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Online Graduate Programs: Are They Legitimate & Should You Enroll?

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Some collegiettes enter their undergraduate orientation week confident about their post-graduation plans, whether they’re aiming for med school, law school, or even Broadway. For those less sure, however, graduation often brings them to a fork in their lives where they ask themselves: should I continue my education or find an entry-level job? While there are pros and cons to both options, the decision doesn’t have to be so black and white.

Online graduate programs serve as an alternative that allows students to complete a degree while simultaneously gaining work experience. Her Campus spoke with former collegiettes currently enrolled in online graduate programs as well as experts from online universities to get the scoop on this rapidly growing option for post-graduates.

How Do Online Graduate Programs Work?

Online graduate programs are structured similarly to traditional programs, but with a few twists. The courses still have lectures, discussions, assignments and exams, but these are generally completed and submitted away from a physical college campus.

Where and when are classes?

The online classroom comes to life via e-learning software programs, such as Blackboard and Moodle. These programs are composed of text chats and bulletin boards, as well as streaming audio and recorded lectures. Depending on the program and institution, online learning may either consist of synchronous (live) sessions, asynchronous (non-live) sessions, or a combination of the two. In both cases, transcripts, notes, and students’ lecture participation are usually archived so that students can review the lectures if they miss something. Courses are usually taught in a seminar format that requires students to view or listen to lectures online in addition to participating in class discussion through forums and video conferencing.

Synchronous lectures require students to collectively login to the program at a set time in order to attend class. “We have to go online at certain times and participate in class discussions,” says Jaime Cannon, a full-time 7th and 8th grade science teacher who is currently pursuing an online master’s in middle grades education at East Carolina University. Everything is live in this format and, similar to a traditional class setting, students must engage with their peers and professors in real-time.

Asynchronous lectures do not require students to login at a set time. Designed to accommodate students who rely on a flexible schedule, these lectures consist of pre-recorded lectures, slideshows and reading supplements. “I love how I can pace myself and engage in lectures to fit my schedule,” says Mathavi Jothimurugesan.

Mathavi is a graduate student studying Higher Education Administration at Harvard University’s School of Education, and is also currently enrolled in an online social justice class at Harvard. “If life is too hectic (like right now), I can hold off on lectures until it's convenient for me.” Like most asynchronous programs, Mathavi’s online class provides her with a structured syllabus that outlines suggested pacing.

Although the majority of lectures for online graduate programs are watched online, several university-affiliated programs still require students to attend classes on campus grounds to meet a specified number of “residency hours.” Some limited residency graduate programs, like Prescott College’s Master’s and PhD programs, require students to attend weekend or weeklong seminars on a physical campus. Other programs require students to spend one or two semesters taking classes on campus, and some may even require quarterly immersion days, like University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s online MBA program. However, there are also programs that are offered entirely online with no campus visits required, such as the majority of degrees at Liberty University Online.

Regardless of the length, residency requirements are mandatory, so it’s vital to ensure that you make sure you are able to follow through with a program’s expectations before enrolling. Be thorough with your research, as one institution may require different residency policies for different programs. For example, although the majority of Arizona State University’s online degree programs are offered entirely online with no campus visits required, there are some exceptions. “ASU has a few degree programs that require occasional campus attendance,” says Russ Knocke, Chief of Staff and Director of Communications for ASU Online.

Even the online programs that are 100% online may require an initial on-campus orientation, where new students meet their classmates, instructors and support personnel. This in-person introduction to the class teaches students how to use the technology involved, and explains everything they need to know about the library, reference systems and beginning their coursework. Orientation dates vary along with the start date for online programs, but there are generally many more options for these visits than for traditional programs. For example, rather than a single fall semester start date, ASU Online offers six start dates each year while Liberty University Online offers eleven.

