expansion and ensuing lull, the underlying reasoning for declining enrollment, increasing attrition, and non-completion rates among these schools are explored. Varying online social media outlets are used to contact students and urge them to monitor social media platforms such as, Facebook, Instagram, and available phone apps. Online universities use of these platforms as an information dispersion system allows for a wide dissemination of information. While effective, this platform does not allow a meeting hall where students can meet and collaborate outside of the current class or with students within the same field of study.  The use of these online communities is not new, but they have seen little in the educational social arena that would add benefit to military members in an online setting.  Military members looking to be promoted or to further a career must take advantage of the ample educational benefits provided by the military and government.  Today’s educators are tasked with the responsibility to provide a fluid environment that is adaptable enough to facilitate the changing lifestyle of a military student or family member.  Social spaces that provide spontaneous scholarly conversation coupled with the familiar team and collaborative learning models featured within a familiar cultural military environment promotes a participatory learning group and therefore promotes persistence within the group, program, and institution.

Distance and online learning has brought the reality of a post-secondary education to countless people who many of whom would have otherwise not been able to begin or continue an academic career (Huber, 2014). Military members who wish to begin a degree path or continue to pursue graduate courses now have the capability to attend classes even if they are operationally deployed (TRADOC, 2011). Traditional military training models are evolving to online training courses in order to take advantage of the inherent self-reliance of the military members and brought many of the training courses to an online training environment (Joint Knowledge Online, 2017).

The Expansion of Online Learning  

Despite advances in learning science to include educational psychology, cognitive psychology, and new learning strategies, there is no single strategy that can pinpoint an effective pathway for learning in every situation (TRADOC, 2011). Access for educational opportunity saw enrollment soar for many colleges that, at times, had difficulty keeping up with the demand for new instructors (Huber, 2014).  In a 2015 Forbes magazine article, Ryan Craig wrote that before 1990, many universities thought that there was little profit to distance education as much until then had been done by correspondence. While many universities such as the University of Maryland University College and the University of Wisconsin thrived on correspondence degrees, the majority just did not see a viable market (Craig, 2015). 

The internet, of course, changed everything. By allowing a new type of interactivity to include interaction with the subject matter, the professor, and with other students, distance education was no longer a correspondence based learning environment.  Some traditional universities, like Duke and Cornell, were quicker to catch on and launched online certificate programs but did not launch full credentialed programs due to the apparent market leaders like University of  Maryland University College and the alleged stranglehold on the distance learning market share (Craig, 2015).

For-profit universities embraced the internet and began to thrive with little regard to the high standing of established distance learning and correspondence schools and tapped into an unrealized resource of non-traditional learners. By 2010, 70% of students who attended college online were doing so at a for-profit institution (Craig, 2015). By the year 2015, there was evidence that not all was well within the newly found boom of students, and the for-profit phenomenon and the flooded market could not sustain many of the start-up universities.

There has also been a much savvier student entering the picture. Many are realizing that they have a choice, and not only do the types of degrees matter, the school of origin does as well (Saul, 2013).  From a financial aspect, students expect a high academic return on their investment and have begun to examine options that will allow them to attend school without completely disrupting their daily lives. This consumer approach sees today’s student looking for the university that is willing to provide a viable program that will include a less expensive option and time management feasibility (Saul, 2013). 

As noted in Craig (2015), another viable reason for an increasing attrition rate among online learners is poor investment in product development.  As new enrollments began to decline, many for-profit online programs turned toward new marketing techniques and focused little on program development or academic return.  As a result, there was very little in the way of new program development or learning management innovation.  Online learning had stalled and fallen into a reoccurring overture of lecture, discussion topic, and assignment completion (Craig, 2015).  Any Google search on the internet would reveal information about the decline of for-profit schools and online education in general. There is not as much information citing what should be done to help ebb the tide of diminishing returns when it comes to schools investing capital to retain students.

In Craig (2015), it is stated that a differentiated online program could help provide a solution. Branding, specialized programs, and connecting students to jobs comprise the different elements of a viable differentiated program.  By branding themselves and partnering with more notable institutions, many for-profit universities have been able to increase enrollment. These past few years have also seen universities creating specialized programs to include certificate programs, and a flourishing jobs program has seen increasing returns, higher completion rates, and higher graduation rates (Craig, 2015).

