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Questions to Ask When Choosing an Online Graduate Program

By Judy Unrein / July 2009

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I had never heard the words "instructional design" until I had spent almost 10 years in the training industry. I was managing content development projects for a business seminar company at the time, and the more I was exposed to the field, the more I realized I wanted to be on the other side of the Gantt charts, creating the content instead of creating the schedule.

Today, I'm halfway through my master's degree in instructional design, and I'm part of an increasingly large group of professionals who are either looking to change careers or shore up their existing qualifications by going to graduate school. The options have never been more numerous thanks to online education, but it seems more complicated than ever to judge one program against another.

Now in the midst of my second online graduate degree (I'm studying the design of online instruction) I have far more perspective than I had when I began my first search. Here are some questions I've learned to ask.

Is the career I've chosen a good fit?
This may seem like a question you've already answered if you're looking for graduate programs as part of a career path, but it's never a bad thing to be as sure as you can. When I decided to get a Master's of Education, I was six months away from finishing an MBA, also through a hybrid on-ground/online program. I don't regret getting my MBA, but had I figured out what I really wanted to do before I started that program, I would have saved myself some agony—and a lot of expense.

Figuring out whether instructional design was really the path for me was pretty simple. I started documenting parts of my work and life and how they affected my happiness. I'm not talking about the big stuff, such as buying a house or getting married, but the little things I did all day, such as outlining the content for a course and deciding how the information should be organized. They either fell into the category of energy gains (things that revitalized me and kept me going) or energy drains (things I tended to put off, or that left me feeling tired or defeated).

My energy gains, as well as my strengths and skills, seemed to fit well with the daily tasks of an instructional designer, although I could have gone a step further and listened to additional input from designers I knew.

Your process may be as simple as mine, or you may work through a few books, such as What Color Is Your Parachute? and Now, Discover Your Strengths. Whatever you prefer, I highly recommend taking some time to reflect on whether your choice of career and graduate education will help you be happy and successful.

Why do I want to get a degree online?
In niche areas like instructional design, even traditional graduate programs are pretty rare. I had to examine online alternatives because there were no in-person programs available in my geographic area, and moving was not an option. Other working professionals also cite convenience as a reason they went online, too. Online programs are more convenient.

I would caution, though, that good online programs require every bit as much work as traditional programs do, if not more. "Convenience" in an online degree should not mean less work, but rather the flexibility to do that work on your own hours and from your own location.

How "online" is this program?
There are, of course, disadvantages to getting a degree online, and isolation from your professors and peers is a big one. Because I am a social learner, I chose programs that maximize community benefits. Some online programs require in-person commitments, such as attending seminars at the institution for a week or so every year. Some programs require students to take one or two full prerequisite classes in person, in condensed formats. Some have no residential or in-person option, but structure the entire program around cohort groups so that students build close relationships with a small network of peers.

And some programs have none of the above. This may be fine for your learning style, but remember that building a network is one of the benefits of graduate school. It's a good idea to ask potential programs what community structures they have put in place to support their distance students.

What is the program's area of focus?
Within the field of instructional design, I found that there are programs that focus more on technology and those that focus more on learning theory. I chose the latter, specifically, one that specializes in adult learning theory because I already keep myself educated about technology. I read blogs, participate in forums, and teach myself new programs constantly, and I know I will continue to stay educated about technology simply because it's a part of my life. Choosing a program that focused on less accessible topics allowed me to expand my knowledge base.

More general fields of study can have even more areas of focus. MBA programs can focus on marketing, finance, organizational development, executive leadership... the list goes on. Some programs are broad-based as far as core requirements but may have additional concentrations or electives that would satisfy your particular areas of interest.

What are the program's delivery methods, and how well are they used?
Answering this question is going to require a lot more digging than just downloading the program's core requirements. In my search, talking to the program director at one institution revealed that many of the program's technology courses were actually little more than e-learning modules covering specific software. Now, I design e-learning for a living and actually consider the delivery method appropriate for many more types of training than some do, but I still wouldn't consider it an ideal core for a master's degree. (This program seems to have folded since my original search.)

