Distance Education

Teaching Under Fire and Online From 'Mortaritaville' in Iraq

Amid incoming fire and dust storms, an economics professor at war kept her classes in North Dakota going

Cheryl Wachenheim

Cheryl Wachenheim, an associate professor at North Dakota State U., was deployed to Iraq but decided to keep teaching her economics classes online.
October 05, 2009

When Cheryl J. Wachenheim, an associate professor of agribusiness and applied economics at North Dakota State University, says she taught her courses last year from a remote location, she means a desert nearly 7,000 miles away from her Fargo campus.

A captain in the Minnesota Army National Guard, Ms. Wachenheim deployed to Balad, Iraq, just north of Baghdad, in August 2008, for a 10-and-a-half-month stay. She continued teaching courses in micro- and macroeconomics online, from a fortified trailer crammed with medical supplies, body armor, the M-16 rifle she was required to carry wherever she went, and a computer.

Online courses have long been a boon for soldiers who want to participate in college despite geographic displacement. It's usually a student, however, and not the professor, working from the far-flung location.

Using her personal laptop to run the courses, Ms. Wachenheim posted discussion questions and assignments using the Blackboard course-management system, and even video lectures using the audio and video software Wimba.

During her tour of duty, which included training at Fort Sill, in Oklahoma, in June and July, she taught four courses that enrolled 20 to 75 students—two in the summer of 2008, one in the fall of 2008, and one in the spring of 2009.

To get Internet access, she and nine other soldiers on her base in Iraq chipped in for a satellite dish and dug holes in the sand all over the base so they could run wires underground and into each of their trailers.

Ms. Wachenheim served as a medical-logistics officer of the 834th Aviation Support Battalion of Task Force 34. She worked out of Joint Base Balad, one of the largest American military bases in Iraq, dubbed "Mortaritaville" because of its location in the line of fire. Ms. Wachenheim says that when she walked around the base after hours, C-RAM (counter rocket, artillery, and mortar) weapons would light up the night sky.

In that kind of environment, running her classes was more like rest and recreation than work, Ms. Wachenheim says. Without the teaching duties, she would have felt like an economist at loose ends.

"Some people like to read on the base, some like to watch movies," she said in a telephone interview from Fargo, where she returned to teach this semester. "I like to interact with students. People in the unit didn't want to discuss the idiosyncrasies of the economy. This gave me that outlet."

Helping Her Department

By teaching the courses, Ms. Wachenheim not only gave herself a channel to discuss her passion, she also filled what could have been a major void in her department.

"When she got called for duty, it became a question of 'Gee, who can continue to teach these online courses?' Because we needed [them] available," says David M. Saxowsky, interim chair of the Department of Agribusiness and Applied Economics. Ms. Wachenheim had taught those courses for a number of years, so in spite of the challenges of increased distance, Mr. Saxowsky says, she was still the best person for the job.

From a financial standpoint, Mr. Saxowsky says the decision was easy. The cost of conducting the classes was not substantially different from that of other online courses. What he couldn't be sure about were the X factors that would accompany teaching from a combat zone.

The new teaching territory did present problems Ms. Wachenheim never faced in North Dakota. But despite emergency alarms that sent everyone on the base ducking for cover and occasional mortar explosions nearby, Ms. Wachenheim says, concern for her safety really was not one of them. The most difficult part of teaching the class, she says, involved the inconveniences of war, not the dangers.

In Iraq, there were plenty of obstacles that could keep Ms. Wachenheim from getting in touch with her students. There were the dust storms that knocked out satellite Internet connections and kept her off the base for days, and there were military emergencies that shut down all "nonessential" Internet use.

And then, of course, there was the chain of command.

"As a professor I am much more accustomed to managing my own time," Ms. Wachenheim says. "In a combat environment, the chain of command is absolute. If they asked me to go to Baghdad tomorrow, I would have to go, whether or not students needed my help before a test."

Ms. Wachenheim says this happened more times than she can remember, including finding out 30 minutes ahead of time that she was heading to Basra. That trip ended up lasting five days.

Yet Ms. Wachenheim is quick to say there were plenty of upsides to being far from home, like drawing inspiration from her new surroundings.

"It was especially easy to teach about shortages and surpluses," she says. "When we heard that the base had Diet Mountain Dew, I can't even explain how exciting that was, and I could explain firsthand just what a shortage can do."

Ms. Wachenheim says she would take daily events like that one and work them into her discussion groups as a means of livening up the conversation while also giving real-life examples of how economies work.

Time-Zone Advantages

Unexpectedly, the eight-hour time-zone difference worked to Ms. Wachenheim's advantage. Late-night studying by students in North Dakota coincided with her morning in Iraq. So when a student was stumped by a problem at 3 in the morning, he often got a quick answer from his professor, instead of having to wait until the next day.

"It seemed that any questions I had were immediately taken care of," says David A. Hanson, an economics student who admits that he was initially leery about taking the class. "She was usually better than the professors who were working from town."

Mr. Hanson says that even when Ms. Wachenheim couldn't be in contact easily, she always seemed to find a way.

"Once she let us know in the middle of a three-day dust storm that she was going to be out of touch," he says about an e-mail message she sent the class from base. "I don't know how she did it."

As it turned out, the constant correspondence proved to be just as important to the professor as it was for her students.

"Combat sounds really fascinating in movies," she says. "It's really not. What became most interesting to me was hearing from my students, whether it was about why their [problem-set] curve shifted one way or about someone's sister getting married."