Networking Online Learners

As far back as 1978, it was noted that the social nature of cognitive learning influenced a student’s ability to construct knowledge (Vygotsky, 1978). In Stacey (2002), an interactive online social discussion group was central to the students understanding of new conceptual ideas and information being presented within the class. In a study that saw graduate level students conversing through discussion groups that included interactive social conversation models, there was data that suggested social groups provided the students with enough stimuli to improve learning throughout the groups (Stacey 2002).  This presence within a social medium allows students to project themselves in an effective manner (Stacey, 2002).  As military students begin to join learning groups from an organizational and collaborative learning model, a social medium becomes a safe environment that allows socialization within a familiar forum (TRADOC, 2011). The military has begun to move from an organizational and dispersive style of education and training to an individualized non-traditional distance learning model that allows soldiers to complete required training online and in their spare times versus utilizing valuable man hours in the classroom (Chilcoat, 1999). While online relationships may take a little longer to gestate, there is no doubt substance to the theory that students tend to work harder and have more persistence when working within a group due to the increased accountability Stacey (2002).  Military students in general are trained to participate within a group and organizational environment. This leaves them more inclined to work harder to ensure the success of the group (Bonk & Wisher, 2000). 

Noted in Moshiri (2017), it is not only is the face of online learning changing for the student, but it is changing for the physical classroom as well. In a recent Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) Talk it was explained that larger and larger classrooms were being taught by professors that may be simultaneously streaming lectures throughout the country and into various classrooms. In an effort to satisfy growing enrollment requests and the inability of many universities to handle the growing demand, many institutions have opted to combine classrooms into a linked mega classroom with as many as 700 students. Noting that lecture is perhaps the worst medium for information retention, Moshiri states that massive online open courses (MOOCs) are not necessarily a solution as these would have the professor available as a lecturer and not as available for individual questions or learning opportunities. A massive interactive text (MAITS) type online learning model is proposed in order to address individual learning breakdowns in a more efficient manner. By creating an adaptive online learning environment, learning breakdowns can be shifted from the linear learning model to include stops that address the breakdown before progressing on to the next learning milestone.  By utilizing this adaptive learning model within a social network, it has been shown that students were able to utilize social avenues and adaptive education techniques to overcome learning breakdowns that were not achievable before in a traditional online learning environment (Moshiri, 2017). Members of the military familiar with a close group learning environment would greatly benefit from this socio-adaptive view of education by being able to create adaptive textbooks and learning manuals that may include various perceptive descriptions from previous students. Familiar terminology and narrative would help to identify key components of learning breakdowns and focus on familiar ideas already known to provide a comparative and similar picture for understanding. 

Developing Communities at an Online University

The Military has various communities that help service members retain a sense of belonging within their peer group.  These include veterans clubs, operational specialties, base social events, and even charitable organizations (Bonk & Wisher, 2000). Social and learning theory dictates that a similar need for online military social communities at educational institutions exists (Evans, Forney, Guido, Patton & Renn, 2009). This online social effort lends itself to joint products, collective efforts, and individual growth, and asks the question many online universities have seemed to overlook in their rush to rapidly expand what technology is available that will enhance an interactive social learning community?

As seen in Bonk and Wisher (2000), development of an online community rests on four key factors: membership, influence, fulfillment of individual needs, and shared events with emotional connections.

Membership.  Membership in an online community provides for a sense of involvement and belonging, social boundaries, self-identity, and an investment personally as well as to others in the group. These factors help to instill a sense of responsibility and sacrifice in order to reach an enhanced sense of entitlement and loyalty to the group or institution that sponsors the group. 

Influence. Influence with an online community refers to the ability to influence the community as well as be influenced by it. In Evans, Forney, Guido, Patton & Renn (2009), it is stated that a sense of self may change within the group based on fluid and changing dynamics influences from within the group (Evans, et al. 2009). The idea of influence also brings a sense of conformity and uniformity that many military members will find familiar and comfortable. This influence may also translate into persistence within the organization or institution through group participation and influence. For example, a military scholar forum that has military members taking classes at any particular online university may see individuals continuing to take classes online simply because the rest of the group is doing it.  

