Disadvantages in pursing an online graduate degree

Higher Educational Programs

Higher education: Advantages vs. disadvantages in pursing an online graduate degree

For someone contemplating embarking upon higher education in today’s difficult economic times, a non-traditional path to a graduate degree online may seem seductive. Online programs allow the student to continue with their busy lives and to earn money while they pursue their degree. It seems like a cost savings. However, although there initially might seem to be great advantages and gains from pursuing a degree online, the ‘cost’ of the degree is actually much greater, both in terms of the overall expense of the student’s education, and the opportunity cost of the valuable education that can only be provided by schooling in a real-world setting. Even for older, working professionals pursuing a graduate degree, although they might possess the kind of discipline and willingness to learn independently that may be lacking in a potential undergraduate online learner, the graduate student can gain more from his or her education using the traditional brick and mortar format — professionally and personally (Scoville 2008).

Firstly, regarding the cost of ‘real life’ and ‘real world’ PhD programs, quite often there are grants and scholarships offered by traditional institutions to individuals pursuing a graduate degree, in addition to work-study programs. Schools are aware of the expense of time and money full-time graduate study requires, as opposed to the part-time format of online universities and their ‘fend for one’s self’ attitude towards financing. Brick and mortar institutions often have paid research opportunities that may provide funding for the student during the pursuit of a PhD. Online programs usually provide no such support, ostensibly because the price of their tuition is lower because there are fewer operating costs at an institution without many facilities or administrative costs. But using the online format, the student must provide his or her own financial support by working, often at a job where the employer is likely to be less-than-sympathetic to the need to balance the demands of the workforce with the demands of schooling, unlike an individual employing the student within a work-study program at a university. Also, unlike being a research assistant for a professor or acting as a teaching assistant to undergraduates, the online student’s full-time work often has less relevance to the graduate degree he or she is pursuing.

There is also the issue of emotional support of other students. Often, even in a traditional university context, graduate study can feel isolating and lonely. A student must commit him or herself to a long-term research project and spend long hours in the library. Hearing other student’s voices in class and discussing ideas with fellow students can be profoundly motivating. Granted, online classes usually have Blackboards, message boards, and even chat rooms that provide student interaction, even on a daily basis. But now brick and mortar institutions offer the same options, with the added advantages of real life discussion and interaction with professors. Professors at traditional institutions are also more likely to be full-time employees, and have more time to take an interest in the students in their classes, either to provide assistance or simply to discuss the material and the student’s area of specific interest and research. They may also have more students, because many online institutions require professors to have more students in their classes because the teachers do not have to regularly teach a class in an interactive fashion. The larger student and class load can result in less creative assignments on the part of the instructor, because of the demands of so many students, and the need to grade so many student assignments. Online professors, even for large classes, also do not have T.A.s to assist them with grading.

Proponents of online education would no doubt counter such objections with the contention that some traditional universities have large, warehouse-like classes that offer few opportunities for student interaction or close contact with faculty despite the fact the college view books often trumpet these advantages. But while this may be true on an undergraduate level, on the graduate level, smaller classes are much more common. Missing out on the interactive component of graduate education can be a great detriment to a student’s education, particularly given the more challenging intellectual material that makes up the syllabus of a graduate class. Studying after class with other students is often a very important component of a graduate student’s education to truly synthesize the subject matter. Although students can communicate with one another online, online friendships often lack the closeness that occurs between ‘real life’ friends. This may reduce the level of commitment students feel for one another.

For individuals seeking a graduate degree and advance their prospects in the job market as a teacher or another type of professional, their disconnection with their classmates can be particularly frustrating. Although adult students may not wish to ‘bond’ with their fellow grads in a dorm, making important connections with future colleagues is a vital part of succeeding in every profession requiring a graduate degree. An online graduate degree offering few opportunities to do independent research with professors and limited networking opportunities with other students may hamper the graduate student’s future success, especially when he or she is competing with individuals from more traditional institutions who did make such important ‘connections’ while graduate students.

