Not so long ago, an online school was pretty much just that. But as demand for online degrees continues to grow, military e-learners have become choosier, says retired Army Maj. Ed Dennis, military relations manager at Bryant & Stratton College Online. Now, it's also about the quality — student experience in addition to academics. To that end, a growing number of online schools are taking steps to foster community and improve overall support for student service members and veterans. Dennis and other military reps at online schools talk about how this is being accomplished.
Online-only Ashworth College started a Student Veterans of America chapter last December. Founded by retired Army 1st Sgt. Rodney Butler, the school's military education coordinator, the chapter serves as a support network for student service members, veterans, family and friends. That's also the purpose of Student Veterans of Bryant & Stratton College Online, which launched in May to provide vets an open forum to discuss their challenges as students and to give feedback to the school.
How do online schools take traditionally campus-based offerings such as clubs and make them work in a virtual environment? It's not as hard as you might think, says Melissa Maddox, Ashworth's business services manager.
"We do a lot through our community" — the online platform students can join to connect with others who have similar interests, Maddox says. In fact, she says the school has many other clubs, fraternities, sororities and study groups that meet through its virtual community.
Bryant & Stratton College Online's veterans group meets on the professional network LinkedIn, Dennis says. "My intent was to move [the group] to a professional setting" that also could be used for networking purposes after graduation.
Both groups are in their early stages.
At press time, Ashworth's had 21 official members; Bryant & Stratton's had only five.
‘Groups' and Web pages
"Campus common"-type areas are gaining in popularity among online-only schools and online divisions of traditional colleges. In addition to its SVA chapter, Ashworth College has military-specific groups within its community — a veterans section, spouse section and active-duty section. Formed last November, the groups already boast a combined membership of more than 2,000 students, Butler says.
Just like in a brick-and-mortar classroom, "conversations" in the community are free-flowing and widely varied. But unlike in a traditional classroom, school representatives can check in to see what students are saying and get involved in those discussions.
Web pages also can have more targeted goals. In April, Bryant & Stratton College Online launched SalutetoSpouses.com with career, education and scholarship resources.
Online schools use Web-based seminars known as webinars for everything from open houses for prospective students to finding jobs after college. How do webinars work? It's not unlike an open house, conference or seminar at a traditional college campus, Dennis says. Take, for example, an open-house webinar.
"Students log in at a specific time. We have academic advisers, admissions representatives, financial aid representatives" and others waiting to chat with them. And, unlike traditional campus-based seminars, if you miss a webinar, you can always go back and read the archived transcript online.
Online schools use webinars specifically to reach military students. For example, American Sentinel University's webinar is "Using military education benefits effectively." Grantham Universtiy has a two-part webinar on the civilian job search.
Ashworth launched a military Facebook page in March. "We have content streaming from key military-related sites, and we've invited our military students, friends and supporters" to "like" the page, says Richard Orr, Ashworth's senior marketing communications manager.
More examples of social media being used to connect with military learners:
* YouTube videos — everything from recruiting ads to messages from troops who have to miss graduation because of deployments.
* Tweets keeping military students apprised of the latest news on topics such as education benefits.
Ultimately, an online school that cares about its military students is going to make an effort to really get to know those students, the experts say, reaching out via phone, email and, in many cases, face-to-face visits. As part of his role as military education coordinator at Ashworth, Butler conducts student visits on installations and has been known to make visits to individual vets.
At Bryant & Stratton College Online, Dennis says he communicates regularly with many of the school's military students, starting from the moment they first contact the school.
"When students call in to the call center, they are asked if they are affiliated with the military," he says. "If they are interested in the school, I send them an email, so they all have my contact information. I tell them I am retired Army and tell them to contact me. I would estimate that 85 percent of them send me a return email asking me a question."