Taking online classes as a graduate student


Online education isn’t going away. It’s everywhere, and entire universities now exist solely in an online environment. Public and private brick-and-mortar universities are devoting time, money, and resources to expanding and promoting their distance learning courses. The ultimate goal: Making post-secondary education more accessible than ever. For undergraduates, this option has existed for a while. However, some schools offer online classes for graduate students, as well, knowing that this is a group more likely to need the flexibility from their continued studies as they try to navigate both an academic and professional world. But are online worth the time and energy required to complete them?

Online vs. traditional learning

The biggest advantage to online classes is most certainly that the work can be completed as a student’s schedule dictates. If that means you can’t do the reading for a particular week until 3:00 a.m. on Thursday, then that’s fine. There’s no set work schedule dictating what work has to be done for which class period. Instead, you have general due dates (with submission done electronically), and you’re free to work when you’re able to – even if you’re at work! Likewise, online classes provide a more comfortable forum for engaging in classroom practices. Many classes make use of discussion boards, and with the level of comfort that comes from responding to things on the Internet versus the anxiety of the classroom, it’s easier to say what you mean and make sure there’s no misunderstanding. (Plus, everyone is trying to become a professional of some sort, so there are no anonymous trolls to deal with!)

On the other hand, except for required weekly readings and discussion in class, most graduate-level classes have schedules with due dates for major assignments only. The day-to-day homework of undergrad isn’t as prevalent, since graduate students are expected to have a certain ability and sophistication level when they are at that point in their academic careers. So even with traditional classes, 90% of the work can be done at your own pace, in your own time. The nature of grad school effectively negates the biggest draw to online education. Also, while schools are devoting more energy and resources to online courses, the individual professors may not. Everyone has his or her own thoughts on the value of online education, and it’s just as possible to have a professor that takes it seriously as one that is completely unresponsive. Sometimes professors for online classes won’t even be available for face-to-face office hours, if needed, which is especially problematic if the online course is outside of your home department.

What to expect in an online graduate learning environment

The most important thing to remember is that it will not be the same as any class taken previously, even online undergraduate courses. The expected work will be at the graduate level; it will require a time commitment similar to what’s expected in class; and the work may go above and beyond what the average professor could cover in class, since online classes come with the expectation that there will be more time to complete each assignment. One thing often taken for granted in the traditional classroom (though known to anyone who has taught before) is how quickly lesson plans can be thrown off and readjusted. Many professors never get to everything they want to discuss in a class period, and so there are assignments, readings, and discussion questions that are nixed and never touched.

Online classes don’t have that issue. When a professor uploads the work they want completed for a week or group of weeks, then they expect that every ounce of that work will be completed. The students will read, write, and answer everything the professor could have considered discussing in class.

Is the online learning environment right for you?

There has been a bit of discussion now about what the online learning environment entails. So is it right for you? The biggest takeaway is strikingly similar to the mindset that should be taken for all graduate-level work: Take only the classes, opportunities, and work that you can accomplish with the time you have available. If you don’t feel you can keep up with an environment that could potentially be more rigorous than the traditional classroom, then steer clear of online classes. However, if you have the time, energy, and resources to devote to distance learning (just like your university did), then give it a shot. You might be pleasantly surprised, and have an even better learning experience than if you had taken the class in a traditional way.

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Zach Gasior

Zach Gasior

Zach graduated from the University of Michigan in 2008 with his B.A. in English Literature, and from Michigan State University College of Law in 2010 with his J.D. Currently, Zach is teaching Composition at the University of Toledo while working toward his Masters in English with a focus on teaching writing. Contact Zach by email at zgasior@gmail.com.

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