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Podcast: Teaching Military and Veteran Students Online

Podcast: Teaching Military and Veteran Students Online

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Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. Hansen
Faculty Director, School of Arts and Humanities, American Public University

Students in online education range from those who are just starting college to mature learners seeking new knowledge and skills for professional development. But military students, especially those on active duty, are a unique segment of the online student population who have specific needs.

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In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen provides advice and recommendations for instructors about teaching military students including encouraging them to ask questions, making accommodations for unexpected deployments, focusing on real-world connections with learning material, helping them with time management strategies, and much more.

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Read the Transcript

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Welcome to episode number 31, “Teaching Military and Veteran Students Online.” This podcast is for educators, academics, and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun.

Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics, and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Welcome to the episode today. Thanks for joining me for the podcast. I’m happy to work with you on teaching students who are either currently serving in the military active duty or perhaps they are veterans, students. Either way, we have a special population who needs a little bit of attention and understanding.

I work at a university where we have a very high percentage of military and veteran students. And I personally have really enjoyed what these students bring to the experience.

By definition, for today’s discussion, student veterans or military students are either currently serving, they have served in the past. They could be undergraduate or graduate students. They might be active duty, National Guard in the Reserves, separated from the military or retired.

This is a broad definition, and for today, I’m just going to talk about these individuals as all being in the veteran population. We’re going to get started with a little bit of understanding to help out if you’re new to teaching military and veteran students, or if you’d like a little grounding on what I’m going to talk about.

Military Students Are Highly Disciplined, Structured and Team Players

The first thing is, veteran students understand roles and hierarchy. In the military, you might understand that there is a chain of command. There is a military commander who has the authority in a given situation.

There is a tradition of receiving and obeying orders of various kinds. They are followed, and they dictate a lot of one’s work, one’s existence in the military structure itself.

There’s also a lot of discipline that military individuals bring to their studies and to their work. And they’re used to working on teams and interacting with others and having their results also depend on other people as well.

Encourage Military Students to Ask Questions and Provide Them Clear Instructions

Because of this, there are a lot of things we do as online instructors, where we might catch military or veteran students off guard just a bit, and we might need to let them know they can approach us with questions. They can ask questions to clarify things. They don’t need to take things just on face value and walk away and try to guess.

If requirements are not very clear, we want to encourage them to reach out, communicate, ask questions. If they have a special situation or a circumstance that takes them out of class, we also want to reach out to them to communicate that we’ll be flexible with them and we’ll work on things.

Some communication basics that will help you in working with military and veteran students are to be clear and concise with all of your communications and your instructions. Be direct. Keep it brief.

Act first and ask questions later is a mantra for a lot of veteran students. So giving a lot of information up front will help them because they might not ask first.

Apply Andragogy Theories to Teaching Military Students

They give respect and we want to demonstrate respect in our teaching toward them as well. As I mentioned, there’s a chain of command that exists in the military. So there’s this understanding of the hierarchy of the top-down leadership. You as the instructor, they might be perceiving in that way.

Some of the work and life experiences that military and veteran students bring to their learning really center on the principles of andragogy, which is adult learning theory. And Malcolm Knowles is widely known for this theory, as are many others.

Some of those things about the art and science of adult learning really apply here. Our military students are self-directed, autonomous, and they need to be able to control a lot of things in their learning experience.

For example, they might want to plan their own learning. They might need to work ahead. They might want to decide their project, based on the parameters, and just jump in. Their learning experience is the main resource in who they’re going to become as a student.

If they have life experience that you can tap in to the work they’re doing in the online classroom, this is going to really help drive home the concepts they’re learning. It’s also going to really personalize it for them.

Help Students Make Real-World Connections to Classroom Learning

If students in the military and veteran population understand why they’re learning something, they just show up ready to learn. And they have intrinsic motivation, for the most part, to get it done.

An example of this life experience and work tying into online learning comes from the course that I taught. I did a research experiment with students who were in a music appreciation class and also in an art appreciation class.

