Educational Access for Soldiers
But HBCUs may be missing out due to distance learning incapacity
By Phaedra Brotherton
The Army’s venture into distance learning — dubbed eArmyU — is proving to be a big success with more than 12,000 soldiers enrolled since it began a year ago. Enlisted soldiers, particularly soldiers of color, have been lining up for the program that offers the soldiers a laptop, Internet access and free tuition to 23 participating colleges and universities. The three participating bases offering the program — Fort Benning, Ga., Fort Campbell, Ky., and Fort Hood, Texas — have waiting lists.
The eArmyU program began in January 2001, and expects to offer online courses to 80,000 soldiers over the next five years. Two additional Army installations in Fort Carson, Colo., and Fort Lewis, Wash., were added in February.
“An educated soldier clearly gives the Army a tremendous return on investment,” says Secretary of the Army Thomas E. White. “We are meeting our goals to create technology-savvy soldiers to support Army Transformation, succeed on the digitized battlefield, enhance retention and help soldiers achieve academic degrees while they serve.”
Soldiers must have at least three years remaining in the service to qualify. They also need to complete 12 credits within two years or they will be charged a percentage of college costs. General studies, business administration, information systems management and criminal justice are among the most popular majors.
The eArmyU partnership includes a collaboration of 23 colleges and universities and several hardware and software providers, offering soldiers more than 90 online postsecondary degree and certificate programs and 4,000 courses. The distance learning portal is designed, built and operated by PwC Consulting, a business of Pricewaterhouse
North Carolina A&T State University is currently the only historically Black college or university participating in the program. Colleges with the largest percentage of eArmyU enrollment are Central Texas College; Troy State University; Thomas Edison State College; Saint Leo University; and Rio Salado Community College, which PwC Consulting considers a Hispanic-serving institution (HSI).
To participate, institutions must:
• Be members of the Service Member Opportunity Colleges Army Degree program, which includes schools who agree to guarantee transfer credit for many courses at the undergraduate level;
• Offer degree programs consistent with the
needs of the enlisted soldier population;
• Agree to abide by certain best practices in
• Be able to support students virtually;
• Have the business infrastructure to partici-
pate effectively and agree to contractual
• Be accredited by a recognized accrediting
filling a Demand
Nearly 700 soldiers are enrolled at Rio Salado Community College in Tempe, Ariz. The school provides three degrees — two associates’ of Applied Science degrees: Applied Science/Computer Tech and General Studies; one associate’s of arts: General Studies; and nine certificate programs, including Desktop Publishing, Programming, and Quality Customer Service. The school has a long history of distance education and has been offering Web-based instruction since 1996. Nearly 80 percent of the eArmyU students are pursuing certificates in computer usage, programming or maintenance.
This reflects the demand of the marketplace, says Dr. Karen Mills, senior associate dean of instruction at Rio Salado. The program is set up so that once a student earns a certificate, he or she can go on to earn an associate’s degree. The program has short-term successes built into it.
“My understanding is the majority of students (soldiers) weren’t considering secondary education until the army provided the opportunity,” Mills says. “That’s why I think taking small steps is a good idea.”
Mills says besides the obvious benefit of increased enrollment, Rio Salado has been pleasantly surprised that many students choose them as a host institution, as opposed to a target institution. A host institution is the school a soldier chooses as their primary educator. A target institution is a school from which a soldier may decide to take a class for credit and then transfer that class to be counted toward a program at his or her host institution.
Mills says because Rio Salado offers so much flexibility, they thought they would likely be a target institution for many. But they were pleasantly surprised.
“It turns out that eight out of 10 of the eArmyU students plan on getting a degree or certificate. That was a benefit we had not expected,” Mills says.
At North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, 14 eArmyU students are pursuing a four-year degree in occupational safety and health. A&T long has been involved in distance learning, offering extension courses since the 1970s. The institution has been offering online education for about two years. The distance learning program is continuing to evolve.
One challenge for A&T has been handling the student demand for instant communication around the clock. It’s been a challenge for them to respond to students’ questions and needs in a timely manner because of scheduling conflicts, says Donald Estler, coordinator of distance learning and project coordinator for eArmyU.
While the faculty and provost have been very supportive and positive about the program, North Carolina A&T has decided not to apply to continue participating in the program at this time. The institution plans to take some time to re-evaluate its online offerings and to address the communication and response support issue. The institution plans to continue its commitment to the eArmyU students currently enrolled in the program.
Despite the early challenges, Thurman Guy, special assistant, vice chancellor of Information Technology and Telecommunications at North Carolina A&T, says the school has realized many benefits from its participation in the program. He says the faculty has been able to be involved with a very targeted, motivated population and have been able to develop teaching skills for distance learning. Guy says these skills also will be applicable in the traditional classroom.
North Carolina A&T is one of the few HBCUs offering a full degree program online. While many HBCUs offer at least a class via distance learning, efforts need to be beefed up to offer more full degree programs, says Stephanie Meyers, vice president of RJ Meyers Publishing and Consulting and principle investigator for the 2000 NAFEO sponsored study, “Historically Black Colleges and Universities: An Assessment of Networking and Connectivity.”
The study found that two years ago, 85 percent of HBCUs were not offering full degree programs via distance learning, but planned to in the future. Most were offering individual courses or offering programs in conjunction with other institutions.
“Schools now need to move toward providing direct degrees,” Meyers says.
Meyers says the study showed that most
have the infrastructure to provide Web-based classes, but one of the barriers is that not enough faculty are skilled in using and developing Web-based classroom instruction tools.
Faculty training and development is an important area to strengthen in order for more HBCUs to offer degree programs through distance learning, Meyers says. And, she adds, culturally based training programs are key to addressing this issue.
“There are scores of programs available, but it’s important that programs take into account the cultural background of the faculty at HBCUs. They must recognize that many of the faculty may not be comfortable with technology tools.”
A second issue preventing HBCUs from taking advantage of such programs as eArmyU is the lack of innovation in producing online content that goes beyond the standard Web site, Meyers says. Most schools have a Web site that provides basic introductory information about courses and faculty, but the sites can’t support student registration online or students accessing classes or class notes online.
“That’s what students want to do today,” Meyers says. “There is a growing interest for distance learning for the students who are enrolled (physically) at the school. Many would like the option to download class assignments, take tests and complete assignments through the Internet.”
Barbara Lombardo, director of the eArmyU program for PricewaterhouseCoopers Consulting, says eArmyU will continue to reach out to the
HBCUs who were able to apply for consideration by the recent Jan. 31 deadline.
“We have issued a request for proposals for additional colleges and universities, which could result in more HBCUs being added,” Lombardo says.
Meyers notes that Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., has drafted a bill for funding to strengthen the infrastructure and capacity of minority-serving institutions. The bill also includes provisions for leadership and faculty development. Meyers says the bill is expected to be introduced this session.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com