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Online Graduate Programs for Graduate Students: A Tale of Two Classes

by Claudia Voisard
Published May 2, 2013

Claudia Voisard, M.Ed. is a National Certified Counselor (NCC), Board Certified Coach (BCC), Certified Talent Consultant Principal, Voisard Consulting, a talent management consulting firm located in Chicago, Illinois, and Adjunct Faculty, the Adler School of Professional Psychology


A critical question for many prospective  graduate students is whether to take online graduate programs or to take only classes taught  in the traditional “tried and true” in-person, real-time format.  To complicate the question, contemporary class design also can employ combinations of the two. This is often called a “hybrid” class, combining both an in-person component (typically intensive weekend sessions) with continuing online instruction.

I have taught for several years in a master’s program for counseling and organizational psychology at the Adler School of Professional Psychology. As an instructor, I ventured into online teaching with questions myself. Can I be as accessible to my students as I am in “real life”? Can I get all of my ideas across without face-to-face discussion? Will my students and I develop a strong professional relationship? Will I have a strong platform from which to advance my foremost mission: to positively convey the importance of career development on psychological health? (Not to mention: Will my best stories or jokes succeed in a virtual situation?)

We conducted a survey of the students in both classes, the traditional and the online, designed to assess student’s attitudes about the efficacy of the course in three areas: new skill acquisition, knowledge of career theories acquired, and attitudes toward the importance of career development counseling in general.

As our model, we studied a Lifestyle and Career Development master’s-level class taught in both formats. I taught both classes simultaneously over one semester, one in each format. For me, this enabled my personal and professional energy levels and demeanor to remain somewhat in sync for both classes. And because the classes took place during the same semester and timeframe, the tenor of jobs, career opportunities, and the general world and national economics addressed in both classes were comparable and consistent.

The course description, objectives, and expected exit competencies were identical, as were the textbook, career assessments, and written assignments. The difference was in the teaching format: 42 hours of classroom instruction, versus an online asynchronous format of ten modules presented over a 10-week period with no face-to-face component. 

The deeper question we planned to explore was: Can psychology, the most human of all studies, be taught remotely? A significant portion of the Lifestyle and Career Development course addresses one’s individual professional history, future goals, values, and beliefs, and presents students with opportunity to share—or not share—personal experiences and attitudes. This presented us with another question to explore in format difference: Would students who knew their colleagues only as small avatars, versus real individuals via in-person classroom connections, feel comfortable in revealing personal career matters?  

As instructors, we assessed the benefits and challenges of each of the two class formats. Our initial summary was as follows:

Traditional Format: Benefits Traditional Format:Challenges

Each career theory demonstrated in-depth using PowerPoint, with real-time questions & discussion

Each career theory demonstrated in-depth using PowerPoint, with real-time questions & discussion

Many career management tools & exercises illustrated through student use of experiential, hands-on visual resources

“Sage on the stage,” the traditional tendency for students to rely on instructor to provide information

Many exercises (e.g. card sorts) provided students with real experience

Students in similar academic programs fraternized within their own groups

Experiential role plays turned concepts into practice

Students seemed conceptually “stuck” in their particular academic programs, rather than “cross-fertilizing” with others

Instructors’ personal stories provided insight into practice in the field

Some focus on learning theories in anticipation of the state licensure exam—bordering on “teaching to the test”

Online Format: Benefits Online Format: Challenges

Students analyzed case studies with greater evidence of critical thinking

Students need well-developed self-discipline

“Wait time” between first and second posts allowed for richer thinking upon which to build future comments

Time lag between a student question and instructor response.

After acknowledging them, initial differences among various master’s programs represented in the class seemed to fade away—a true learning community emerged

Work/life balance and maintaining flexibility is a concern for students and teacher

Individual program focus gave way to more expansive, respectful view of the collective cohort

Technology issues and downtime that are often inevitable

Participants’ comments—not the instructor’s—provided ongoing evaluation from co-learners and the basis for further learning

Instructors must carefully manage their workloads

“Sage on the stage” was replaced by “guide on the side”

 

Overall greater engagement and higher level of enthusiasm, with personal viewpoints, relation to actual experiences and even passion in questions and disagreements

 

The students in the online class performed the required work in a more engaged and energized fashion, and exhibited a greater level of critical thinking.  Our concerns were allayed and our preconceptions, challenged. It was a true academic surprise!  

We then administered a survey to the students enrolled in each class.  Their responses further confirmed our findings:

Not only did the online students show a greater increase in their skills and knowledge—but they also exhibited a greater increase in their attitudes toward the career concepts. And perhaps most interesting in this case: The online students actually started the class with more positive attitudes than those of the traditional class. One explanation may be that the online students may have been more mature and self-directed. This is pure speculation, and certainly a topic to explore for another time—I am off to begin preparing for my next online class with great anticipation.

 

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Claudia Voisard, M.Ed. c.voisard@sbcglobal.net  is a National Certified Counselor (NCC), Board Certified Coach (BCC), Certified Talent Consultant Principal, Voisard Consulting, a talent management consulting firm located in Chicago, Illinois, and Adjunct Faculty at the Adler School of Professional Psychology  - contact her at c.voisard@sbcglobal.net for information on private coaching sessions.


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