In this course, during Week One of the forums, I specifically asked them: What was their life experience with the music or art of other cultures? Had they been to other countries? Had they seen the art or heard the music of other people who were maybe new to them?

I had students with the whole barrage of different experiences. Some had served in Japan, some in Korea, some in various countries in Europe. Some had served in the Middle East, some in Africa.

They were able to draw on those experiences before the class really started rolling along. And as they were learning different musical things and artistic things, they were also able to make more connections because we had tapped into that experience early on.

Then at the end of the course, I asked them the questions again. How does this help them frame the experiences they have had with other cultures, and what might they do in the future? Some students even said they wished they had had a course like this before serving in those other countries, so they could value the culture more and really taste of the different offerings, different cultures, and different countries provided to them.

Anything that we can do to tap into their existing knowledge, their life experiences, and their learning is going to really help the military and veteran student, and for that matter, even the whole adult learner population.

Familiarize Yourself with the Language of the Military

There is some special vocabulary you might encounter when you’re working with military students. For example, there are common military terms. You might hear the words TDY, or the abbreviation TDY. TDY stands for a Temporary Duty Assignment. There’s also TDA, and it could be called TDT, Temporary Duty Travel. It could be TAD, which is Temporary Additional Duty in the Navy and the Marine Corps, or TDI, which Is Temporary Duty under Instruction. And that refers to a training assignment.

All of these kinds of things are going to take a military or veteran student out of the classroom. They’re going to be on an assignment where they may or may not have internet. There might need to be some flexibility with due dates, with the weeks where they’re actually showing up in the forum discussion. And there might need to be some either opening assignments early or giving them flexibility to complete the work when they get back from those temporary assignments.

Now, there are also some different phrases that might be interesting and new. For example, the phrase “embrace the suck” is a phrase that a lot of my students used to throw around in class. It means to love it when work gets tough, because when it’s over, you will better appreciate the not-so-tough work that you’re going to do.

It could be referring to a class they didn’t really want to take. Maybe it’s a Gen Ed class, something like that, but they’re going to just power through it and do the best they can to get the tough work done.

Another one is Lima Charlie, that means loud and clear, or in other words, I heard and understood what you said. Another phrase might be “to nug it out,” which is to get it done. Also, there’s a WARNO, W-A-R-N-O, which means a heads-up that a project is coming soon. Literally, it’s a warning order.

So military students do have a lot of jargon they might use. In the transcript notes from this podcast, I’ve given you some links to translations and glossaries so that if you are not experienced in the military, and if you do teach a lot of military students, you can meet them where they’re at. You might look up some phrases you might see in discussions or in messages that they send you.

Disruptions or Challenges Facing Military Students

Now, back to this idea of disruptions. Students who are actively serving in the military or in the reserves might be called away unexpectedly. They might not be able to tell you that they are now out of the classroom.

When you see them missing, definitely reach out in the messages or the email, whatever your method is, so you can connect with them and reassure them that when they get back in the course, you’re going to be there for them and able to help them catch up or get back on track.

They might have longer work hours. They might be using government-issued computers, which is an issue when you’re using something like YouTube videos. There are certain kinds of videos and media that might actually be blocked on government-issued computers.

So they might be using a common or shared computer with other students, with other people in the military, or with others in a government organization. In those shared computers, they may or may not have different software or permissions. This is something important to be aware of.

They’re likely taking more than one class online at a time. A lot of military students that I’ve worked with, as I’ve taught online, have been taking three or four classes simultaneously. They’re out of the country, away from their family. They’re filling their free time with learning to take advantage of it, whether it’s to advance their career, prepare for time after the military, make a rank advancement. There are lots of reasons that students will do that.

Assisting Them with Time Management Strategies

For you, and for your students who are in the military, time management is essential. You have many roles: instructor, developer, researcher, advisor, all kinds of things that you do in your online teaching job. And also some physical and time boundaries of work and home life to navigate.

