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Interview with an Online Student on Active Duty in Iraq

As Gerald Powless advanced in rank and responsibility in the US Army, he found it harder and harder to attend traditional college classes. With longer hours, a heaver workload, and more responsibility, Powless looked toward online coursework for the first time in 2003. Enlisted in the Army for almost twenty years, he is considering becoming a history teacher when he retires from the Army.

Education opportunities have changed since he began his Army career–today Powless takes advantage of convenient and accessible online education options to earn a bachelor’s degree in history.

Online Education in a War Zone
“I decided it was perfect for me,” says Powless about online courses. “I was able to work away at my classes twenty-four hours a day if necessary, even if I was on a deployment, as long as I had Internet access.” His deployments have even included a year in Iraq. Stationed in the northern city of Mosul from October 2004 to September 2005, he completed a course in college algebra in the middle of a war zone.

Powless exhibits the kind of discipline needed to complete online coursework, though in his case it seems extreme. Everyone is busy with jobs, kids, and the normal activities of adult life, but if students like Gerald Powless can complete a course while making history in Iraq it is certainly possible for those of us with safer lives and fewer demands.

How the Virtual Classroom Works
Taking college courses through a virtual classroom is not as complicated as it might seem, according to Powless. “Once enrolled, I get on the school website that is e-mailed to me, browse around for a while, and get familiar navigating through it. I then locate the syllabus and print it out and look it over until I completely comprehend it. Next, I print out all of the lessons for the subject. Finally, I put everything in order, prioritize everything, develop a plan, begin implementing the plan, and most importantly, stick with the plan.”

Sticking with the plan is great advice for students taking online courses. Though you don’t have to arrive at a classroom on time for most courses, there are deadlines that need to be met, and it can be just as easy to fall behind online as in a traditional classroom. Each university offers different types of online classes. Some are asynchronous, which means that though there might be deadlines for assignments, there is no “live” component to the course. This kind of course is best for students with schedules that change. A few courses of this variety are asynchronous as well was “self-paced”, which means you can turn in the assignments whenever you get to them, as long as everything is finished by the course end date. The final option is to take a synchronous course, which is the kind of class that requires keeping specific hours. Much like a traditional class that meets twice a week from 4.30-6.30 P.M. for example, a synchronous course requires students to be online at certain times. This type of course is best for students with compatible schedules.

Online Education Means You’re Never Alone
It is important to know that no matter the type of course, online classrooms are set up to be as user-friendly as possible. Inside a virtual classroom there are links to a syllabus with all of the necessary information, lessons divided by topic and due dates, communication systems, and discussion boards. Students usually can log on at any time of the day or night to submit assignments or join group discussions with fellow classmates. In this way, there is a dynamic community created in the virtual classroom, much like the community created in a traditional classroom.

One of the things students worry about when taking online courses is the lack of student-teacher interaction in the virtual setting, but Powless says that has not been the case for him. “Of all of the classes I have taken online, I always have my questions answered in a timely, accurate, and professional manner. Additionally, if there is any information to be passed on to the students, it gets disseminated quickly and proficiently.”

The truth is, Powless and students like him, whether they live in the center of New York City or in rural Iowa, are part of an educational revolution. No matter where you live and work, college degree programs are available.

Online Student/Active Duty Soldier
“These courses work out perfectly for active duty soldiers who have rigorous, fluctuating hours,” he says. Even if you are not in the service, follow this piece of advice: “One must be punctual and disciplined to be successful.” No doubt we can all learn from that kind of recommendation.

As well as the algebra course he finished in Iraq, Powless has completed courses in humanities and the fine arts, business management, and English literature online. All of these will soon add up to a degree in history, which he hopes to use to become a teacher. With his opinions on discipline and punctuality, it comes as no surprise that Gerald Powless is also considering completing the required graduate work to become a principal. He says, “I refuse to stop taking college courses until I graduate with a master’s degree, even if I have to take one class at a time like I am doing now.”

Powless feels that with a bit of determination and discipline, almost anything is possible. As you begin your education, take this piece of advice from someone who knows, “The secret is to do your best, and to never quit.”

Publish date: June 30, 2008