There are few things that will give you a better boost in lifetime productivity than a good solid education–you are essentially upgrading your mind to understand, comprehend and process more. Modern technology is making education surprisingly easy to obtain and inexpensive.
Years ago, you’d get a bachelor’s degree, go work for a big company and eventually retire with a gold watch. That model doesn’t really work anymore. If you want to maximize your potential, you need continual education. This can be be formal and informal, but in this article we are going to look at my experience getting a formal education that leads to a degree while working full time. In particular, we are going to look at getting an online masters degree.
This is a pretty long articles so here is an executive summary:
You can get an online master’s degree from Harvard through their Extension School and take the majority of your classes over the internet. The entrance process is simple and the cost is much lower than similar programs.
Five years out of high school, I had earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in music composition. During that same period, my summer job at the local hospital had grown into a full-time network administrator position covering two hospitals and a handful of clinics. Technology skills came very easily for me. My music education had been very valuable in learning to work with people, learning to concentrate and learning to understand abstract concepts. Still, it seemed like a good idea to get more formal education related to technology.
After looking at several programs, I finally settled on the ALM in IT program from Harvard’s Extension school. The ALM in IT was one of the few master’s degrees where all the required classes were available online. (The ALM in IT does have a residency requirement as described below.) I signed up for an online class on Java programming and was very impressed. The teachers were great and the class experience was far superior to the correspondence-style classes I had seen people slaving through from other schools.
Harvard Extension School
Founded in 1910, Harvard’s Extension School was originally designed to serve local non-traditional students. It is now under the Continuing Education division. The Extension School is the only of Harvard’s thirteen schools to offer both graduate and undergraduate degrees and also the only to offer an associate degree. Anyone can sign up to take a course without being admitted to a degree program. The primary qualification for admittance to a master’s degree program is the successful completion of 12 hours of courses (three classes) with a decent GPA. Some of the programs now require that specific classes be taken as part of those first 12 hours. These are usually the classes that are the hardest. This is actually a very kind requirement. You don’t want to get admitted by taking the 4 easiest courses and complete most of the coursework only to discover that one of the classes you left to the end is well beyond your ability.
I had a bit of a scare right after I finished my fourth class. They came out with a new requirement for the ALM in IT master’s degree program that one of your first four classes must be the Theory of Computation (or similar class). When I asked about it, they explained that the requirement didn’t apply to current students. After taking the class, I understand why they created this requirement. It was very challenging for someone with more music background than mathematics. It wasn’t necessarily hard; it just required learning a new way of thinking that I hadn’t been exposed to before.
There is a beautiful simplicity in letting students take classes to determine admittance. There are no admission tests or GRE scores required. Admission is based on your ability to complete the course work–proven by your ability to do well in four classes. Once you’ve passed the four classes, you can apply to be admitted to the master’s degree program. This involves an application and an essay.
The vast majority of people taking classes through the Extension School do not graduate with a degree. I believe it is 97% that don’t get a degree. A high percentage are probably just taking a few classes and never even apply for a degree program, but I’m sure quite a few are pursing a degree and never complete it or run into a required class that they simply can’t handle.
Distance Education Class Format
Since I don’t live anywhere near Cambridge, most of the classes I took were online. The online master’s degree classes follow a live class. Most of the time, you can physically go to class if you’re near the Boston area. A few of my classes the classes were using video from a school other than the Extension School, and in those cases, the classes were only available online for Extension students.
When a physical class is held, it is video taped and within 48 hours posted on the web. Most classes use a slide show or PDF synchronized with the video. A few use other, more experimental, methods of synchronizing the visual aids with the lecture. There is usually a teaching fellow assigned to all the internet students to answer questions and hold sections that which are posted to the class website.
The online master’s degree classroom experience at Harvard is far superior to what I’ve seen from other online degree programs. Aside from watching the video a day or two later than the physical class, distance students are treated pretty much like on-campus students. Testing is done through a proctor at a local college or university. The proctor receives the test by FedEx and ships it back after you complete it. Quite a few classes avoid tests entirely and instead focused on projects, papers or very complex open book tests that don’t require a proctor.