Just like you have this time management and boundary stuff to navigate, your students do too. They may be stretching to develop new strategies and be student while also serving. And you may need to coach them in planning their work and working their plan if it doesn’t show up automatically.

Some ways to limit distractions, there are several apps and programs that can help you out. There’s a limiting program called keepmeout.com and another called stayfocusedapp.me. Both of these are worth looking at to limit distractions, to really focus when you’re in your online space, and also to encourage your students to try new tools to help themselves get the work done quickly and get done.

You might consider, for both you and your students, using a timer, setting a work area with your ringer on your cell phone turned off. Maybe set “Do not disturb.” Establish the school working hours, set boundaries for work personal and family time. Let others know that you cannot be disturbed.

And then, if you’re teaching at more than one institution or your student is taking more than one class, you might consider how they’re going to juggle the demands of various assignments and put those all on their calendar. Also, use a planner yourself to make sure that you’re on track and able to return grading in a timely manner, and stay engaged.

Ensure Assignment Instructions are Comprehensive and Clear

Some helpful adjustments as you’re working with military and veteran students, you might want to detail the development of the assignment itself. What are the steps to complete the assignment? What should it look like when it’s done? Make sure the assignment description stands alone. It doesn’t need to require you to give more explanation or send additional emails or announcements to help students figure it out

We want the assignment description to tell students how long the finished product should be. Is it going to be a written paper, a slide show? What is it? Whatever the approximate length is going to be, students need to know in advance.

They also need clear and specific requirements and invitations to contact their instructor and receive guidance should they need extra help. Some students might also need the opportunity to resubmit after they have revised the work, especially if they were unclear and acted before asking the questions, which might be common.

Lastly, we need a lot of tools for our military and veteran students to reach out for all kinds of help and support. For example, if there is a writing center at your online school, you want to give them that information. If there is some kind of tutoring or help improving the essay or the assignment, we want to give them that kind of stuff too. So definitely give your students tools for outreach of various kinds, whether it’s tech support, academic support or other help.

If you have large class sizes or several classes you’re teaching at once, where you have more to read, more to grade, you want to communicate and personalize your messages to students.

I recommend trying Dragon, naturally speaking. It’s a product sold by Nuance, and it helps you to dictate the things you’re going to say into written documents. You can dictate into your announcements, your discussion forums, your other messages that you send students, and also into your grading feedback. This is going to give you a chance to be more personalized with all of your students and connect with them even better.

You might consider keeping a roster of each student and noting what background they have. For example, if they’re out of the country, if they might have internet issues, if they’re currently active duty serving somewhere.

When you make notes like this, you’re going to be able to adjust to your students’ needs much more quickly, and also anticipate the fact that they might have connection issues. Or they might have changes that come up during the semester or session that impact their ability to do the work and do it on time.

You also want to be aware that there might be different expectations, requirements, and standards that students need to learn when they’re in your course, that might not necessarily be the same everywhere.

Anticipate the Needs of Military Students

One thing I highly recommend when you’re working with military and veteran students is to anticipate what they’re going to need as much as possible. You can do this by giving them some screen overviews of your course.

You can use Screencastify, Screencast-O-Matic or a paid app called Camtasia. You can record walkthroughs of the classroom to give them a guide around the place and where they need to engage, where they need to read things, where they’re going to find their assignments and all of that.

You also can give them a netiquette guide. I’m going to give you a sample netiquette guide in the transcript of this podcast as well. If you want to click on the hyperlink, you can visit the site that has the downloadable netiquette guide.

You can, of course, personalize this to work more for you. But when you tell students upfront how to dialogue in the forum, what you’re looking for and what you discourage, that’s going to help them show up the right way from day one.

Lastly, you want to guide them to shift their level of conversation from casual into academic conversation. Some students approach their online learning like they would texting. And so, language can be brief, abbreviated, and more concise than we would like.

