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OPINION

Virtual learning can be crafted to better serve vets

By RYAN PAVEL AND JEREMY BRADFORD | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: August 12, 2020

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Consider the following two pieces of student feedback, one from an on-site academic boot camp, the other from a virtual iteration of the same program.

“The program was fantastic and the staff were even more amazing. My skills have not only improved exponentially, but my confidence has skyrocketed. The people I’ve met and the connections I made are valuable and irreplaceable.”

“An absolutely groundbreaking and inspirational experience. I thought I would only be dipping my toe into the world of academia and making a few friends along the way. However, the experience was like jumping into an infinitely deep pool of knowledge from the high dive.”

Both quotes are from U.S. Navy veterans who participated in the Warrior-Scholar Project, but the first came from a 2019 on-campus program and the second from a 2020 online program. We could fill this op-ed with similar quotes showing that many of our initial concerns over converting to virtual versions of our programs were overblown.

Warrior-Scholar Project runs academic boot camps with a humanities, STEM or business focus in partnership with outstanding colleges and universities. Our mission is to empower enlisted service members and veterans in their pursuit of undergraduate education. Due to the pandemic, our organization had to take a hard look at what we were taking for granted, namely that some of that mission was accomplished throughout our first eight years simply by putting students on physical campuses. Since 2012, we have served 1,200 students on campuses, noting that many service members and veterans quickly developed a sense of belonging when they slept in residence halls, ate in dining facilities, and studied in classrooms and libraries of the nation’s top colleges and universities.

So when we started considering whether we could convert all 20 programs this summer to a virtual environment, we had our work cut out for us.

Thus far this summer, we have run seven virtual courses in partnership with seven institutions, serving 74 students. The data reveal something surprising: Students rate most aspects of these virtual courses and their personal growth almost identically to the students from the on-campus version. Take two core metrics for example: One hundred percent of respondents from virtual courses (nearly all students complete the survey) indicated they would recommend the courses to other veterans or service members, and 97% agree they are more confident they will succeed in college as a result of the courses. This tracks with what we see at our on-campus programs.

If you are confronting the challenge of converting to a virtual model, here is a framework that worked for us:

 Conduct an honest, rigorous assessment of the situation. Identify the nonnegotiable things that need to happen, but do not be too rigid in your assessment. If we succumbed to our original concern that the on-campus component was mission critical, we would not have made it out of the starting gate.

 Lean into your strengths and go with what you know. One of our core strengths is a diverse, dynamic team. This includes staff, a network of committed educators across multiple campuses, volunteers, and our fiercely committed alumni. These teams deliver a deeply personalized experience driven by loads of individual engagement and group interaction. That engagement really is nonnegotiable, so we invested considerable time into figuring out how to empower the teams to authentically engage students in this new model, which has reinforced student retention.

 Figure out what needs to be cut or heavily modified. For example, we reduced the overall number of students receiving services to strengthen the instructor-to-student ratio, shortened the curriculum to mitigate “Zoom fatigue,” and converted hands-on STEM projects to coding-based, virtual labs.

 Chart a course and adapt when necessary. No matter how robust your plan, no matter how talented your team, mistakes will happen and new challenges will arise. The response to those mistakes and your ability to adapt can define future success. As Marines say, “semper gumby.”

 Err on the side of over-communicating. There is no shortage of key information when building something new. Defaulting to over-communicating helps ensure everyone stays on the same page.

When viable, we will enthusiastically return to our battle-tested original model, as we still believe campus-based programming is integral to the full immersive experience. Certain interactions are only possible in person. But one lesson from this summer is that we should continue to operate virtual versions of our program, which increases program access and pushes us to think critically about how to continually refine content delivery.

Of course, our experience is orders of magnitude simpler than the monumental task faced by large school systems. But for anyone wrestling with the question of whether virtual programming can work, we believe it can. The data suggest that our students believe it, too.

Ryan Pavel served as an enlisted Marine and is the CEO of Warrior-Scholar Project. Jeremy Bradford is an astrophysicist-turned-educator and is Warrior-Scholar Project’s director of education.