Online Study 101
Are you willing to trade tree-lined campuses, raucous classroom discussion, and the camraderie of your fellow graduate students for self-imposed structure and the ease of working from home?
by Stephanie Small
Published July 30, 2010
Depending upon your circumstances, online school may be the right format for you.
You’re skeptical, right? “There’s certainly a stigma that online schools are…let’s say, less academically rigorous,” says Jennifer Blevins, who obtained her master's in education
from the University of Phoenix. Think Clayton College, an online school rumored to exchange diplomas for a fee and “life experience”. In a 7/12/10 Huffington Post article covering its demise, author Dr. Andrew Lange calls it “a classic diploma mill operation, offering doctorates and other degrees to students of natural health care, without providing clinical training or educational standards of any kind.” Such is the reputation of online schools: institutions that are, at the least, of lesser caliber than “ground schools”, and at the worst, given to unscrupulous practices.
But there are also internet-based schools with solid reputations, screening processes, and standards. And there are undeniable advantages to earning your degree online. “I don’t think in the end it’s about online versus ground schools,” says Brad Graham, an academic advisor for Westwood College. “I think there ends up being a difference between for-profit schools that are run as businesses, and research-based institutions. The quality of education, the entire experience, is different.”
Who’s the typical online student?
Graham explains that most of his students are “a little bit older – late 20s and up.” He shares that the online school “provides them with the flexibility to be able to work and participate in classes whenever they can, versus being on campus and having to be at a particular class at a particular time. Lots of women with kids enroll so that they can stay at home with the kids and be on the computer when their schedule permits”.
What kinds of study habits do you need as an online student?
Given the flexible approach to online academia, self-discipline is crucial. Graham’s currently learning this lesson first-hand as he’s taking a primarily online course for graduate school. “Being able to meet deadlines, manage time, prioritize, are all key,” he says. “In some ways it’s easier for people to be accountable when they have face to face contact with a professor during a set time.” Blevins agrees. “You have to have discipline because there’s far less structure,” she says.
What are the benefits of attending school online?
Well, there’s the obvious stuff: attending class in your underwear, cold pizza in the right hand, left pointer finger up your nose. The anonymity can’t be beat.
Beyond that, perhaps the most obvious benefit is that of flexibility. “In my program, you only did one class at a time, and you could do it whenever you wanted, rather than having to be in a classroom at a specific time,” says Blevins. It’s also ideal for would-be students living in areas with limited educational opportunities. This was the case for Blevins, who was residing in Breckenridge, Colorado when she decided to pursue her Master’s. “I would have had to relocate, and I didn’t want to do that,” she says. These two factors of flexibility and ease often lead to a diverse student body. At Graham’s school, “the students come from such varied backgrounds, so the different walks of life add to the diversity in online classroom discussion.”
Also, conducting your studies online means you can leverage online technology to perfect your work. Robert DeFloria, a faculty member at University of Phoenix, notes that “the online environment is extremely automated with tools that promote academic excellence. For example, University of Phoenix has a system called WritePoint that instantly checks and provides feedback on grammar, APA formatting, and plagiarism. It’s like having an online tutor to review each paper.”
What are the drawbacks?
“I’m someone who appreciates the in-person element of seeing your professors and having live classroom discussion,” Graham says. He explains that his online course, like many others, has a discussion element, but it can feel contrived: “Sometimes in class I just don’t feel like talking, but in an online discussion it’s mandatory to contribute something and respond to someone else’s comment.” Blevins echoes Graham’s sentiments, adding that it can be difficult to collaborate with other students on group assignments when the interaction is limited to the internet. In addition, DeFloria concedes that online schooling limits one’s ability to gain experience doing in-person presentations.
Blevins also says that the cost of her online school seemed particularly high when compared to ground schools, “probably because of the convenience factor”. She also emphasizes that, depending upon your profession, it’s important to check whether your state of residence accepts degrees from online programs. “Colorado accepts teacher’s licenses obtained online, but they’re not recognized in, for example, Kentucky,” Blevins explains.
What’s the future of online school?
Our world is becoming increasingly technological, and the internet is fast replacing face-to-face human interaction. At present, many ground schools offer online courses. Graham believes this lends legitimacy to the internet model. “Right now people think of [online school] as a joke, but I think you’ll see more and more of it,” he says. And in our fast-food, remote-controlled society, the convenience of obtaining a degree from home is becoming more and more appealing.
Search our directory of online grad programs.
Stephanie Small is a Boulder-based psychotherapist, holistic nutritionist, and writer with a BA in English from Yale University and an MSW from the Smith College School for Social Work.