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Online ed: It's in the Army now
A popular new program allows soldiers to study at home and abroad.

When Sgt. Shirley Edwards first heard about the Army's new E-learning programЦand that her Fort Hood, Texas, post would be one of the first to offer itЦshe woke at 5:30 a.m. to signup. Even so, she recalls, the online classes had generated so much buzz around the barracks that she had to spend hours standing in line. It was worthit: An armament specialist who spends her days loading ammunition into helicopters, Edwards didn't have a lot of time to spend in a classroom. "I have soldiers to take care of in the field," she says. "This is just what I need."

Turns out it's just what plenty of other soldiers need, too. The program, called eArmyU, has seen exponential growth since it was introduced in January 2001. Designed to attract newrecruits, produce better-educated soldiers, and keep them in the servicelonger, eArmyU is now offered through 11 military installations worldwide.It enrolls 31,000 soldier students, more than 5 percent of the Army's ranks,and is on track to expand to additional sites, reaching 80,000 enlisteesby 2005. Each soldier who signs up receives free tuition, books, and a "techpackage" that includes a laptop, a printer, and a free Internet account.Students must take a minimum of 12 credit hours every two years. (The Navyalso has an E-learning program that offers college courses to sailors atsea; the Air Force offers its recruits work-related classes online.)

Students can select from over 2,000 courses and 90 degree programs offered through aconsortium of some 20 colleges and universities, including Central TexasUniversity, Florida A&M, and Tri-State University in Indiana. Amongthe most popular degree programs: criminal justice, business, and computerscience. Students can log on for mentoring sessions with professors or E-mailchats with fellow students, and they can post questions on class discussionboards. Students also get one free hour of online tutoring per class.

Sometimes, more instruction isnecessary: Before Staff Sgt. Carl Miller could take advantage of an online education, for example, he had to figure out how to use a computer. "I was computer illiterateЦhorribly," says the 30-year-old aircraft electricianstationed in Ansbach, Germany. In addition to courses in history, English,and law, he signed up for a tutorial in the basics of Microsoft Word. Millerhad only taken one college class before (and 17 percent of soldiers in theprogram have never taken a college course at all). But when he retires fromthe Army he hopes to become a high school history teacher, possibly forthe Department of Defense school system.

The program facilitates the flexibility that highly mobile soldiers need. When Sgt. David Hayes of Fort Benning,Ga., was deployed to Kosovo for eight months last year, he sweet-talked localAlbanian workers into building a desk for his laptop, and he shared Internetaccess with other soldiers enrolled in the program. EArmyU shipped his booksto him via UPS. Hayes and his supervisor even waged a friendly competitionto see who would get the best grades (they both got straight A's that term). "I had always made excuses about going back to college, because with other tuition-assistance programs you still had to sit in the traditional classrooms," says Hayes. "With the Army's mission, there's the unexpectancyЦyou don'tknow where you're going to be." Now, he says, "I have no more excuses."

Edwards, who is stationed at Camp Casey, South Korea (where she has the option of bringing her laptop to the landing pads), says the program was a major factor in her decision to re-enlist. "I'm going to continue classes until I can't go any further," she says,adding that she now wants to pursue a degree in aviation engineering. She'snot alone. More than 18 percent of eArmyU participants have extended theirenlistment to be eligible for the program. (Soldiers must have at leastthree years of service time left in order to enroll.)

But the Army's version of high-tech learning isn't immune to old-fashioned human error. "Soldiers aren't real good about keeping their addresses current," says Dian Stoskopf, director of Army education. For all the advantages of E-mail, she explains, traditional materials like books sometimes take a little while to catch up with the on-the-move undergrads of eArmyU.

Author: Anna Mulrine

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