The Value Of An Online Versus Traditional Education Environment

Someone asked me to write a post about online degrees. Since I had no experience, I put it out to my Twitter followers. The following is a guest post from Ginger, one of my Twitter friends. She asked me not to link to her account because she wanted to be really candid about her experiences. Here is what she had to say about getting an online degree:

Degree attained: Masters of Instructional Science and Technology
Time it took: Two years, full time online courses
Total cost: Approx. $8000 (not including books) (cost to me, after employer paid for tuition: $1000 plus books)

Financial aid: I was lucky enough to have my employer pay for my Masters. I paid only for student fees (around $250/semester) and books (varied). Thus, I definitely felt it was worth the financial and time investment, even with working full time (and sometimes overtime) and going to graduate school full time. So no, I don’t think my employer paid more for the convenience of online classes.

My program was at a state university, and was what is called a “blended learning environment,” that is we were mostly online (throughout the semester) but at the beginning of each semester (and the end of the last one before our capstone presentations) we met face-to-face. These were required sessions. So our program cost the same price another traditional graduate program on the same campus would have cost.

Others who were not sponsored by their employers, federal financial student aid would have paid for their degree just as it has for my previous ones. As long as the institution is accredited, etc., then filling out the FAFSA form is the first step to applying for financial aid.

Advice for someone considering entering into your program:

(1) TIME MANAGEMENT: Our advisers and professors DID tell us this, but this cannot be stressed enough. Find a way to manage your time, be it a paper calendar, Google calendar, it doesn’t matter. As long as it works for you, stick to it. This was especially important for my program because we used Blackboard and Moodle in the first and second years (respectively), which are both content management systems (CMS). Thus each syllabus, assignment, and quiz and was announced and/or submitted online. It was pertinent to find an organizational system early on to make sure your assignments weren’t late.

I am (ironically) “lucky” that I am not married and have no children, because I seriously do not know how my colleagues with a spouse and/or children and full-time employment came through these past two years. It was challenging. The work was a challenge, but very manageable.

(2) PREPARE YOUR WORKSTATION: Any program that you do while working full time, be it online or traditional, will mean that you are (most likely) on the computer a lot during the day, and then again for up to 4-6 hours each night (or attending a class).

That’s a lot of sitting and the potential for ergonomic problems cropping up is quite high. Get a good computer chair; make sure your monitor is at a good height; see your optometrist to make sure you have the best possible pair of glasses for your eyes (remember that reading glasses and computer glasses may not be the same pair); make sure your keyboard and mouse do not make you strain when using them; get a lumbar support pillow for your computer chair if need be; make sure to get up once every 1-2 hours and move around, get a glass of ice water (helps with thirst and wakes you up).

(3) HEALTH: Eat as well as you can and get as much sleep as you can. I believe every single person in my cohort had at least one or two nights each semester that was either an all-nighter or where they got to bed around 3-4 a.m. For me, going to sleep at 4 or 5 is almost not worth it if I have to get up at 6:30 or 7. Here, again, is where time management will help you.

(4) FAMILY, PETS, & FRIENDS: For your own mental well-being, for the sake of the other people and creatures in your life who depend on you in some way: keep up your relationships.

Tell those around you that you will be starting an online program and that for its duration, you will be very busy, but that you really want to maintain communication and that their friendship is important to you. Tell them the amount of communication you think you’ll be able to maintain, be it emails and a weekly call, or a Saturday morning cuppa at your favorite local coffee house. This is especially important to do with your spouse or partner. Work with each other to redistribute household chores, childcare, and errands as needed. Tell your spouse that you aren’t checking out, rather adding on an additional responsibility for a fixed amount of time (this is important!), but that you want to work together to make sure the household routine is maintained as much as possible.

And please make sure that your pets are included in this planning! It’s easy to plop down a plate of food for Fluffy, but remember that pets that we have brought into our homes are our responsibility and need more than food to thrive. Try to spend at least 15 minutes twice a day with your pet. (Dogs, of course, must be walked.)

(5) COMMUNICATION: This is the most important thing. If you communicate well with your partner, friends, and professors, then you will be able to avoid miscommunications, quickly clear up misunderstandings, and ask for clarification.

From Nicole: Great advice all around. All the other people who responded to my Facebook and Twitter inquiry said that while a lot could be accomplished online, there was a need for some face time for them to truely feel like they were getting a good amount out of the course.

In short, an online degree may be more convenient but you’ll likely pay the same amount and spend as much time pursuing it as you would a traditional degree.

For those of you who have done this, does that sound right?

Nicole Ouellette
Nicole runs Breaking Even Communications, an internet marketing company in Bar Harbor Maine. When she's not online, she enjoys walking her short dog, cooking with bacon, and trying to be outdoorsy in Acadia National Park.

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