Modeling forum posts, giving that netiquette guide, and sharing what makes a good reply, maybe in your announcements or other feedback that you share, that is going to help your military and veteran students know exactly what’s expected. It’s also going to empower them to meet your expectations much more quickly and more fully.

Think about these things that are going to work for you in working with your military and veteran students. Some of the things that I covered so far really are ways to adapt and help meet them where they’re at.

Think about also genuine teaching engagement when you’re working with them. How can you guide them to participate the most effectively that they can by launching things up front, proactively giving them some steps to do things, and giving them a lot of examples and guidance? Then when you give your grading feedback, how can you be as rich and informative as possible so students can really improve rapidly for the next assignment?

Recommendations for Instructor Tools

You might consider trying some automated grading tools that give you even more additional feedback space. One of those that I highly recommend is this add-in toolbar for Microsoft Word. If you download your essays in Microsoft Word, and you like to give annotated comments on essays, this add-in toolbar is called GradeAssist. It’s sold by a company www.educo360.com. That’s spelled E-D-U-C-0 360.com. This allows you to create comments that you would normally give, for example, formatting style, quotations, grammar, a lot of those standard things. Then you can also add personalization because you can speed up the process of the more common feedback and give yourself the space and the time to give more personalized feedback as well.

I don’t really recommend using automated tools for all of your feedback. Students need personalization, and they need to know that you read their paper and you’re not just saying the same things to everybody.

Other efficiency tools that can help you meet their needs would be to try auto text expanding apps like TextExpander or ActiveWords, or TypeItIn. All three of these are great tools.

You might consider investing in two computer monitors. When I’m working with my online courses, and especially when I want to give better feedback and more quality engagement, I’ll put part of the class on one monitor and part of the class on the other, so I can move between spaces. Having two computer monitors is going to make your online teaching just a lot more pleasurable and efficient.

If you grade early and handle things only once and return things quickly, it cuts down the overall time you’re going to spend giving feedback, because students can make the adjustments more quickly.

Also, you might have military and veteran students reaching out to you to extend the due date on something. If you’re pretty firm about due dates and you’re going to move that due date for a student, be sure to give them a week at a time when you extend a due date, because they may not be in class the very next day or two.

So if you only extend a due date by one or two days, that’s not going to help them very much. Extending it by a week or longer, that’s going to be better, so they have a chance to get back into the classroom and see your communication, and then do the work. This is a great strategy in working with all kinds of adult learners, who just might not be logging in every day in addition to the military and veteran population.

Writing Assistance for Military Students

Military considerations that I want to bring to the forefront here, as I tie up these comments today, is that military personnel is often guided to be as succinct and direct as possible in their writing. If you’re working on quality writing with your military and veteran students, keep this in mind. You’re going to coach a lot and you’re going to give a lot of examples to help them grow.

When you’re grading their work, look for potential jargon use or excessive brevity, where guidance and coaching could be helpful in developing more complete ideas. Then make your feedback relevant, personalized and helpful. They’re going to continue improving and learning and be very efficient at doing that as you give them that quality feedback.

So thank you for being here as we talk about working with military and veteran students online today. This is a wonderful population of students who are going to do a great job with you as you meet them and give them proactive strategies upfront, and also understand a little bit more about the culture they’re coming from. It will help you be more effective, and you’ll enjoy your work with military and veteran students all the more.

Best wishes to you in your online teaching this week. And definitely reach out using the request form on my website. If you would like to share any comments about this podcast or suggestions for future episodes.

About the Speaker

Bethanie HansenDr. Bethanie Hansen is a Faculty Director and Certified Professional Coach for the School of Arts & Humanities at American Public University. She holds a B.M. in Music Education from Brigham Young University, a M.S. in Arts & Letters from Southern Oregon University and a DMA in Music Education from Boston University. She is an educator, coach, manager, writer, presenter and musician with 25 years of experience helping others achieve their goals.

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