A Student and a Soldier
By Natalia Maldonado
Small rooms, late-night study sessions and the dim light of a computer screen are all a part of the typical college experience. But Alberto Chestaro’s semester taking Physical Science 1121 was hardly typical.
Chestaro’s small room was a 10 by 10-foot section of a large Conex container. He studied during the day when he was off duty. And his computer was the only method of communication with his professor, who was more than 7,000 miles away.
As a sergeant deployed in Afghanistan for nine months, Chestaro earned college credit through Miami Dade College’s Virtual College, which offers Web-based distance learning.
Time was a valuable commodity for Chestaro. Each day, he carved out slots for things like work, which was a 12-hour shift, and sleep, for which he set aside eight hours. The remaining four hours were split among things like communicating with his family back home in Miami and studying.
“It was actually really good that I was able to study because it took up a lot of time,” said Chestaro, whose specific duties in Afghanistan are classified.
Time seems to move slowly during military deployments, Chestaro explained, so “focusing on studies makes it feel like time was going by faster.”
Chestaro is one of thousands of students throughout the U.S. and the world who opt for online courses when planning their education. For many, the online option is the only way to manage work, family life and school.
Online courses don’t generally require students to be in a specific place at a specific time. So even with the demands of a full-time job, for example, a student can log into a Web-based portal at night to complete assignments, take quizzes or participate in group discussions.
Men and women in the armed services have found Web-based education particularly helpful. According to the U.S. Army, more than 32,000 students are enrolled in associate, bachelor’s and master’s degree programs through eArmyU, the virtual gateway for soldiers on active duty. Still more, like Chestaro, enroll directly with home institutions like MDC.
Ruth Anne Balla, director of the Virtual College, said enrollment in online courses at MDC has been on a steady rise. In the fall semester, nearly 6,000 students enrolled in the Virtual College, a 17 percent increase from the previous year. Twenty-six percent of Virtual College students are taking only online courses.
Each year, from 20 to 30 new courses are developed for delivery online. Balla said faculty and administrators are developing entire programs for online delivery. Already all of the courses leading to an associate degree in business administration are available online.
Additionally, most of the courses required for a Bachelor of Science in Nursing can be completed through the Virtual College.
The department is developing new tools to enable Web conferencing so that students and faculty can see each other while they chat.
This is all a far cry from the Virtual College’s origins in 1997, when it offered just a few courses and had limited online tools.
As the program grows, it expands MDC's reach beyond South Florida. “We’ve had students from Australia, Spain, Iceland,” Balla said. “And every term we have a number of folks who are in the military. We’ve heard from those students that it’s really a lifeline for them.”
While serving in Afghanistan, Sgt. Chestaro was a student in Dr. Ana Ciereszko’s physical science class. She posted weekly announcements for her students, attached voice messages to PowerPoint lectures and written transcripts of all voice notes.
“When you teach virtually you want to make sure that you provide the information in different ways because students have different learning styles,” Ciereszko said. “You have to over-communicate sometimes.”
Online courses at MDC are delivered through ANGEL, a powerful learning management suite that allows for simple course delivery but real-time assessment of student behavior. The program also has e-mail capabilities, discussion boards and an area for live chats.
At the start of each semester, Ciereszko encourages her students to introduce themselves on the discussion boards. She posts a photo of herself in an “About Me” section so that students can get to know her as well. Three times a semester, she schedules live chats to discuss issues relevant to the course. To ensure each student participates, she schedules chats at six different times.
Chestaro adjusted his study schedule so that he was logging in at night with the rest of his classmates in the U.S. He constructed a desk out of a large piece of plywood and two plastic stackable drawers. He sat on a folding beach chair with a cup holder in the armrest. He worked from this “office” on Tuesday and Thursday nights along with soldiers in his unit who were taking online courses through different institutions. Unbeknown to Ciereszko, a sergeant in his unit, Cynthia Fournier, was in his same class.
Fournier had been studying business administration for two semesters at MDC before she was deployed in September 2007. She didn’t want to fall behind in her studies so she enrolled in two courses while in Afghanistan: Physical Science and Principles of Business.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “At first I had to learn what class needed the most attention that week so I could just focus. After I fulfilled my military duties for the day, I would devote at least two hours to studying.”
Fournier worked in logistics, coordinating food, transportation, supplies and maintenance of materials that her unit might need. Sometimes, unexpected incidents made it difficult for her to keep up with course deadlines. But when she e-mailed her professors they gave her extra time to make up her assignments. “As teachers we have to provide flexibility for our students and help them with their arrangements. Even though I have weekly assignments and I expect them to complete them, I’ll be flexible if someone gets behind,” Ciereszko said. “It’s possible to work through it because life gets in the way very many times for our students, so a short-term lapse can still be fixed very easily in a Virtual College course.”
At night, Fournier would study in her room. “It reminded me of a cubicle with a door so that you had your own privacy. You all heard each other, though everybody was respectful and it was fairly quiet,” she said.
In September, with the semester still in full swing, Fournier and Chestaro were both on their way home. Each studied while waiting to board the flight to Miami. Chestaro noticed Fournier’s textbook, and they realized that they’d been in the same class all semester. Now that they are back home, they get together to study and have already enrolled in courses for next semester. Chestaro is going back to campus, while Fournier is taking online and on-campus courses.