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.