Monday, June 18, 2007


There's Distance Ed, and Then There's Distance Ed

Our distance ed coordinator stopped me in the cafeteria last week to report that she's trying to enroll a student in an online class; the student in question is currently deployed in Afghanistan, and expects to be there for the next 18 months. He wants to take the class from there.

Apparently, the student reports that he wants to have something to think about other than his immediate surroundings, and a college class would fit the bill. He also wants to have something to jump into when his tour of duty ends and he returns home. I think it's a great idea, and we're working to make it happen, but we're bumping into some weird obstacles.

First, of course, there's tuition. As a cc, we have a higher rate for people from out-of-state, on the theory that state residents already pay taxes towards supporting the college. Afghanistan is clearly out-of-state, but it seems ridiculous to apply that logic here. His domicile is local, and his parents are doing the legwork of buying and shipping his textbooks and suchlike. We'll get the out-of-state premium waived one way or another.

Student fees are a question. They're dedicated to supporting student clubs, athletics, and access to the health center. I suspect that these are pretty much irrelevant in his case.

Then there are time zones. Professors who teach online classes sometimes have set times for quizzes or tests or chats. Those times are based on our local time zone. Afghanistan is in a very different time zone, so a time that may be perfectly reasonable for the local students may be utterly out of the question there, and vice versa.

Exam proctoring is another one. Typically, we require students in online classes to come to campus for proctored exams. We'll have to waive that in this case, obviously, but we haven't quite figured out how to replace it.

Library access is non-existent out there. Realistically, most students do most of their research for papers on the internet now anyway, but he doesn't really have the choice. I don't know that there's much to be done about that.

Then there are the obvious issues of a war zone. Internet access may be spotty from time to time, and his availability to tend to the classwork will be hard to predict from hour to hour, let alone week to week. (Even calling for tech support could be an issue, given time zone differences.) The standard periodic reading quizzes may not make sense, given that the assumption behind them is that students are largely in control of their own schedules. Given his circumstances, that assumption probably won't hold, at least not consistently.

These may all sound picky and silly, and compared to the threat of getting blown up at any given moment, they are. But the student wants a grade and course credit, and the grade has to be based on something rational. When he comes back, he wants to be able to jump right into college with some credits and real subject-matter knowledge already under his belt, and I want him to have that option.

Although we don't usually involve students' parents to anywhere near this degree, we've asked the parents to reach out to the professor before the course starts to give her a heads-up as to the student's situation and what the parents can and can't do. So that involves some FERPA waivers and some very clear communication on all sides, as well as a certain amount of trial-and-error.

We've had students in the military before, but they were physically local, so things like library access or exam proctoring were non-issues. This is different.

Have you ever had a distance ed student on active deployment? What issues (and solutions!) did you find? If you have a tip that could save us reinventing the wheel, I'd be grateful. I'd really like to make this work.

I wouldn't be surprised if they already had some form of distance learning system in place. If not why not have his commanding officer or someone else proctor the test? I'm sure they'd get a kick out of it.

Chats would be another issue entirely. Do distance learning professors have office hours? Afghanistan's roughly 9 hours ahead. If one of your online professors had afternoon office hours it would be late enough at night for your student to presumably have some free time.
Three words, DD:
Central Texas College

CTC is a community college that is the front-runner in military Distance Learning.
We had a student take one of our online courses while on active deployment in Afghanistan, actually. Our classes require online synchronous sessions each week - this was a challenge for all the reasons you mentioned. In addition, our student had difficulty with his internet connection and firewalling, preventing him from participating in some activities or accessing some resources the rest of the class could use.

I'm not sure I can fully answer your questions, but here are some thoughts:
- I'm sure different rules apply to those on active military duty with regards to in-state/out-of-state. If your student's permanent residence is at his parents', that may be enough to qualify him for in-state? Either way, this is something his parents could pursue.
- Most student fees, at least at our institution, can be waived if you aren't going to be using the services like the fitness center, health insurance, etc. Our online students pay some fees, but mainly the ones pertaining to technology and library infrastructure.
- Work with your library. I would guess that your librarians would jump at the chance to pursue new solutions for your student. On our campus, our library made a commitment to making course materials available online for our distance students - this is now in use in many local classes as well.
- Our program doesn't really use quizzes or exams, but I imagine that you could either set up an additional identical quiz for the student based on his time parameters, or make some sort of proctoring arrangements with a superior or someone else where he is in Afghanistan.

Hope this helps!

