Study in your barracks in your spare time. Finish that degree before you've even demobbed. Go to class in your pajamas. Online education has its merits.

"Online provides more flexibility for someone on active duty as well as those with full-time jobs," said retired Army Lt. Col. Yvonne Doll, a faculty member in Walden University's online program.

"You are not required to be in the classroom at a specific time, so you get to read and study at convenient times that work for your schedule."

But there are potential pitfalls. The service member who picks the wrong college, chooses the wrong classes or fails to set realistic expectations can waste a lot of time and effort. How to make the most of an online education? Here's how to gear up in seven steps.

Step 1: Identify your interests.

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Who are you? What are you doing here? Find out what you love, where your interests lie. Maybe cybersecurity is a hot career field, but maybe computers bore you silly. Talk to friends, think about your hobbies, maybe even sit down with a career counselor or life coach, someone expert in identifying likely paths. Take steps to know yourself.

Step 2: Choose a degree path.

Once you’ve identified a likely career path, based on your interests, look for a degree to help you in that direction. General studies may be a great way to start a degree, but something more specific likely will speed you along. If biology or economics or medical science turns your crank, you’ll want to find a school that is strong in that area.

Step 3: Now find that college.

The G.I. Bill only pays for accredited institutions, so do your homework. Find out how courses are taught and credits awarded, and check into transferability. How likely are credits to be accepted to other institutions? Many troops attend multiple institutions while using military tuition assistance.

Step 4: Get technical.

Make sure you have the necessary tools for online study including a webcam, headset and enough bandwidth to stream video seamlessly. If you can’t get the bandwidth on base, consider sitting for classes someplace with a better connection. Tools such as Evernote and Microsoft’s OneNote help students take notes, share them and archive them for future reference.

Step 5: Check in early.

Meet the professor online before courses begin. If you’re going to be taking classes while deployed, it’s a good idea to let the professor know of any scheduling or technical hurdles you may encounter. That way you can establish, early on, the need for flexibility and enlist the professor’s understanding.

Step 6: Set the scene.

Find a comfortable place to learn and study. Eliminate distracting background noise as much as you can. Pick a spot with good lighting and enough desk space to spread out. There’s a difference between comfortable and cozy. Don’t get so at ease you start nodding off.

Step 7: Set a schedule and stick to it.

Where the military offers structure, in college you’re mostly on your own. It can be hard to stay on target. On deployment, study may take a back seat to field activities. At home, the pressures of family and job get in the way of academic plans. Set a schedule of daily activities, and stick to it.

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