Fulfillment of Individual Needs. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs states that humans must satisfy the most basic needs before progressing to higher level growth needs (Maslow, 1943). Online communities provide a sense of belonging, and from that sense there is an inherent safety provided. This safety in turn provides individual milestones, rewards, and personal needs critical to a synergistic relationship with the group.

Shared Events and Emotional Connections. Emotional bonds and shared experiences are the cornerstone for military social environment. The adages “Band of Brothers,” “Iron Men and Iron Ships,” “Once a Marine, Always a Marine,” and “No Man Left Behind” lend validity to this concept, and service members create a nearly unbreakable bond with those members closest to them. Traditions and ceremony are used for many military events to help unit cohesion and esprit de corps (Bluejacket manual, 2017). Utilized in an online environment, this cohesion could be translated into a social connection that binds students of similar military backgrounds and allows for group members to inspire those who may not be able to self-motivate. 

Building an Online Community

As stated in Donovan (2015), “Taking classes online should be more than sitting in front of a computer- real engagement involves becoming a part of the community of learners” (pg. 1). An approach to online scholarly dialogue involves a commitment to more than just the immediate class or discussion question that must be answered with an initial answer and three responses to other students.  Scholarly dialogue and varying opinions are sometimes lost in the requirement to get the assignment completed and therefore loses its effectiveness for community and peer learning.  With the loss of online peer discussion and learning, the student community suffers as a result (Donovan, 2015). Steps should be taken to build an online community by encouraging students to gather within online chat rooms and forums that promote similar interests and education goals in order to build online relationships. This helps maximize the goal of an online learning community of like-minded individuals willing to meet in a safe space to exchange ideas, promote learning, support, and inspire other learners within the community (Donovan, 2015).

While many schools provide a social outlet for students in an internet café’, participation is limited to those students actually taking the class. Once the class has ended, any relationships built within that class must be continued through other social media means. Social media sites off campus (like Facebook, or other smart phone based messaging systems) may be a viable outlet for many of the students would prefer to keep in touch and exchange ideas. At present there are no social outlets at TUI for students to compare notes with other students in the same program unless they are current classmates.   

Adaptive Online Communities

In Barab, Thomas, and Merrill (1999), an online adult education course was the basis for the formation of an online community where the instructor allowed a collaborative exploration of the topic and promoted the sharing of personal experiences (Barab, Thomas & Merrill, 1999).  While the educational benefits of online communities are nothing new (Bonk & Wisher, 2000), using a fraternal type community to help with rising attrition and non-completion rates may be a new concept for many online universities.

Many military students are taking classes online for the first time, and without the familiar team concept surrounding them, many are confused and more than a little anxious to what awaits them. Academic advisors are helpful, but many have little experience with military members and cannot convey necessary information in a language easily understood, so many students are surprised or discouraged when things are not as expected. While a full blown fraternity may be out of the question at many online universities, there are some who relish the thought of an online “brotherhood” from which pledges can seek companionship and like-minded individuals to voice an opinion and gain help with any issues. In 2002, The Huffington Post printed an article stating that a Florida student had started an online fraternity named Theta Omega Gamma and at the time had 24 active co-ed members and boasts the mantra “Without unity, we have no success” (Finnegan, 2010). Of course, there are mixed emotions from many concerning an online fraternity.  In a blog titled “Fraternal Thoughts,” there were plenty of arguments against it (Shertzer, 2010).  According to Shertzer (2010), it is impossible to digitize a fraternity citing the missing human element. The question of can one really get to know someone over the basics that many social networks provide? He argues that real vulnerabilities and needs are impossible to convey in a digital world, and real human interaction is the only substitution for this (Shertzer, 2010). While his argument holds some water, it does not, take into account any perceived common vulnerabilities or common bonds that may be inherent to those who share a history in the military and how those bonds would translate to an online community.   