Elizabeth Edwards
eedwards at uiuc dot edu
Here is what we do - hopefully it will help.

First, if the student's military home of record (on all the military documentation) is your state then he is an instate resident. Deployment doesn't count as moving any more than being sent out of town for work for a shorter length of time. In our case there are no student fees charged to students only taking DE classes except for individual course-related fees. If they are taking a mix of DE and on-campus then all fees apply.

We have students on the other side of the world and they make individual arrangements with the instructor on any synchronous interactions like chats. Quizzes/tests etc are normally open for 12 or 24 hours because non-deployed people have weird schedules too.

The military does have a system in place for proctoring. We do testing in the course management system so getting the test to them is not an issue. If testing is done in a system they can't access from off-campus then they would need to email the test to the proctor. Most of our folks are on bases where there is an education officer so I'm not sure what they would do if the student was in the field.

Does your library have subscriptions to online versions of journals? Those can normally be accessed from anywhere with a valid student login. They may also work with online libraries to provide electronic access to books.

Good luck!
In addition to Central Texas College, there's University of Maryland University College, which specializes in providing distance ed programs to active-duty military. Between the two of them, I'm sure you could figure out how to accommodate this student.
In addition to CTC, there's Excelsior (the old Regents College) in NY: they've had lots of experience with deployed students. As npe suggested in theh first comment, they use commanding officers (and the unit education officer) to proctor exams.
Just to add to the library piece, your student's commanding officer might know of additional military library options. For example, there's an Army Library Program that provides access to some academic resources online. Not sure what the access rules are (or if your student's even in the Army!), but hopefully that's where the commanding officer comes in.
I took an online cc course while living in a different country (on the other side of the international date line, no less). What made the tests and quizzes easy for me to handle was the fact that the professor had a 24-hour window for us to take them (but once you started you had only an hour or whatever to complete it) - so I could take them when it was best for me, on my schedule. I realize the 24-hour solution might not work if you're out on a mission for three days or something, but it's something to consider.
Nothing much to add that hasn't already been said, but eArmyU is another keyword you can use to find people who do this sort of thing every term.

I have at one point been involved in considering the mechanics of having an internet-led course with proctored final exams organized out of the country (in this case Sweden). We ended up settling for asking the relevant embassy to proctor the exam and send it back as a solution.
Much of the problem arises from your institution's ill-considered (if you'll forgive me) policy of requiring synchronous sessions and proctored onsite exams for DL courses.

Neither of those policies are essential pedagogically, and both combine to prevent you from having a true DL program. A fully-asynchronous course would be no problem for the student in Afghanistan (or Tokyo or Colombia or Iraq or Texas--and I've taught classes with students in all of those places).

I know that there is often intense resistance to completely eliminating synchronous elements, but unless you do, you are going to inevitably (and unfairly) disadvantage some students--not just those on military duty, but also those who have complex family responsibilities, work hours, and so forth. Exactly the students for whom DL can be a lifesaver. Convincing (usually) faculty that there are also pedagogical reasons (not just student access or convenience) to have a fully-asynchronous course is often the first step. And it can be a long haul.

But sometimes a student like the one you're posting about here can be the thin edge of that wedge.

The tuition is a separate issue, and one that may need resolution and support at a much higher level. The City University of New York's Online Baccalaureate for Degree Completers has resolved this issue by mandating that all students in this online program, no matter where they physically reside, will pay in-state tuition.
As someone who's studied the history of education, the post from Joseftu is closest to the mark. Distance learning programs can have symmetry, consistency, and legitimacy without being synchronized.

For instance, before our current computer paradigm, colleges utilized correspondence courses. Without getting bogged down in the comparative quality of all those historical programs, I bring them up to remind everyone that online classrooms do not have to reinvent the wheel.

DD, find an emeritus prof. at your college, and ask her/him how these situations where handled, for instance, during Vietnam. If your college is old enough to have records beyond that, then World War II was kind of a boom time for correspondence courses. - TL
There should be a specific provision of federal law that makes him a residence of his home state; that should come alongside the provisions to make him a residence for voting purposes. State law on this point could get sticky, but basically all he should have to do is show that he has a current voter registration (and if he doesn't have one, he should get one, right? Right.). That should satisfy the state laws concerning domiciles. (If need be, the federal provision should override state law in this instance.) The school's lawyer should be able to locate the exact provision for you. (BTW, 'should be' in the first sentence means 'has to be' or otherwise fed law concerning soldiers wouldn't make much sense. They wouldn't be able to vote, etc etc. I would go ahead and give him the local rate but charge him the fees since, in effect, he's a local student, so that will insure that all t's are crossed and all i's are dotted. Then no one can come back on y'all or him afterwards.