Once a program begins, its length depends on how many credits are taken each semester and the overall number of credits required. Graduate level programs can be extremely demanding and students working full-time while enrolled in a part-time program may only be able to handle a limited number of classes each semester on top of a professional workload. “With a full-time teaching job, it is sometimes hard to manage work and school all within the same week,” says Jaime.

Exams and Assignments

Online graduate programs offer students the flexibility to complete course assessments on their own time, as long as they are submitted by specified deadlines. “I can watch lectures at my own pace, but there are still definite deadlines by when I must submit assignments, quizzes and tests,” says Mathavi.

Tests are usually administered online within a time limit to make it difficult for students to answer questions if they are underprepared, as well as to limit them from taking advantage of using outside sources. “We have quizzes that are administered through our course software, Blackboard, but mostly we have papers instead of tests,” says Jaime. “If we do have a quiz, it’s usually timed.” Occasionally, students may be required to take a test at a local testing center while being monitored by a proctor appointed by the university.

Classroom Discussion and Interaction

One of the most striking differences between an online program and a traditional university is that the majority of contact with instructors and classmates in an online program is through written communication. Rather than attending in-person office hours or staying after class, communicating with professors is usually done through e-mail, chat rooms, bulletin boards, and instant messaging. Interaction amongst students also occurs through discussion boards and forums. These discussions may be graded, but the discussion board format gives students time to articulate responses and proofread their ideas before responding. Instructors may occasionally assign students to a “virtual work group” where they will work on a project or solve a problem with other students. These small group interactions may be completed through written collaborations or video conferencing.

Although instructor-student contact in an online program seems like a challenge compared to the communicative ease of a traditional classroom, that is not necessarily the case. In fact, faculty-student contact in online programs such as Duke University's Online Global Executive MBA is significantly greater than other Executive MBA programs because of the 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week nature of online learning. The faculty in this program, as well as in many others, hold weekly real-time office hours in addition to monitoring class discussions and responding to email on a regular basis.

This adjustment from the traditional, in-class discussion format may not be a change welcomed by everyone, however. “There's something almost essential that is absent from an online course experience, and that is interactions with peers and professors,” says Mathavi. “Although there are online forums and chats to engage in, nothing beats the ability to collaborate and discuss with others in real-time. I feel like I'm simply absorbing the information instead of engaging in the nuances of the material.”

Types of Online Graduate Programs

The list of master’s degrees that can be completed online is endless. From master’s in arts and religion to science and engineering, the areas of study offered through online programs are extensive. However, not all master’s degrees are meant to be completed online. “Master’s degrees in business and education are the most popular online programs offered at our university,” says Edwin Tjoe, director of eLearning at St. John’s University. “But our master’s programs in communication are extremely unpopular.”

Other hands-on subjects like public speaking, broadcast studies, and sports, where physical movement is essential to the learning experience, are currently better understood in the traditional classroom. However, advancements in technology may be on their way to creating a more interactive online medium. Engineering, for example, is traditionally a hands-on field, but is booming at ASU Online. “Online degrees in engineering at ASU are large and growing fast,” says Knocke.

Several prestigious schools also offer online certificate programs for working professionals who don't have time for lengthy residencies or complete degrees. Although the coursework may be challenging, a certificate from a prestigious school can make your resume stand out to potential employers without the added hassle of relocation. One example of a certificate program with a reputable name is the Harvard Extension School. Within this program, students can choose from a wide variety of distance learning courses and can earn a graduate certificate by taking a series of five courses in a particular field. Certificates from Harvard in sustainability, strategic management, web technologies and religious studies all can be earned completely online.

Although there is an extensive variety of graduate degrees that can be completed online, not all graduate degrees can be earned on the Internet. For example, several doctorate degrees, such as a Doctor of Education (EdD), Doctor of Public Health (DPH), Doctor of Psychology (PhD) and Doctor of Business Administration (DBA), can be earned virtually. However, there are also doctorate degrees that require highly supervised training, such as that received by medical doctors. These types of degrees cannot be earned online, as they focus on hands-on skills that cannot be mastered by watching an online lecture. In addition, while completely online J.D. programs exist, they are not accredited by the American Bar Association, a critical factor to look for when evaluating law school programs. The human interaction involved in a traditional law school setting is crucial to ultimately finding success in the field of law, a fact that as of now has prevented the growth of online J.D. programs.