Adapting a Non-Traditional Perspective to Military Learning

The rapid expansion in online education will impact the military’s educational outlook in dramatic ways (Chilcoat, 1999).  Realizing that education will no longer be an individual branch issue, the leadership has moved toward a joint military effort that will transform into a joint military education model.  According to Chilcoat (1999), a new educational system is underway that allows educational requirements to be on demand within a network based system that is both experiential and virtual. While much of this technology is utilized within the inter service academies, it is easily transferred into the general population for troop dissemination. In 1999, the military made the move toward a professional military education system that has since become the envy of the United Nations and NATO. Not only have other world military organizations taken notice, but civilian corporate and industrial leaders have as well (Chilcoat, 1999).

A Changing Outlook

As military leaders worked to bring a revolution for joint service schools and academies into the technological forefront, there came a realization that this technology could be translated into a distance learning model based on the network centric applications (Chilcoat, 1999). 2014 saw an effort to begin moving all web based training efforts to a joint operated system aptly named Joint Knowledge Online (JKO). By June of 2015, all web based and virtual classroom training had been relocated to JKO and could be accessed by any service members who held a valid account. (JKO, 2017). In 2017, Joint Knowledge Online is capable of providing around the clock global access to user driven courses and training resources. It is accessible through both classified and unclassified networks so as to be available to all members of the armed forces in any arena or theater (JKO, 2017). 

This new training system was based on a distributed learning model that looked to integrate “off the shelf” learning technology and widely disseminated interfaces that would reduce the education and training costs while at the same time enhancing the ability for soldiers to complete training through an online distributive learning platform (JKO, 2017). Utilizing resources such as immersive scenario simulations, culture training, senior enlisted professional military education courses, and an extensive video library, JKO has brought an otherwise difficult and time consuming organizational learning environment up to speed through a member driven on demand training system (JKO, 2017). The position of the distance learner becomes more of a realization through this new learning continuum, and even leader development could become more realized within this new system. Within JKO there are new perspectives that include the ability to integrate social, personal, and experiential learning in order to align personnel with the most appropriate learning methods (JKO, 2017).

While The Joint Knowledge Online system may seem on track to replace conventional online learning, there are some that would argue that even with a centralized learning system there have been many educational libraries that have either been outsourced or have yet to be moved within the JKO network. One of these systems is the Army Learning Management System (ALMS). It is also a centralized training system designed to allow training supervisors, instructors, and individual users the ability to schedule and maintain training competencies required by the individual’s position or job requirement (ALMS, 2017). ALMS was created in 1996 and was approved as a concept plan by former Army Chief of Staff General Reimer. It served as the core program that provided programming, funding, and strategy that laid the base for Army distance learning as a new alternative to the standard organizational or cooperative learning models. While ALMS has served a useful purpose, JKO has replaced some of the previous learning curriculums and classes. Presently, there is a gap in training segments that see JKO transferring many users back into the aging ALMS system in order to access classes that have yet to be transferred into the new system (ALMS, 2017).

System incompatibilities have also been an issue as many updates on source programs such as Adobe, or Flash player have exceeded the original program’s ability to run within the current program.  The Army medical department (AMEDD) had been utilizing a source program called AMEDD personnel education and quality system (APEQS), designed to catalog courses and track where users could gain access and to track which courses were delinquent in the yearly training cycle. The AMEDD personnel education and quality system (APEQS) was removed from service in 2015 forcing medical department personnel to seek out and track educational requirements through personal avenues leaving many delinquent on training requirements and unwilling to pursue some classes based the difficult nature of the course enrollment. As an alternative, personnel were instructed to refer to the outdated ALMS system (ALMS, 2017). 

Summary

Military leaders have just recently realized the potential of an online learning environment and the impact that can be made throughout the Department of Defense (TRADOC, 2011). These changes have been occurring rapidly and have left some members wondering how to cope with the lack of camaraderie and the loss of the team cooperative learning plan to which they have grown accustomed. All basic duty and primary mission aside, the military is dedicated to providing an avenue for all of the members to further their education. Despite many bases having campuses on site, many of the service members choose to further their education online so as to be more flexible during deployments or because of a permanent change of duty. Missing elements of an online education are social groups and organizations on campus that bring like-minded students together to form bonds, and motivate each other to continue or to help with thoughts and ideas when needed.