The ALM in IT master’s degree program has a one-semester residency requirement. Since the eight-week summer session counted toward this, we chose to spend a few months there during the summer. My wife and I rented a small, one-bedroom furnished apartment a few blocks from Harvard Square, and I took eight credit hours during those eight weeks. We were only a block or two from the Science Center where my classes were held and very near the subway in Harvard Square, so we didn’t need to use our car. It sat in a parking lot for most of the summer with the battery slowly draining from disuse.
In retrospect, I would probably take fewer classes during the summer session and spend more time taking advantage of the museums and cultural events in the area. I was also working remotely, so my schedule was pretty full.
Many of the master’s degrees from the Extension School have some classes that can be taken online. Most require at least two semesters residency. Some programs require that a certain number of hours be taken in person. The masters’ degrees in information technology (ALM in IT) and environmental management are the only two that appear to have the smallest residency requirement. Many of the classes offered by the Extension School do not have an online option, so beyond the residency requirement, some classes must be taken in person.
Master’s Degree Courses
The ALM in IT program I chose concentrated in Software Engineering–basically a Master’s of Arts in IT focused on developing software. It consisted of 10 four hour courses with the final course being the thesis. In addition to Harvard professors, the Extension School has lecturers teaching elective classes that come from local companies and even non-professors from Harvard. For example, one of the classes I took on XML was taught by the programmer responsible for all of the XML-driven websites and course catalogs for the Extension School. Having these two types of teachers proved very valuable. The Harvard professors were particularly good at teaching theoretical concepts and mathematics. The industry teachers were very good at teaching the classes that dealt with how to get things done in the real world. My program required that at least 8 classes (32 of the 40 hours) be taken from “Harvard Instructors.” I believe most of the other programs have a similar requirement.
The difficulty of the courses seemed to vary greatly, but this was probably a function of my previous experience more than anything else. Coming from a totally unrelated field, but with a lot of hands-on experience, meant that there were some gaps I had to fill in while taking classes that probably wouldn’t have been an issue for someone with an undergraduate computer science background. The Theory of Computation class was especially difficult for me. In fact, I took it twice. Halfway through it the first time, I was getting a B, but really struggling. I ended up dropping it. That summer, I took a course in discrete mathematics. It wasn’t required for the degree, but it filled in some of the background I needed to pass the Theory of Computation the next semester.
I was impressed with how helpful the teaching fellow was during the the class that I found to be difficult. At the same time, I realized how difficult it is to take the classes online when you are struggling. There is something about sitting down in the room with someone that really benefits your comprehension. You simply don’t get trying to explain things back and forth over email. On the other hand, writing your questions on email can help you clarify your thoughts. Often, I found the answer to my problem simply by trying to formulate a written question.
The Theory of Computation class was taught by Harry Lewis, who had taught the same class for years. He was teaching the class for the last time. The teaching fellows brought in some cake and refreshments on the last day. That’s another downside of not being on campus–no cake. Interesting side note: Dr. Lewis taught the same class to Bill Gates before he dropped out of Harvard to start Microsoft.
Online Master’s Degree Distance Education Experience
Taking classes by watching the lectures on your computer and communicating by email is hard. It is very hard. It is much easier to go to a physical class and sit with a bunch of your fellow students than participate in an online degree program. It is not something that everyone can do. It can be very frustrating and leave you feeling very isolated. Before making a huge commitment to try to earn a master’s degree using distance education technology, make sure you try a class or two. You have to make sure it works with your personality. It definitely isn’t for everyone. Most of my education through high school was self paced and individualized working through textbooks and workbooks on my own. A teacher was available for questions, but there wasn’t any type of lecture. It involved reading, doing problem sets and then telling the teacher when you are ready to take the test. Distance education seemed like something of a hybrid between my college and high school education.
In theory, you can watch the lectures multiple times, but in practice, this would require a huge time investment. It is convenient to go back and re-watch a section that you didn’t understand, but not nearly as effective as asking the student sitting next to you, attending a study group, raising your hand, visiting your professor during office hours or catching him/her after class.
I found some software that would let me speed up or slow down the lectures without changing the pitch. For material that I was already very familiar with, I’d play it 20% faster. Also, if I was reviewing a lecture for the second time, I’d speed it up even more and slow it back down when I came to sections I didn’t fully understand. When I encountered material that was very difficult, I’d slow the playback down to 80% of the original to give myself more time to process what was being said.
