Does any of this sound familiar?

  • You want a graduate degree to advance your career, but your family commitments make it impossible for you to be away from home in the evenings.
  • You travel for your job, so you can’t commit to attending a class regularly.
  • You’d like to study a particular area of interest; however, local colleges don’t offer the unique program you want.

If any one of these scenarios describes your lifestyle, consider pursuing a degree online.

“In the past, the IT undercurrent was ‘it’s the skills that count.’ But now, more people are realizing the importance of an advanced degree as opposed to a collection of courses,” said Dave Overbye, director of curriculum at Keller Graduate School of Management. Traditionally, IT managers have taken courses from vendors to learn about new software or systems. Completing a degree provides another component of learning for IT managers. For example, when students take a database management course, they don’t just learn about Microsoft Access—they’re also taught advanced mathematical theory and how to build a database.

One student’s story
Student Marty Rosenblum is taking online classes in information systems. He said he chose to study with the Keller Graduate School of Management because “it fit in with my crazy schedule.”

He was looking to receive a degree that would help his career as a solutions architect for Lockheed Corp. He found what he was looking for with the Keller program, which allowed him to choose courses that would be useful for his work.

In addition, taking classes online may actually have helped him convince his employer to pay for his education. Rosenblum travels to client sites, often for a few weeks at a time. With online learning, he is able to travel for his job, but he doesn’t miss a class.

However, Rosenblum did find that he had to adjust to online learning. “It took a few days to get comfortable with it. How they did it was so different from the online course just a few years ago.”

A growing trend
Rosenblum is one of a growing number of students pursuing an advanced degree online. Currently, there are more than 100 colleges affiliated with , a portal for online education. The number of colleges offering courses over the Internet has grown from 28 percent in 1995 to 60 percent in 1998, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The Keller Graduate School of Management offers several graduate programs that would interest IT managers, including:

  • Project management
  • Information systems
  • Telecommunications

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
Big names in online education
Some of the most prestigious universities in the U.S. have recently begun online programs. Johns Hopkins University offers seven courses online this semester and will soon offer master’s degrees in biotechnology and environmental sciences.

Seton Hall University offers several online master’s degrees through its SetonWorldWide program, including strategic communication and leadership, which helps managers and senior executives improve their written and verbal communications skills.

While online programs offer a number of unique advantages, they’re not likely to save you any money. A U.S. Department of Education survey found that most colleges charge about the same price for online classes as they do for traditional classes. You won’t get a break in testing or class assignments either. Many universities have the same academic standards for online courses because they receive accreditation from the same educational authorities.

There’s a benefit to such uniformity. In May, the first online class graduated from SetonWorldWide and received “the same diploma, the same cap and gown, and the same handshake,” as traditional students, said Dan Douglas, director of communications for SetonWorldWide.

How it works
Online classes vary at each institution. But many classes use more than just the Internet. Students use several different types of technologies and tools including:

  • CD-ROM
  • Threaded discussions: The professor poses a question and students respond
  • Video/audio tapes: Professors summarize assignments
  • PowerPoint presentations: Slides include reviews of textbook concepts and exams

Barry Kukovich, a student in strategic communications at Seton Hall, said distance learning offers educational benefits. He believes the threaded discussions promote more honest interactions. “We debate and challenge each other. You don’t have to hide behind a face. The answers are pulled out of your heart.”

His classmates live in different parts of the world, but they often call each other on the telephone for academic advice. Kukovich said online learning is improving his computer skills as well. “I’m learning the methodology of the computer as well as the course material. That’s two for the price of one.”

  • Be motivated to study on your own.
  • Make sure that the university is accredited in the field you’re studying.
  • Ask the college how many semesters it has offered online degrees. If this is the first semester, there might be glitches. Consider another college or wait a semester.
  • Verify the expenses. Some classes require that you purchase software, which your employer may not reimburse.

Randi Hicks Rowe is a writer and communications consultant in Washington, D.C. She specializes in business-to-business communications, including financial services and technology.

What area of study are you interested in? Would you be more likely to get a degree online or would you head back to campus? What would you miss the most by taking classes in cyberspace? Post a comment below or send us a note and tell us about other topics that interest you.