The Best Program (Chapter 6)
Once you know what area of study you would like to earn your online masters degree in, it is time to choose the best program. Below are several factors to consider when deciding which online programs to apply to:
Accreditation is a very important factor to consider when choosing an online masters degree program. Employers, regulating agencies and other academic institutions may not think that a masters degree from an unaccredited school is as valuable or legitimate as a degree from an accredited school. To save yourself some grief, only apply to schools that are accredited by a well-respected, U.S. Department of Education approved accrediting agency.
- Residency Requirements
One of the biggest assumptions that students make about online masters degree programs is that they will be able to fulfill all of the program requirements by studying exclusively online. While most online programs will allow you to complete coursework and participation requirements online, be aware that some programs will have residency requirements. Residency requirements come in a variety of formats:
- Limited residencies: Programs with limited residencies will ask you to spend 1 semester or less on campus. The time spent on campus usually includes weekend seminars, 1-week intensives or summer institutes. Limited residencies are a good way to meet the students and faculty who you primarily interact with online.
- Extended residencies: This type of residency requirement will ask you to study on campus for 1 semester or more. Extended residencies can give you a more traditional post-graduate experience, but they may be more difficult to attend if you work full time, live far from the campus or have other responsibilities.
- Blended or hybrid programs: Programs that blend online and classroom learning formats are known as hybrid or blended programs. These programs will require you to consistently attend classes on campus throughout your degree program, in addition to completing a significant amount of your coursework online.
- Course Format: Synchronous and Asynchronous Courses
The format of the courses included in your program of study will likely have an impact on which school and program you choose. Although earning a masters degree online can bring independence and flexibility, some courses will be set up so that you will need to be logged in at a specific time. Courses in which all students must log in at the same time are called synchronous courses. These may occur when lectures are given live or when discussions are held via video conferencing. If the school from which you are earning your degree is in another time zone, be sure to take that into account when choosing synchronous courses.
Asynchronous courses allow students to log in at any time to view lectures or to comment on assignments. If you need more flexibility to pursue a masters degree online, make sure that the majority of your courses are asynchronous.
- Communication and Interactions
How you communicate and interact with your department’s faculty and classmates may not seem important enough to consider when deciding on a masters degree program, but it can help or hinder your learning process depending on your preferences. If you have little or no difficulty collecting information from e-mail communications and online discussion boards, then an online masters program that primarily uses these tools of communication will be to your advantage.
Some schools and programs offer video conferencing between students and professors, and for small group seminars. These can be nice if you tend to understand ideas and concepts better when you hear them as opposed to when you read them. If you know that you learn much better through direct contact and communication, consider the benefits of attending a program that includes some form of residency. Residencies will allow you to meet your faculty and classmates in person, thus making future communication easier.
Masters degree programs tend to be based on close interaction with a few professors and a small group of classmates. Figure out which forms of communication work best for you and how reliable they are within that program.
Although you may not see the faculty of your online masters program every day, they will play an integral role in your program and your culminating project if you have 1. As with any program of study, you want to make sure that the people teaching you are qualified to do so. Professors should have their education history and CVs available for your review. Check to see if a school’s faculty has degrees from accredited institutions, and that their practical knowledge and work history are appropriate for what they are teaching.
Masters degree programs tend to be the point at which you begin to specialize your area of study. It is important to work with professors whose research interests align with or support your own interests. For example, a literature professor who focuses on 19th century American novels can offer only so much guidance to a student studying 15th century Italian biographies. Remember, you want to find a good match in a masters degree program, not just be accepted to one.
In the 21st century, more and more things can be found and done online. The Internet, however, has not yet fully replaced libraries and science labs and it is essential that you know what kind of resources you will have access to in an online program. If you choose to enroll in an online program through a brick-and-mortar school, you will most likely have access to their libraries, labs and support services. While universities are including more library information and resources online, there are still some items that can only be found in the library itself. Look at your potential programs to see what resources are available to you. If it is unclear, ask. The availability of resources can have a huge impact on the work you do at the masters level.
- Theses or Comprehensive Exams
A program’s milestones and methods of evaluation can vary depending on the field of study and the institution where you enroll. At the end of your program’s coursework, you may have to sit for a comprehensive exam or you may need to write a lengthy research paper, called a thesis. In some cases, you will be required to pass a comprehensive exam before being allowed to begin your thesis. It is important to understand what is expected of you in each program, how you will be evaluated and what is required to pass.
If the programs you are interested in have residency requirements, consider how much time you will be on site, how far you will have to travel to get there, and how much it will cost to do so.