Finding Employment with an Online Degree

As online degrees become more prevalent, employers are increasingly perceiving them as the equivalent of a traditional degree. “Our clients who hire based on post-graduate degrees do not have a preference when it comes to online vs. traditional diplomas,” says Bill Peppler, employment expert and managing director at Kavaliro Staffing Services, a firm that connects employers with potential employees.

Employers regard the accreditation of the university, the quality of its graduates and the name of the institution awarding the degree as factors that make an online degree more credible. “The online version of the degree is most significant when it comes from an accredited university that carries brand name recognition,” says Peppler. “Our clients and our hiring managers start to ask questions when the degree comes from a university that we have never heard of.”

As the numbers of students interested in online degrees steadily increases, the number of colleges and universities providing these online programs continues to rise along with the number of employers who value online degrees as the equivalent of a traditional degree. “Learning technologies have advanced to the point now where it is possible to design and deliver high-quality courses in almost any academic discipline, and with learning outcomes that are as good or better than in a traditional classroom,” says ASU’s Knocke.

Several online programs also provide career assistance to help students with their job search. For example, ASU Online Career Services offer programs and counseling throughout the year to help online students strengthen their job search skills, résumé writing and interview techniques. There is also an online chat room for career advice available every day of the week, in addition to drop-in counseling with career counselors. Live webinars covering a range of job-related topics are held several times a semester, and online students have access to the same career portal as traditional students when they apply for jobs.

Staying Motivated in Online Programs

The majority of students enrolled in online programs appreciate the flexibility of the program as long as they posses the self-motivation to stick to an academic schedule. By enrolling in East Carolina University’s online, no-residency graduate program, middle school teacher Jaime Cannon is able to work full-time while simultaneously pursuing her master’s. “After graduating from Gardner-Webb University in 2011 and teaching with Teach for America for a year, I knew that I wanted to pursue the field of education,” says Jaime. “While continuing to work as a full-time teacher, I am able to also take self-paced classes to obtain a master’s degree that will further my career after TFA.”

The flexibility of online programs also appeals to collegiette Emily Schon from Duke University who is considering enrollment in an online master’s in Library and Information Science program while working full-time in a library. “If I pursue an online graduate program, I will aim to work full-time to gain experience in libraries, so I can have a higher-paying job upon completing my degree,” says Emily. Since there are only a small number of schools that offer degrees in Library and Information Science, a distance learning program will also give Emily the flexibility to live anywhere in the country while completing her education. “It is a major pro that I wouldn't be tied down to one city or one job throughout the experience,” says Emily.

However, the immense flexibility of online classes is often accompanied by the challenge to stay focused. It is much easier to procrastinate as an online student because, unlike traditional students, you can always “save class until later.” Online classes with non-live components also make it much harder to hold yourself accountable for going to class when you aren’t required to show up to lecture at a certain time of day. “We advise graduatestudents to plan for 20 hours of study time per week, per class,” says Knocke. “It can be a very demanding commitment, especially for students who have work and family responsibilities.”

The virtual learning environment can make it easy to forget you’re in school and a large amount of self-motivation is key to succeeding in these programs. “Online classes won’t be a problem as long as I can stay motivated and work hard throughout the whole process, giving myself adequate time to learn the information in a thorough manner,” says Emily. Online programs work best for students who are self-disciplined, well organized and have excellent time management skills. Alternatively, it may be an inappropriate learning environment for more dependent learners who have difficulty assuming the responsibilities required by online courses.