Master’s Degree Cost
The biggest expense of a master’s degree is rarely the the tuition. The opportunity cost–the money you could have been earning at a job during the time you were going to school–usually represents the biggest expense. Unless you have a very flexible employer, it is going to be difficult to take traditional classes while you continue your day job. Distance education courses allow you to minimize this opportunity cost. You can keep working your normal job while taking many of your classes. Make sure you consider the lost income potential of programs that require you to stop working.
A four-hour class from the Harvard Extension School costs somewhere around $1,800 to $1,850 now. They were slightly cheaper when I started. This works out to about $450 per credit hour. This is extremely inexpensive. Columbia’s Video Network and Standford’s Center for Professional Development both appear to charge around $1,300 per credit hour. Compared to both of those, Harvard tuition seems cheap.
Harvard’s tuition is only slightly more than the per credit hour cost of master’s degree tuition at both Kansas University and Kansas State University resident tuition and less expensive than out-of-state tuition for either of those institutions. Some state schools’ instate tuition may be more expensive than Harvard. The value provided by Harvard’s Extension School is very good and is less expensive than any other comparable option I could find. In addition it is less expensive than a number of much less reputable schools. (University of Phoenix online tuition works out to nearly $700 per credit hour and it looks like Capella’s tuition is in the $600 per credit hour range.)
Master’s Degree Thesis
My thesis took a very long time. The actual writing part didn’t take too long, but getting the thesis proposal approved and locating a thesis director took years. Off-campus students seem to have a bit more trouble getting a thesis director assigned. (I think they have made some changes to help fix this, now.) First, you submit a thesis proposal and get it approved by the research adviser for your area of study. Then a thesis director is assigned. The director is the one who will give you your final grade–there isn’t a thesis committee. The research adviser does review your thesis to make sure it meets Harvard’s standards for clarity, organization and formatting. Harvard does a good job of giving you what you need to complete the thesis. There are Microsoft Word templates for the Thesis Proposal and the actual Thesis that make it very easy to deal with the citations, various tables of content, etc.
My thesis involved writing a piece of software and then writing a detailed explanation of how it worked, the technology behind it, and how it was different from other pieces of software. In the end, I ended up with a nicely bound 180 page document.
When you are doing things remotely, the thesis work involves a lot of emailing documents back and forth. I ran into some problems getting Word on a Mac to show images correctly when they were transferred to Windows. (It turns out, images don’t embed properly if you just drag them into the document.) So my thesis director would print the PDF I sent him, mark it up, scan it back in and send back the PDF image of the scan. Later on we started using the editing features in Word.
Once the research adviser and the thesis director were both happy with the document, I sent it to a bindery in Massachusetts. They printed and bound two copies. One was sent to me in Kansas, and the other was sent to the Harvard Extension School to go in the library there. I highly recommend Wells Bindery. Their cost per page for color was about 1/5th what other binderies were going to charge. They had Harvard’s binding requirements on file and took care of everything without requiring every specific detail.
Be aware that there is a time limit on how long you can take to complete your master’s degree. I was well beyond that limit, but I was told that once you get to the point where you are waiting on them to find a thesis director “the clock stops” and doesn’t count against you. Now, if I had needed a further extension on my thesis, I would have needed to petition and possibly retake any classes that were over five years old.
Not every master’s degree program requires a thesis. The program I was in added the option to do a “capstone” course instead of a thesis right around the time I was in the middle of my thesis proposal.
Is it a “Real” Harvard Master’s Degree?
This is the question that everyone seems to ask. Yes, it is a real master’s degree from Harvard. You get the same diploma as everyone else. It lists your degree as “Magistri in Artibus Liberalibus Studiorum Prolatorum” that is “Master of Liberal Arts in Extension Studies.” I think the “Extension Studies” addition is something fairly new and I don’t think that was on diplomas from previous years. I’m guessing that this is due to some of the criticism that admission to the Extension School programs doesn’t involve the same level of scrutiny that is required of other Harvard schools. This is completely true. Admission to the Extension School is based solely on your ability to perform well in that program. It is worth noting that the admission process to other Harvard schools has in the past been criticized for being based on factors other than academic merit.