Many people think that online degrees have the advantage of having no ‘downtime,’ such as commuting to class. However, there are always the tempting distractions of working online at home that can sap productivity: “The sound of the television, the telephone, or the noise coming from kids or pets can be major distractions. Working online can also lead to temptation of doing something more fun, such as chatting via instant messaging or surfing the web. It may not apply to every student, but things like browsing can take out a chunk of time in your day that could have been used towards your distance learning program” (Mascle 2008). Of course, a student with a wireless connection can always relocate to a local Starbucks or library to study and seek to become more focused, but he or she will lack the enforced schedule that going to a ‘real life’ class can bring. While going to school in one’s pajamas can be appealing, as can not having a firm and set schedule of classes that must be coordinated with work and other life obligations, it can also create a less serious attitude in the mind of the student. Even if this is not the case for a particularly motivated graduate student, a lack of focus in the minds of his or her fellow ‘colleagues’ can result in a compromise in the quality of his or her education overall. It inhibits his or her ability to learn when other students are less committed, as is more likely to be the case in an online format.

Another problem with online degrees is that of acceptance in the workforce: “You may find that you have to discuss the validity of your degree. Information about the school’s accreditation and, if needed, copies of syllabi and sample assignments will convince employers” (Kuther 2009). Even if employers may be convinced of the value of the student’s worth and his or her academic preparation, being able to use one’s higher degree to teach or to do research at a university level may still be difficult, given that the caliber of online schools is still frowned upon in many disciplines in the ‘academy.’ A lack of research opportunities and strong recommendations from professors who do not have outstanding reputations in the field (remember that many online teachers are part-time instructors, not full professors) can also hamper one’s success.

Additionally, working or abroad might be challenging given that online universities may not be highly-regarded in all nations: “in some countries, companies might feel that the academic standards of such an online institution are not as challenging or rigorous as a regular residency program” (Davis 2008). For a student who wishes to pursue a fellowship in a foreign country, or to seek to do postdoctoral work abroad, this may become of critical concern, as well as for an individual who wishes to work for a foreign company.

On a personal level, while contemplating enrolling in online PhD program, at first the idea of being able to work full-time and go to school full-time intrigued me. But when I delved into the prospects of pursuing an online degree and after weighing the pros and cons of both, and thinking about what I truly wanted from my education, I realized that pursuing a traditional program of study in a brick-and-mortar format would be in my best interest. Traditional programs were actually more affordable because most programs in my field offered some type of fellowship or assistantship to offset the cost of attendance and living expenses. I also had to calculate the greater benefits, prestige, and networking opportunities that would result in a higher earning salary upon graduation. Equally importantly, I was concerned about the efficacy of such programs. The efficacy of learning in a purely online format, from email and even from streaming web lectures is questionable when compared to an interactive seminar format, and learning from students face-to-face outside of class. Finally, fellowships and assistantships are wonderful ‘resume builders’ for a new graduate in the field and learning opportunities in and of themselves. The anxiety of the pressures a full-time employer might place upon me during my education was the final ‘tipping point’ that prompted me to reject online education for graduate study.

Works Cited

Davis, Randal. “Online degrees: Advantages and Disadvantages. Tips4students.” 2008.

January 7, 2009. http://www.tips4students.com/onlinedegree.htm

Kuther, Tara. “What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Online Graduate Study?”

About.com. 2009. January 7, 2009. http://gradschool.about.com/od/distanceeducation/f/onlineadv.htm

Mascle, Denna. “Online Degree Programs – the Advantages and Disadvantages of Distance

Learning Programs.” Search Warp. May 6, 2008. January 7, 2009. http://searchwarp.com/swa327958.htm

Norman, Matt. Disadvantages of Online Education. EZIB Network. January 7, 2009. http://www.ez-internet-business.com/education-online/disadvantages-of-online-education.php

Online education database. January 7, 2009. http://oedb.org/

Scoville, Tara. “How to Assess the Advantages and Disadvantages of Distance Learning. How to do things. 2008. January 7, 2009. http://www.howtodothings.com/education/a1823-how-to-asses-the-advantages-and-disadvantages-of-distance-learning.html

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