A recent study was conducted at a popular online university and asked military students about the current use of social media outlets available at the school. The data suggested that many students actually enjoyed the away and alone time associated with attending school on campus (Bishop, 2018).  While this is indicative of many non-traditional students, there was a significant number of military students that stated they would be more likely to attend classes if they had a friend, or someone from their military group that was attending with them.  Many of these students stated that fellow military members shared the same values and spoke the “same language.” There was also a significant amount of respondents who reported that they would prefer a phone based messaging system in order to socialize with peers and group members rather than the established social media provided by the college of classroom cyber cafés,  Facebook, and Instagram. Many universities also utilize a mobile phone app that allows students to keep up with the latest news and events happening within the university including many helpful webinars such as career development, new student introductory seminars, and even a social media portion. 

Lacking is the social meeting place that many soldiers and sailors can go to seek guidance and friendship from senior leaders from within an established military group. For example, a group of Hospital Corpsman (Navy medics) who are all taking classes in health administration may routinely meet within a forum to discuss not only current school related topics but also what is happening within that particular group of medics or how to best cope with the stress of being deployed with the Marines and continuing to take classes.

Military members are trained to rely on each other in very stressful situations (TRADOC, 2011). This reliance bonds them and keeps them bound into a group that will look to each other for advice and support in most situations even a tough assignment in school. A recent study conducted at Trident University International does not state that all military members are seeking a group, there was a significant portion of those who stated that a continued persistence in school may be a likely outcome of having military members in future classes with whom they could bond (Bishop, 2018). This along with a strong peer group from which to draw support may help students gain confidence to either return to school or continue despite difficult times during deployments or away from family support. This in turn helps the university by halting many of the increasing non-completion and attrition rates associated with online schools. 

Conclusion

Many online universities have done well by tapping into the plethora of military students looking to continue their education online. There are a few online universities like that cater mostly to the military student and have constructed online programs that are flexible enough to mitigate down time due to long term absences from deployments or military obligations. These programs are also rigid enough and set to such a standard allowing them to maintain regional accreditation and a military friendly school rating for many years. As attrition rates and non-completion rates rise within many online schools, online universities have managed to keep a fairly steady rate throughout these past six years. In fact, by maintaining a heavy military presence in school, many universities have been able to stay ahead of comparable schools by a significant margin (College Results Online, 2016). By exploring the inherent military esprit de corps and tendency of military service members to gather, assist, and cooperate with each other, Trident may be able to boost military persistence within the programs and eventually see an increase in graduation rates by focusing on ways in which students can maximize their social interaction. 

Drawing from the moving in, moving out theory stated in Goodman, Schlossberg, and Anderson (2006), military students transitioning into an online and non-traditional learning model are looking to find common threads within their peer group or other students. These changes may find many military members trying to cope with an unfamiliar environment and running up against self-induced barriers to learning (Goodman, Schlossberg, & Anderson, 2006). Many of these self-induced barriers may be eliminated by utilizing social media, and forming groups for students to congregate to discuss learning, to participate in social events, and to elicit advice not only from military members but also from those with the same job descriptions, experiences, frustrations, and successes.

There are of course many ways to accomplish a social gathering point for those military members who wish to do so. Facebook is littered with veteran sites that are looking to find lost members of a unit for reunions. Anyone would be hard pressed to find a military command that did not have an Instagram account where current members could keep track of current events at the command. While both of these social media outlets are viable, respondents from the research project in Article Two overwhelmingly preferred a smart phone message based system.

Many university provide an App for use with smart phones and provides useful information through social media. At present, most institutions do not have a feature within the apps that provides students any clear communication with members of anyone outside of their present class, within the same degree program, or any student groups or organizations from which members could receive support. Recent studies suggest that an online social meeting place for military members would most certainly provide a boost for academic success. In addition, the resulting persistence and completion ratios would reduce attrition rates and increase four to six-year graduation rates (Bishop, 2018).

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About the Author(s)

Dr. Gregory Bishop, EdD, is a retired Independent Duty Corpsman of the United States Navy and is currently serving as Educational Director of a medical practice located in Fort Campbell, Ky.  A lifelong learner he has directed his educational efforts to providing enlisted members of the Armed Forces the opportunity to growth and career movement through education. His publications include his dissertation titled “Military Social Perspectives in an Online Learning Environment”.