Monday, July 20, 2009

Do Online Classes Make Sense for Your Career?

When I graduated from college -- even though I loved the experience -- I literally ran to my car after the ceremony, speeding away in my '72 Olds Cutlass Supreme. (An awesome car I could now kick myself for selling.)

I was done with school. Forever. I looked at fellow graduates who said they were going to get their master's degrees or even their PhD's with the same face I used to pick squashed bugs off the bottom of my shoes. "Ugh!" I'd exclaim, walking away from them quickly for fear I'd catch whatever it was that was making them insane.

Now, many years later, I've contemplated going back to school as I've watched the journalism profession take a beating. I'm not exactly sure what classes I would take, but I was glad I did the research on this story for my Gannett column because taking online classes might be a good option for me -- but I need to be smart about my choices. Here's my story discussing online universities:

As the job market continues to flounder, many professionals are turning to online classes as a way to help save a current career or start a new one -- but both universities and students are warning that not all online educations are created the same.

“I was very disappointed in my online classes,” says Beverly Cornell, a consultant for global businesses, marketing and social media in Detroit. “People just did the work and never challenged anything that was said. I missed that exchange of ideas you get in a regular classroom. There was no chance to articulate ideas and help form ideas.”

Having just the opposite experience was Jan Melnick, who said she found her online classes from 2004 to 2007 were a perfect fit for her busy lifestyle as a businesswoman and mother of three.

“It was an outstanding experience,” says Melnick, a career coach in Durham, Conn. “I had a very busy career, and I wanted a program that was rigorous and had top-notch professors.”

Those varying experiences are why David Clinefelter, provost at Kaplan University, based in Davenport, Iowa, says those seeking an online education need to do some homework before they even take their first class. Clinefelter says that prospective students need to check out everything from the school’s accreditation to quality controls to considering their own learning styles.

Part of the problem with some online programs may be that the growth has been so explosive nationwide in recent years. For example, Kaplan University started online classes with just 34 students in 2001, and now has 54,000 students participating in its online programs. “It’s a hang-onto-that-tiger-by-the-tail thing,” Clinefelter says. “The numbers are staggering.”

Melnick says that she was one of those who had very specific criteria in mind when she went searching for an online university. Costing the same as if she were attending regular classes ($25,000-$30,000 for a bachelor’s degree), Melnick was ready to be challenged by a tough curriculum.

“You’ve got to look for the legitimate programs,” Melnick advises. “I was looking for professors that had the highest degrees, who had themselves graduated from Ivy League schools.”
Clinefelter agrees that any online university should offer the same quality classes and instructors as those provided to students in the traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms. He also advises that students looking for an online education should:

• Make sure the online university is regionally accredited. Check out the U.S. Department of Education database of accreditation.
• Verify that the university offers a degree that will be valued by the industry or career you are pursuing.
• Check out not only the academic credentials of professors, but what real-world, professional experience they bring to the classroom.
• Ask whether the university will accept transfer credits in order to avoid paying for a class you’ve already taken somewhere else.
• Determine that there is a commitment to quality. For example, the classes should be consistent (not changing every time there is a new professor), and there should be a clear method for measuring student learning outcomes from the classes. Also, the university should be responsive to the demands of a profession, keeping current on what is needed to give students the skills and knowledge they need to compete.
• Think about your learning style. While Cornell says she needed more human interaction and better communication than provided online, Melnick says she excels in written communication and working independently, so the online classes suited her. It’s a good idea to ask an academic admissions advisor or check the university’s website to find out the student/faculty ratio; how you will interact and communicate with faculty; the teaching style online; the opportunities to interact with other students; and what academic and/or technical support is available.
• Consider your age. Those interviewed for this story agree that online courses are better suited to the “older” student. Clinefelter says the majority of Kaplan’s online students are female, in their mid-30s and have children.

Melnick adds that she believes the self-discipline and more “experienced and real-world view” of the older student are better suited to the online classroom.

“Many people have gotten to where they are in life without a degree,” Melnick says. “But they may find it’s now holding them back. I tell them, ‘It’s never too late.’ There’s a real confidence that comes from getting that degree.”

What are some important criteria to use when deciding to go back to school?


Lindsay Olson said...

I completed most of my studies online. For me, it worked very well for my lifestyle and my current career. Showing up to class while running a business just wasn't an option for me that could work long-term for me. I also live overseas and as interesting as it would be to do an MBA or any other program in Argentina and complete it in my second language, the language piece would slow me down. I opted for an accredited state university in the USA with several online programs and a liberal transfer policy.

I think it's important for people contemplating going back to school and doing it online to evaluate their learning style like your article suggests. Completing a course online takes even more motivation than showing up to class on a campus, so before investing the time and money, know what your getting yourself into.

Anita said...

Thanks for offering your personal experience. Everyone I talked with says it does take a lot of personal motivation and discipline if you're even contemplating online classes. Thanks for adding to the discussion...I think a lot of people will find it beneficial.

Beth Robinson said...

I recently completed my MBA online through Arizona State University and found it a worthwhile experience.

One thing you should look for is the way the classes are set up, especially in a graduate program.

Some school operate cohort style - you move through the same or similar classes with the same group of people over a set time. This is what I did and I'll probably keep in touch with my teammates throughout the rest of my career. Others allow more flexibility of selecting your classes and taking them in the order you like.

Some schools spread their classes out over traditional school schedules. Others concentrate them into six or eight week units, allowing you to get done in the same amount of time but only focus on one topic at a time, which I really appreciated.

Anita said...

Thanks so much for adding your personal experience -- great suggestions!

Anita Santiago said...

I completed my Master's degree online and it was very challenging. I think it is important to check the school out before signing up for classes. Some universities make their online courses more challenging and a little harder to avoid the perception that they are 'easy' schools. Online courses are a good option for lots of people

Anita said...

You're've gotta do "homework" before you even take your first class! It doesn't make sense to pay for classes that aren't going to be a good fit. Thanks for sharing your experience.

Anita said...

Thanks...and welcome!