The American Legion launched an intensive research initiative in 2019 to assess the future of online distance learning and to see how well veterans using their GI Bill educational benefits are served when studies are not conducted in traditional classrooms. This project gained relevance within months, when the COVID-19 pandemic drove much of America’s higher education off campus and onto the internet.
The first report of the funded project has been finishedhed in September 2021, authored by Army veteran Joseph Westcott and Appalachian State University Assistant Professor of Higher Education Jason Lynch, both with Ph.D. Westcott is a higher education consultant for the American Legion and past president of the National Association of State Approving Agencies, which provides quality oversight of GI Bill eligibility across the country.
“Researchers and post-secondary education leaders have consistently demonstrated that, when implemented appropriately, remote learning can be just as effective as the traditional classroom experience,” the report states. “Unfortunately, due to current regulatory and statutory barriers and interpretations, many veteran and military-affiliated students are restricted in utilizing the benefits of education to complete courses delivered in online environments.”
Westcott, a member of American Legion Post 48 in Hickory, North Carolina, says VA and the Department of Education have different definitions for terms such as “independent study” and “distance learning.” Such differences can complicate or impede veterans seeking to use their GI Bill benefits, he said. “When VA says ‘independent study,’ they’re referring to ‘distance learning,'” Westcott explains. “When the Ministry of Education talks about ‘independent study’, it’s a very different thing.”
The American Legion’s Employment and Education Commission hopes to use the report to pursue the removal of regulatory barriers for veteran students enrolled in online distance learning programs.
A second report, to be released soon, will assess the risks among schools that market veteran students, recruit them and apply their GI Bill benefits without a full review to ensure they are viable and not at risk of closing before the end of the year. graduation.
Westcott noted that most American colleges and universities have rapidly expanded their online or virtual programs during the pandemic and, he adds, “there is no turning back.” He said online education is also “a much-loved form of learning for our veterans and military students.”
Director of the American Legion’s Employment and Education Division, Joseph Sharpe, says the research can help the organization make policy recommendations to the AV and Congress. “The purpose of this is to provide information on distance higher education and regulatory hurdles,” he said. “We have seen that distance education has evolved because of the pandemic. The way veterans use benefits through VA has not changed.
One hurdle is “confusion over definitions,” Sharpe explained. “They can prevent veterans from fully utilizing their education benefits.”
“It is important that the language be updated to reflect common understandings and definitions related to independent study,” the report states. “Due to the confusion of distance learning and independent study, there is serious confusion among VA personnel, state approving agencies, educational institutions, and veterans. This confusion impacts the approval of policies, meetings, regulatory requirements, and especially educational programs by state approval agencies. From a student perspective, many veterans cannot use their benefits to take distance learning courses. This creates a barrier for many veteran students who may be forced to temporarily or permanently suspend their studies due to deployment or other geographic barriers.
The report says accredited distance learning programs are as effective as traditional classrooms “and may be more beneficial in helping veteran students accelerate their graduation.” The report calls on VA to rewrite current regulations to replace the term ‘independent study’ with ‘distance learning’ – and to take a hard look at outdated rules regarding ‘correspondence courses’ and the use of ‘closed-circuit television’ – to facilitate the acceptance of non-traditional programs without losing the benefits of the GI Bill.
A second related report by the American Legion to assess the risk to students using their GI Bill benefits for online education, as well as residential learning, reflects the organization’s previous policy positions that seek to protect veterans. enrolled in for-profit schools that go bankrupt. or whose credits are not transferable.
The driving goal of the research, says Westcott, is “to encourage VA and the nation to embrace distance learning even more… Online is the future, and the quality is there. The time has come. We won’t be going back, due to huge advancements in technology.
Westcott said American Legion members can use the research to influence state departments of veterans affairs, as well as the federal VA, on the need for relevant updates to ease the burden of the distance learning supported by GI Bill – while protecting against predatory institutions – as new directions in higher education unfold, post-COVID.