[Feh. I'm not sure my reasoning about domiciles was clear enough. Your state should be obligated by federal law to treat him as a local resident since he has his domicile there, even if he has been sent overseas. As such, all he has to show is that it IS his domicile and then you should be obligated by federal law to treat him as an in-state student for tuition purposes. Therefore, you should treat him (for fee purposes) exactly as if he lived 50 feet from the campus; you charge him the local tuition AND the student fees. Thus nobody higher up the food chain (or further away on it) should be able to complain later.]

It seems to me that unless the instructor has a specific reason for his class to have local library access, it shouldn't matter. And I would think the thing to do with the tests would be to have the instructor treat him as someone perpetually doing makeup tests since he has a legitimate excuse. Obviously this will take more work on the part of the instructor; hopefully they'll be ok with that.

Combine the above with the waivers and that should cover almost all of it. I suggest you talk to the instructor if possible.

m, wheel-greasing
Typically, we require students in online classes to come to campus for proctored exams.

ACK! That really defeats the flexibility issues for students who have nontraditional schedules! It need not be that way. Check out this article for pointers on how to administer online exams to students without proctoring, while helping avoid cheating issues.
Thanks to everybody who directed me to other resources -- I'll admit I was unfamiliar with Central Texas College's program, and with the Army Library Program. Those are helpful.

The issue of requiring on-campus exams is an ongoing one. Many faculty accepted online teaching only on the condition of on-campus tests, since they were worried about academic dishonesty. It may be worth revisiting that topic.
I took all of high school through correspondence course and exams were proctored by a family friend. The school (U. Nebraska-Lincoln) had a standard procedure where they required a non-relative with a different home address to proctor the exams and both examinee and examiner had to sign a honesty pledge. As others have said, something like this with a superior administering exams would solve that problem. You should be able to charge the student in state no problem. Is it possible to charge the student the usual on campus admin fees and use that $ to compensate the instructor for any extra work required to accomodate the student? I know money doesn't flow quite that easily but it seems something could be worked out.
Delurking for just a moment to ask a question about online testing. I am a cc history professor who requires on-campus testing for the reason I'm sure most will recognize -- there's no other way to be sure my tests don't become open-book. In history this is a particular problem when one tests objectively. I want my students to demonstrate that they can learn and retain a lot of information. In an online, unproctored test it's just too easy for students to find the answers quickly. I also fear that if I assign essays these, too, will become open-note or ghost-written. I've searched online for solutions to this because I'd love to test online and haven't found anything. Does anyone have any insights into online history testing? Has anyone found anything that works?
There are many technical certifications that require proctored exams, which are usually taken in a registered test center. For my A+ certification, I contacted the agency that grants the certification, and specified one of several test centers in Honolulu. I paid the certifying agency for the test (and they presumably gave some of that to the test center). I arrived at the time I'd selected, was shut into a bare room with a computer, and took the test.

I don't know how much one would have to pay the tech test centers for the use of their testing services, but that might be worth investigating.

Or it might be a business opportunity for someone, to set up a test center that provided more than technical testing.
I feel like I'm jumping in way late on this and a lot of ground has already been covered. Northern Virginia Community College's Extended Learning Institute offers distance learning (300+ courses) and as far as I know, we are the only distance learning program in the US with a largely self-paced model of instruction. Courses do have to be completed in 16 weeks, but for most courses there is a lot of flexibility as to how quickly assignments are completed and when exams are taken. This model helps cater to the needs of nontraditional students such as deployed military in terms of minimizing scheduling conflicts and allowing for gaps in time where students might need to be out doing something other than their course work--in this case, fighting a war.

Others have already touched on key aspects of how this works including the proctoring system. Students need to arrange for a proctor, and as someone already mentioned, a commanding officer should cover that.
Timely news article on using webcams to monitor students taking off site exams.
I attended some online courses and the exams all had a time limit. Yes you could access any material you wanted to take the test but with the time constraints, if you didn't know the material, you weren't going to do well.
I teach online and have had a deployed student before. All of my quizzes and exams are open-book, but with time limits. I also don't do traditional office hours, but I have the students email me through Blackboard and we figure out a time to chat if they want to. I think that when it's an online course, you just have to assume that things are open book and set up the exams and quizzes to have time limits and only be visited once (most software can do this) and then it works out okay. Best of luck to the student
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