EDUCATION JCM

Digital Degrees
Online education makes the grade
by Elizabeth Vosk
Apr 05, 2013 | 1622 views | 0 0 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print


“Is this for real?” I asked Stephanie, assistant admissions advisor at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). I was already skeptical of online education and surprised that someone had responded so quickly to my request for information.

“Yes,” she laughed, “this is for real. We have a traditional brick-and-mortar campus.” OK, so not like University of Phoenix or Kaplan University.

Not to deride online-only institutions, but legitimacy is a big concern when considering an online degree program. It’s easy to find an online education program for a post-grad business degree or administration degree, but a Master’s Degree in English literature? That’s a little more difficult.

My quest started in August 2012 after I’d been rejected from four out of six “traditional” schools in the tri-state area. So I scoured the Internet and found SNHU—a legitimate, real live school, among the top 10 in the region.

After I was accepted into the program, Meredith, my personal advisor, assured me that I would be paying for an educational experience, not just a piece of paper. Perhaps the biggest issue with online schools is: Will a potential employer dismiss you? Many online-only adult-education institutions are accredited and therefore “legitimate.” Though the much-publicized, for-profit University of Phoenix is widely perceived as an online institution, it has 89 campuses and learning centers in 40 states, DC, and five other countries.

Some view online-only schools as an easy way out, but that’s hardly the case. My first term at SNHU was not easy by any means. I had midterms and finals and two 15-plus-page papers due at the end of an 11-week term. But to ensure that you are not getting conned or paying simply for a piece of paper, research is key.

Ask friends who have attended online institutions about their experiences or find them on the Internet. Just before you graduate from high school, colleges and universities send you piles of information. Sign up for mailing lists and for information packets, and check schools’ websites. Call an advisor. Call the head of the department. Call as many people from the school as you need to in order to assure yourself that this is not only a legitimate institution but also a school that you would feel comfortable at. Expect an online degree to cost between $8,000 and $80,000 and to take from 18 months to four years.

In the Hudson County area, particularly in Jersey City, there are several brick-and-mortar institutions that offer online options. I graduated from New Jersey City University with a Bachelor of Arts degree and took several classes that were online-only and some that were “blended.” In blended courses, students spend half their time on campus and the other half online. At St. Peter’s University (SPU), most adult courses are blended, in a system called Blackboard, a standard in many universities.

Stephanie Autenrieth, director of graduate and professional studies admissions at SPU, said that there are many benefits to studying online, including the flexibility. If you work fulltime or have children at home, it’s easy to perform your daily tasks and plug into your online courses whenever and wherever you want. I tend to finish my coursework after my 9-to-5 job and late into the night on the weekends when I feel most productive and awake.

A normal day of online schooling consists of logging on with an ID number or email address and password. You read your assignments and participate in discussions, submit short essay papers, and chat with classmates either through a real-time live chat function or through the discussion boards. Most professors require you to log in and participate at least three days a week, but because it is spread throughout the week, a genuine and intelligent discussion can be found the same way as it would be in a classroom setting, only without hearing each other’s voices.

But Autenrieth also sees the benefits of blended courses, especially if you prefer to see and hear your classmates. “Generally,” she said, “people who aren’t comfortable with online learning don’t choose the option right out of the gate, since there are traditional options available first.” One of the qualities online students must quickly develop is discipline. It’s very easy to fall behind or to procrastinate. But blended courses and one or two online courses during a traditional college career prepare a student for the workload of a full-time online educational experience.

One downside to online courses is power outages, like those during Hurricane Sandy, which left thousands of students without Internet access and with a growing pile of coursework to attend to. But Autenrieth said that organizers of online courses are usually very accommodating when it comes to technical glitches.

St. Peter’s has only one full-time online post-graduate program (for Registered Nurses), and NJCU has only a few online-only degrees. Still, the flexibility of online adult education is attracting more and more students.—JCM

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