Thankfully, most online programs do not rely on e-learning; the material is usually delivered through a learning content management system (LCMS) and facilitated by an instructor. It never occurred to me to ask when I was researching programs, but I definitely recommend asking to see how the LCMS is used in a real class. Does the course consist mostly of readings and a weekly discussion forum? If so, how active are the forums? Are the students engaged with the material, or do they seem like they're just making the required number of posts and replies? Are there other activities, such as synchronous sessions using a Web conferencing tool, group and individual projects, Webquests, journals, or wikis? How does the instructor interact in the discussions? Does she facilitate dialogue or simply validate and correct ideas? When someone posts a question for the instructor, how timely is the response? These questions reveal how successfully the institution has brought the best parts of the academic experience into the online environment.

One requirement that doesn't always carry over from traditional programs is a final project or thesis. Some students may consider this a benefit, but I disagree. Having a portfolio or at least one complete work sample demonstrates that you have practical experience in addition to a degree. And if you want to go into academia, a thesis is often a mandatory baseline for establishing your publishing history.

How reputable is the school?
To some, considering a school's reputation goes without saying. To others, it will no doubt come across as elitist. For me, it was a serious consideration in a field in which a significant proportion of programs come from newer, online-only universities.

I think the day will come when there is no stigma attached an educational program simply because it's online, but from discussions with my classmates, I know I'm not the only one who feels that there is a general uncertainty right now about the rigor and quality of online education. And let me be clear: I am not stating that online education or all-online educational institutions provide less rigorous or lower-quality programs. But it does seem that they still suffer from that perception.

Since my MEd was to be my second online degree, I felt I could opt to complete it with an established university.

What about the other options, one more time?
I put a great deal of effort into my research. I compared my options, decided on one program for sure, started asking more questions, changed my mind, took a week off from thinking about it, and changed my mind again—three or four times.

And while I would love to say that I did all that just because I'm just an excellent researcher, the truth is it was primarily because I was still finishing one program and therefore had a mandatory, minimum six-month waiting period before I started another one. I don't think I would have been as thorough if I hadn't been constrained—and consequently freed from making a quick decision just so that I could get started as soon as possible.

Therefore, my final recommendation is to take time to truly figure out which program meets your needs best. If it's a good opportunity, it will still be around, no matter how long you take a self-imposed wait. In the meantime, you can take the steps that are necessary to fit graduate school into your life, and that's a different subject altogether.


  • Fri, 02 Jul 2010
    Post by Masters degree

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  • Wed, 26 Aug 2009
    Post by Kevin Handy

    As of September of 2009 I am attending my fourth online school. I am a student of instructional design. I am enrolled at Argosy University Online's Organizational Leadership program. In 2005 I completed American Intercontinental University's online MBA program in project management. After that I tried Capella University - and left and then Walden University and now AUO. Walden University's online Teacher Leadership program is good - for teachers - but I consider myself an adult learning instructional designer and developer. Nearly all of these programs are asynchronous - and they have to be. I have been largely unimpressed with instructional design in university environments in general. I think that ID is nearly an afterthought. John Sweller's pioneering work on memory is largely ignored. The e-Learning is much-ado-about-nothing page turner stuff. The threaded discussions are often taken far too seriously. Also another disturbing trend is that many of the courses are six to eight weeks in duration. At the graduate level this is far too little time for meta-cognition. In other words a learner does not have time for it to sink in. Some schools are moving from printed texts to digital text versions. Sadly the eTextbooks are not all media rich. Again boring, uninterrupted text. Somehow once we become adults we are supposed to be proud of wanting to be bored to tears. I demur. If anything adults need learning that is more media rich to drown out the din of daily of daily life. A continuation of the traditional classroom in a digital environment is no solution. We need more creative ways of capturing the learner's attention. And threaded discussions are just so...1980's. Multimedia without good ID is useless but online learning that is nearly completely text based with a few graphics is also not useful. I think people need to read a bit of Ruth Colvin before they design e-Learning and LCMS for adult learners at the university environment. So a student...and a professional I do not see the evidence.

  • Thu, 09 Jul 2009
    Post by Darren K. Stocker

    I found this article ws able to touch many of the facets related to online/distance learning. Part of the learning process requires the steps in locating a program that is suiable to the learner as well as providing a valuable education. There is no "on-fit" program. It appears as though Ms. Unrein was able to capyure that in her writing.