How do you pursue a graduate degree when you already work full-time and you have family responsibilities? John Monahan, an underwriter and IT Liaison for Employers Reinsurance Corp. in Overland Park, KS, solved his career dilemma by enrolling in an online degree program.

Monahan is pursuing the Masters in Information Systems Management degree program at Keller University. He expects to complete the degree requirements by April 2002. He said, “It’s a three-year commitment, but I have a wife, four small children, and an active home and church life. I like the idea of working whenever I choose, day or night.”

Many IT pros seeking advancement face the same challenges as Monahan, who hopes a Masters degree will help him become a software/systems development project manager. Read about his experience with online learning, including the benefits and challenges of Web-based education.

The tools of online learning
Universities and organizations that offer coursework online may use different methods to communicate with students and deliver assignments. For example, some distance learning programs may send you videotapes of your professors delivering lectures to supplement online learning. Others may use CD-ROMs or excerpts from PowerPoint presentations.

Monahan’s courses through Keller are delivered on the Web. The threaded discussions, e-mails, and chat room discussions are stored and retrievable at any time. Here’s how it works:

  • Threaded discussions: Each week, questions are posted and students respond to the general question and to each other’s responses. The instructor also participates in the process, which is equivalent to a three-hour session in a traditional classroom.
  • E-mail: Students exchange e-mail with the teacher and other students.
  • Chat rooms: Real-time discussions between students and teacher are held in a secure chat room.
  • Broadcast messages: Messages are posted by the instructor on the course’s home page.

Debunking the myths of online learning
Instructors and educators involved in online learning often hear these two questions from people considering an online education:

  1. Will an online program be so easy that I won’t learn anything?
  2. Will I miss out on interacting with my professors and other students?

Monahan said his experience has debunked both of those myths. He has found that just because the program is more convenient doesn’t mean it’s less difficult than a traditional program.

“All of these methods of communication require the student to pull the information….If you don’t read the threads you miss out,” Monahan said. “To be successful, you are required to learn by actively participating. In the traditional classroom setting you can sleep through the lectures and pass the course by simply reading the text.”

Monahan believes such involvement means he learns a great deal more in the online environment.

“You can digest some today, read it again tomorrow, and digest some more. Traditional classrooms are hit or miss, unless you tape record or are a good note taker,” he said.

Monahan also thinks that online learning increases the quality of interaction between students and the teacher.

“Weekly threaded topics are posted by the instructor asking probing questions pertinent to the subject matter of the week….I learn a lot from the diverse background of the students,” Monahan said, adding that diversity is another benefit of online learning because he can take advantage of a broad range of experiences represented by students from different parts of the world. He also believes online classmates tend to be more candid because they are more comfortable sharing what they know in a virtual setting.
Among the online graduate classes, here are the most frequently offered classes from universities throughout the U.S.:
Computer science: 40%
Management: 30%
Health professions: 24%
*Source: 1999 study from the U.S. Department of Education
Advice for other students
Monahan said cost is one of the few disadvantages to the program.

“You would think the cost would be less in an online environment, but due to the expensive nature of technology and the labor intensive nature of the teacher’s involvement…the cost is at least as high as [that of] a traditional classroom,” he said.

Overall, he has enjoyed the experience. “It is exciting. It is fun. I feel like I am on the cutting edge of technology and education,” he said.

Monahan cautioned that students new to online learning should develop disciplined study habits.

“It requires…spending an hour or two [at least every other day] reading and responding to threads. There are always ongoing projects, term papers, and preparation for midterms and finals. This may be true for any graduate level course, but in the online environment, and especially with Keller’s 10-week term, the material is squeezed in from 16 weeks down to 10,” Monahan said.

The ability to maintain a long-term vision is another important attribute.

“I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel at this point in this three-year program, but I keep reminding myself why I started: for career advancement, better pay, more opportunities, support [for] my growing family,” he added.
Are some classes appropriate for online learning while other types of classes are not? Discuss this article now or send us an e-mail.