The modern comforts and technological advances of online education are allowing more people to get degrees when life prevents or discourages a trip back to a brick-and-mortar school. (Damian Dovarganes/The Associated Press)
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SCRANTON, PA. — When Maj. Chris Costello of the Pennsylvania National Guard received his fourth overseas deployment in a decade, this time to Kuwait in 2012, he decided to go back to school — in the Arabian Desert.
Along with 20 other soldiers at Camp Buehring, about 10 miles south of the Iraqi border, Costello enrolled in an online MBA course through Marywood University, more than 6,000 miles away.
Camels would roam the outskirts of the base. Most of the servicemen and -women lived in tents. And sandstorms sometimes knocked out the base-wide Wi-Fi and sent some of the soldier-students scrambling through the stinging wind for a better connection in the recreation hall. As an officer, Costello had the benefit of living in an air-conditioned apartment on the base with his own Internet connection.
“The biggest challenge I had was dusting the place,” chuckled Costello, now 48 and living in Telford with his family.
The modern comforts and technological advances of online education are allowing more people to get degrees when life prevents or discourages a trip back to a brick-and-mortar school.
According to the Babson Survey Research Group, which has tracked students in online education since 2002, more than 7.1 million higher education students took at least one online course in fall 2012, the most recent time for which data is available. In the fall of 2002, 1.6 million students stayed home from class and took a college course on their computer screen.
A little over a third of all higher education students took an online course in 2012, an all-time high, according to the research group.
Costello, who is back working as a military instructor at Valley Forge Military College, and other middle-age students with full-time jobs and families, rave about the flexibility of an online program, which allows them to hop on to a computer after children go to bed to post in a mandatory online discussion or watch a recorded video lecture on a tablet on a lunch break.
Andrew Trinovitch, 47, from Spring Brook Twp., said he takes the online MBA program at the University of Scranton as a way to boost his résumé without sucking up all the time in his life.
“I want to spend as much time with my children as possible. Pretty soon (my 15-year-old son) will be hitting me up for gas money. My daughter still thinks I’m the greatest, but in a couple years ...” he trailed off with a laugh.
Concerns about a lack of face time with the instructor and the quality of online education are overblown, several online students said, pointing toward the ease in which most people operate and communicate via the World Wide Web.
And “the technology today has advanced to a point that a lot of those drawbacks are disappearing,” said Kingsley Gnanendran, Ph.D., a professor of operations management at the University of Scranton who also oversees the online MBA program there. “What we try to do is mimic a freewheeling classroom discussion.”
Videoconferencing software allows online classes to get guest lectures — What The Fork food truck chef and co-founder Mario Bevilacqua addressed the military Marywood class in January — and mandatory posting requirements on message boards mean students had better know their stuff before they put themselves out there, Gnanendran said. While a student in a classroom can make an off-the-cuff statement and not be challenged, a post is permanent and must hold up to constant scrutiny, the professor said.
But online education is not for everyone. Nearly half of the 20 soldiers who started the program with Costello dropped out or have put a freeze on their studies, he said. This type of strenuous education is for self-starters who can organize their time and get the work done while juggling everything else, said Trinovitch, who will sometimes arrive early to pick up his son from Boy Scouts just to steal an hour to do coursework on his iPad in the car.
That spinning-plate act is also paying off for Costello, who is scheduled to graduate in the fall. The former Iraqi military trainer is considering using his skills to become an entrepreneur after he leaves the military.
“I never thought I would own my own business,” he said. “But if there’s a good opportunity, that may be a road I go down, and it’s all because of this class.”