Don't be lulled, though. Just because it's convenient doesn't mean it's easy.
Timing matters when chasing a degree. Technology tools can ease the load. And just as when out on maneuvers, it always pays to plan ahead.
Here, four military members and veterans share what they've learned about making the most of online learning opportunities.
Army Capt. Ameaa Lago's best advice to prospective online learners is to be absolutely clear about where you are headed.
Photo Credit: Defense Department
Army Capt. Ameaa Lago knows a bit about what it means to go to school — she serves as training and academic counselor in the Signal Basic Officer Leader Course at Fort Gordon, Georgia. When she decided to pursue her master's degree, she took her own advice and got in while the getting was good.
"I had a battalion commander who was very supportive of everyone taking classes, and I knew that not every commander would do that," she said. "My big incentive in starting school was to do it while the chance was there."
In her case, the decision to study online was a no-brainer. She was serving in Korea when she decided to chase that degree, so in-house classes were not an option.
Eventually she enrolled at Central Michigan University, where an active Veterans' Resource Center helps those in uniform find their way in academic life. The school has about 1,000 service members and veterans among its 28,000 online and traditional students.
Beyond jumping in at the first opportunity, Lago's best advice to prospective online learners is to be absolutely clear about where you are headed.
"You have to know what you want to seek your degree in," she said. In her case, that meant a Master of Science with an emphasis on information resource management, which she hopes will help her perform better on the job while also opening doors in her post-military future.
"Technology will always be changing, so there will always be a career there after the military," she said.
Air Force Capt. Benjamin Golata has a simple strategy for distance learning: He's ready to work anytime.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Benjamin Golata
Rule No. 1 of online study, everyone will tell you, is learning how to budget your time. Distance learning offers convenience in that you aren't tied to a classroom schedule, but you still have to juggle responsibilities to get the work done.
Air Force Capt. Benjamin Golata has a simple strategy: He's ready to work anytime.
He'll look at the duty roster, match it against his school schedule, and wherever he sees an opening, he hits the books. No sense waiting for a nice solid hour or two that might never come around. "Whenever there is time, I buckle down, and I don't think about anything else," said Golata, who flies a KC-10 Extender out of Travis Air Force Base, California.
An Air Force Academy grad, Golata is earning a Master of Business Administration through the Indiana University Kelley School of Business online program Kelley Direct, where about 10 percent of students are on active duty. The degree program will take him about two-and-a-half years to complete — a brisk pace.
"I don't know if the military is going to be a forever thing, with all the talks of budget cuts," Golata said. "I want to set myself up for future success."
Best way to do that? Hyper-focus.
"If you have time right now, take it and don't think about anything else. Get the work done before you get the fun done," he said.
But there's a caveat: Even if you do give it every free minute, you still need to take a minute off to tend to your personal relationships.
"I could work harder at the master's program and maybe get slightly better grades," Golata said. "But sometimes you just have to knock an assignment out so you can go to dinner, or just so you can go to the movies."
Make the most of technology
Distance learning depends on technology to take the classroom to the students. For those looking to get the most out of their studies, however, it helps to think of that technology as a two-way street, a track that takes the student into the classroom.
So says Army Master Sgt. Bill Ravelo, who's wrapping up an MBA through Syracuse University's MBA@Syracuse online program while stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, as a field artillery expert.
Ravelo hopes his classroom experience in business will help him find work in the financial services sector when he hang up his uniform.
Syracuse's distance-learning technology offers two-way video connections, "so when you are in class, you are really in class," he said. The technology breaks the isolation of distance learning, allowing Ravelo to collaborate on team projects and interact with teacher and classmates in real time.
"I talk to professors very openly. If I don't understand something, I ask them to go over it again. I treat it like an actual classroom," he said. That ability to "raise your hand" is just one benefit of putting distance-learning technology to work.
"This creates the chance to have engagements with your classmates, too, and some of these are very major people in their fields. That ability to reach out is one of the biggest things you can leverage."
You may not be in the classroom, but that that doesn't mean you should take a back seat.
Always plan ahead
As a senior personnel supervisor at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, retired Sgt. 1st Class James Holmes, laid the groundwork for his 2008 retirement by getting an early jump on assembling his resume.
"You've always got to be looking beyond the military, looking toward a career field that will be marketable once you get out of the military," he said.
He started planning for that civilian job six months before shedding the uniform. He posted a profile on USAJobs.gov and landed his first government position before even leaving active duty. As a former human resources expert for the Army, he's earned two promotions since then.
All along, he's been planning for school, knowing he'd eventually be chasing down an online degree. Now he's on target for a Bachelor of Science in business administration from University of Maryland University College.
In charting his online studies, he gave a lot of thought to classes and even more to his future career.
"Having a skill will make you marketable, but as you do your planning, you have to add education to your experience if you want to move up, both in the military as well as in the civilian sector. The two will go hand in hand," he said.
In terms of his actual online coursework, Holmes has been equally strategic. He knew he'd be taking a heavy load, so he packed the schedule when he could with the HR courses that would come most easily, giving him more time for math and other tough subjects.
"I knew I was not going to put more on my plate more than I could handle," he said.
For Holmes, success online — and success in the job market — has all come down to planning.
Picking the right online experience
There's no shortage of online schools out there, many of them ready to claim veteran-friendly status. Which is right for you? Consider the following tips from Indiana University Kelley School of Business:
- The school from which you earn your degree will be on your resume, so pick one with a strong reputation.
- Not all programs are equally flexible. Some require live class sessions; others limit time off. Explore in detail.
- Some schools differentiate between degrees earned in their on-campus program and those earned online. You should be earning the same degree, with no distinction on diploma or transcript.
- Learn from the same faculty as those who teach in the full-time program.
- Can you customize study? Your program should offer electives or other unique learning experiences. Make sure you'll be able to take courses of your choosing at some point during the program.