COCKPITS TO CLASSROOMS – THE UNIQUE CHALLENGES FACED BY POSTGRADUATE STUDENTS SERVING IN THE MILITARY
The University of Lincoln lies close to several military airbases. The School of Computer Science at the University offers taught postgraduate programmes designed for serving military personnel, delivered in partnership with the education department at one of those airbases. Almost without exception, our military students require interruptions and/or extensions to their studies before they are able to complete their programme. The special work circumstances of the students have significant, and often unexpected, impact upon their ability to engage in the educational process. Some students have been ‘on our books’ for a number of years; it is possible that some of them may never complete their studies.
The paper examines some of the reasons why military students find it so difficult to complete their studies and how Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) might improve ways in which they support military students. The theoretical underpinning of the paper draws on several theories of motivation and also uses Schlossberg’s (2005) ideas of adult transitions and support to analyse the unique challenges faced by students in the military. This work is supported and informed by the results of a survey of military students; questions in the survey were designed based on the Schlossberg 4S transition model. This survey was followed up with a number of semi-structured interviews conducted with selected respondents.
The initial results of this research appear quite revealing. For example, military students are used to living and working in extremely disciplined environments where high standards and strict timescales must be strictly adhered to. Not doing so can, in many cases, risk life and limb. When presented with the more open environments that self-directed study in a HEI offer, these same students suffer a lack of focus and direction which has a detrimental impact on their engagement.
By promoting independent learning and directing ownership of the process of study to the student, it may be that we inadvertently hinder them in their pursuit of higher qualifications. Respondents report that some semblance of ‘military discipline’ is preferred when it comes to things like hand-in dates and the maximum time allowed to complete the programme.
Another finding of note comes from the responses to two of the survey questions:
“I want to study for a Master’s degree as it will provide concrete recognition of the skills and experience I have gained in the armed services.” And
“After all I’ve achieved in the military, getting a Master’s degree should be easy.”
Military students are justifiably proud of all that they have achieved in their military service. In some cases, however, this leads them to the unrealistic belief that a Master’s degree will naturally follow or automatically become theirs by right. Some military students do not readily accept the discovery, early on in the programme, that working at Master’s level requires new and different skills to the ones they have developed in their military roles. One challenge for programme providers, therefore, is to find ways to convince students of the benefits that come from modifying ingrained ways of thinking. The paper concludes by considering strategies for improving completion rates in military programmes that include helping military students to develop and apply these new skills in the analysis of the real life problems that they encounter in their military life.