When the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, face-to-face interactions came to a standstill. This prompted the American Legion Department of Wisconsin to quickly adapt its in-person Legion College. So that October, the Department of Wisconsin Legion College went virtual. And the success is evident in the number of virtual graduates.
Nearly 800 people have attended a virtual Wisconsin Legion College class – this includes 21 Auxiliary members, 18 Sons of The American Legion members and 13 members from other departments.
“There have been really good benefits to going virtual,” said Bob Shappell, dean of Wisconsin Legion College and the department’s National Executive Committeeman. “We are very proud of our college here in Wisconsin. And our philosophy is that we think every Legionnaire, Legion Family member, can come through the college and should.”
Wisconsin took its Legion College course material and converted it to virtual. Its core curriculum includes three courses – basic, intermediate and advanced – and each course has about seven hours of material. The first two courses are completed in six hours, which results in two three-hour sessions on consecutive weekdays from 6-9 p.m. or weekends from 9 a.m. to noon. The advanced course takes a little over three hours each session. Each virtual course is $10.
The department also has developed several virtual supplemental courses – post commander, post adjutant, county commander, Consolidated Post Report, MyLegion, social media use at the post level, and generational leadership issues at the post level – that run around three hours each. These virtual classes are free in the months of February and March. Last month when the department kicked off free virtual training for March there were 51 enrollments on the first day.
All Wisconsin Legion College virtual courses are hosted through Zoom, which they pay $160 annually for up to 100 attendees. And students register through Eventbrite. Once Shappell receives the list of registrants for each course – people can sign up right until the class starts – he emails everyone the course PowerPoint and receives their permission to share their contact information with other course attendees.
At the beginning of class, Shappell creates immediate engagement by asking each student to share who they are, what post, unit or squadron they belong to, how long they have been in the Legion Family and their why to attending the course. “That’s usually a good starting conversation point,” he said. Then at the end of each class he asks them to share what they got out of the course. Shappel said most often people will say they didn’t think they would like virtual training but that they will be back for more classes. Other feedback provides ongoing updates to each course.
A major positive to being virtual is that students can take the courses from anywhere, especially with busy schedules.
“I liked it being virtual because I took the class from my home and didn't have to go to a post or other location,” said Corey Doehrmann, vice president of Wisconsin American Legion Riders. “The time commitment and cost are big factors on why I liked the virtual class as well. And spending time with other Legion Family members virtually was valuable. Some of the people in my class were from the opposite end of the state, but I had a chance to interact with them in both the large group and small breakout sessions, so I feel like we were really able to connect.”
Another positive example of being virtual is that a Wisconsin Legion College student, who was still active in the National Guard, was able to complete the advance course while deployed. “She said couldn’t have taken these classes if we didn’t do it virtual,” said Shappell, who added that students have taken virtual course while on vacation, including one who was on his honeymoon in the Philippines.
“This has just opened us up amazingly to what we can do. And just being available. In some ways we were helped by Covid in getting virtual going.”
There are five virtual instructors and “we tell our attendees that their instructor is their trusted mentor forever – you can reach out to them anytime for any Legion question or any legion issue,” Shappell said. “We’ve had some really good mentor relationships because of this.”
Shappell shared tips on how to get a virtual Legion College started:
- Make sure you are visual with what’s on your slides. A PowerPoint is the only handout Wisconsin Legion College students receive so it’s filled with detailed content.
- Identify a cadre of people who will be advocates of going virtual. There will be doubters, Shappell said, so Wisconsin conducted two test groups to receive feedback. Those test groups “became our biggest advocates.”
- Have a small group of instructors committed to learning the delivery system whether it’s Zoom or Microsoft Teams. “You just can’t bring any of your face-to-face instructors and put them on here. They have to understand it’s a little bit different, a little bit slower, and it needs to be a team effort,” said Shappell, adding sometimes he will flip the PowerPoint slides for the instructors or if a student can’t see a slide he can fix the problem while the instructor is talking.
- Market the virtual Legion College. Wisconsin Legion College has its own Facebook page. “Each student that goes through virtual we ask them to go the Facebook page and like it. Our best recruiters are those who attended a class.” Virtual courses are also promoted on the Auxiliary Sons of The American Legion’s social media channels.
Wisconsin Legion College graduates receive a pin with key attachments, one key earned for each course completed. The fourth requirement to become a graduate is completing the National Basic training course. “I’ve had graduates as for a second pin (to wear on a shirt or cap). The pin is become something people look for. I always tell people that if you want to know what another post does find somebody wearing that pin on their cap and even if you don’t know them, they’ll talk to you. They’ll share their ideas with you.”