On the other hand, graduates of the Harvard Extension School who worked full-time while getting their master’s degrees might complain that the students who were able to go to school full-time had things too easy. Holding down a full-time job while maintaining the discipline to complete an online master’s degree from an academically rigorous school is very difficult. It is much harder to sit alone in a room late at night after work watching lectures and doing problem sets than it is to attend class with your peers. The skills that will let you pull that off will generally go a long way toward helping you succeed.
Still, a lot of the value from going to college occurs outside the classroom. This is one of the biggest drawbacks to getting a degree predominately through online classes. For a second Master’s degree while you are working a full time job, it isn’t as big of a deal. Hopefully you’ve already developed the social skills and contacts from your previous 6 years of schooling. However, I wouldn’t recommend it for someone who just graduated from high school. In that respect, employers looking for “Harvard graduates” may be looking for more than their academic credentials. They may be looking for someone with the contacts that would come from being physically on campus.
As mentioned before, only 3% of people who take classes through the Extension School end up with a degree. By comparison, Harvard College (where students get their undergrad degree) generally accepts around 7% of applicants in a given year. So the Extension School lets everyone try, but is selective in the academic quality of people who achieve passing grades. Harvard College is selective in who they allow into the school in the first place. Since the peer experience is a very important part of Harvard College, this makes sense. It is a much less important part of the Extension School.
Some employers are upset because they interview people who claim they went to Harvard when all they did was enroll in (and not necessarily complete) a course through the Extension School. I’m sure there are people misrepresenting their degrees or coursework on their resume, but I’m sure this happens with most universities. I know it sometimes happens with universities that are completely fictitious.
It is important to realize that the degrees offered by the Extension School may not map directly to degrees offered by other schools. My degree is the ALM in IT with a concentration in software engineering. I do not have a Master’s of Science in Computer Science as is offered by the Harvard Graduate School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. While there is some overlap, that degree requires different courses and goes much deeper on the computational theory side of things. The classes I took included several that were more focused on practical use of current technologies rather than being all theory. My required courses seemed about equivalent to the Master of Science in Computer Science degrees from some of the state schools I researched.
Participating in commencement is an option, but given the distance from Kansas to Massachusetts and the prospect of traveling with a baby, we opted not to go. So, for all practical purposes, my graduation was on March 10th when I received this email:
Congratulations on your March 2010 graduation!
I’m emailing to let you know that you can come by the Professional Programs Office, 7th floor, 51 Brattle Street, to pick up your hard-earned diploma or certificate. Our office is open Monday – Friday, 9 am – 5 pm. Please email me so we know when to expect you!
If you are out of state, please confirm the address to which we should mail your diploma or certificate.
It has been a pleasure working with you. Please accept my best wishes for continued academic and professional success.
A week later I got a Fed Ex package with my diploma.
There are many other schools offering distance education master’s degrees, but the ones below are the only two that seemed most similar.
- Stanford Center for Professional Development – When I started looking, Stanford was the only other option that seemed to have a really good online classroom. However, they used to require your employer to be a member of SCPD before you could sign up for any classes. This requirement seems to have been dropped, so they might be worth checking into. Their tuition appears to be 2 to 3 times higher than Harvard’s Extension School.
- Columbia Video Network – Has a number of Master’s degree programs. Classes are two to three times more expensive than Harvard’s Extension School.
Overall, I was very happy with the experience and education. It significantly added to my education without taking much time off work. I believe this type of degree is particularly valuable for work beyond your first master’s degree. Taking the majority of your classes online does limit your interaction with other students, and this is often one of the most valuable aspects of college. I would be very hesitant to recommend getting a bachelor’s degree online for someone recently out of high school because the student interactions are so valuable. One of my regrets is that I didn’t work harder at networking with classmates during the summer residency.
While there are a number of other schools that offer various types of online master’s degrees, there is a significant benefit in being associated with one of the strongest educational brands in the world and an institution known for solid academics.
If you want more information on Harvard Extension School, here are some useful links:
- Harvard Extended – A blog written by Ian Lamont who graduated in 2008 with detailed information on his experiences getting his degree.
- The Spark - An official blog about the Extension School.
- Student Blog – An official blog written by current students.
- Graduate Programs – Looks at some of the other graduate programs outside of a master’s degree that are offered.