Being Social in a Virtual Campus

Although taking a class from bed may seem like the ideal situation for current undergraduates who are begrudgingly waking up early each morning for class, those 8 AM on-campus classes might actually not be so bad. “I miss the fact that you can’t build meaningful relationships with others in your program through online classes,” says Jaime. “I feel like I miss the opportunity to have candid conversations with classmates and professors about school and instruction.” Even though online students are encouraged to actively participate in class and discussion boards, it is still much harder to befriend your classmates from your bedroom than it is in a traditional classroom setting.

Virtual interactions also remove the chance to network within the graduate social circle. Since you’re likely to meet more people face-to-face while attending a traditional university, your contacts inevitably grow along with your networking opportunities. Although many online programs provide career services, the spontaneity of networking opportunities almost completely disappears in an online setting.

Although it may be difficult, keep in mind that it’s not impossible to make friends in an online program. It may not be as easy to bond with people when you can’t actually see them in person, but reaching out to peers in your programs’ discussion board and chat rooms is an effective first step in connecting with fellow students. From there, you can friend them on Facebook and ask to meet up when you go to the physical campus for classes or orientation.

Depending on your program, you may be able to still take part in some of the hallmarks of going to graduate school, such as on-campus extracurricular activities and social events. For example, ASU Online students receive their diploma with every other Arizona State University graduate student. While researching online universities, check to see if universities with distance learning programs open up on-campus opportunities to online students as well.

Finding a Quality Online Degree

If you’re interested in pursuing an online graduate degree, the most important step in the enrollment process is choosing a credible program. There are two main things to consider when looking for a quality online degree: reputation and accreditation.

Reputation

There is a huge difference between an “online university” and an online extension of a legitimate, reputable university with a physical campus that offers distance education. Several traditional schools offer online programs that are equally credible to their on-campus programs and it is possible that these schools will even be listed on a graduate’s transcripts without the online designation. At ASU Online, for example, students graduate with simply “Arizona State University” listed on their transcripts.

Always look for prestigious universities or colleges providing online degree programs over solely online programs with little or no reputation. To supplement your research on these schools, find published news articles about the online programs you are considering. In addition, read through blogs, reviews and forums discussing specific schools to search for quality programs that are well-recognized and highly rated. If you can, speak to various employers and university administrators to gauge their thoughts on the schools you are considering. Ultimately, the reputation of an institution is a make-or-break it factor when it comes to a credible degree that will be recognized by employers, so choose wisely, collegiette!

Accreditation

Researching the accreditation of an online program is another essential step in evaluating a degree’s credibility. A school’s accreditation is a signal to students and employers that the programs they offer meet certain academic standards.  Unaccredited “diploma mills,” or institutions offering phony academic degrees and diplomas for a fee, are usually accredited by fake agencies. These schools have no academic standards, offer online degrees that don’t adequately educate students for a career in the field and produce degrees that are worthless and unacceptable to employers.

Some known diploma mills include Breyer State University, Canyon College, Atlantic International University, University of Berkeley, Stratford Career Institute and the Esoteric Theological Seminary. Many more exist, so if you are wary of a school’s accreditation, compare the lists of accrediting agencies maintained by the US Department of Education to the accrediting agency listed on the school’s homepage. If the school’s accrediting agency is not on the accepted list, the school is not legitimately accredited. You can also search for specific accredited institutions here.

Continuing your education after college can be a vital step in landing your dream job, but gaining work experience is often just as important. Online graduate programs serve as one way for you to earn a degree on your own schedule, in any location, while still having room in your day to gain needed experience in the workplace. To see what the online experience is really like, New York University Distance Learning has created a helpful demonstration of the live classroom environment.

 

Graduating from college doesn’t mean you have to choose one path and stick with it. Online degrees give you the flexibility to explore new areas of study while maintaining a full-time job. If you’re still unsure, see if your college offers an online course for you to enroll in to assess if you’d be happy in a completely online program. You’ll never know if an online degree is right for you unless you give the virtual experience a try!


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