Online Degree Programs

Over the next ten years, I believe we are going to see an ever increasing shift toward online degree programs in areas where people have traditionally attended a physical university. There are a number of obvious reasons for this trend, but here are a few:

  • Low cost to scale – A well designed online degree program may have a high fixed cost, but a low-cost to add an additional student.  The cost to provide a degree program to 20 students vs. 40 students requires a much smaller percentage increase than doubling the number of student physically coming to class.
  • Tighter focus on education – Online degree programs tend to be much more focused on the actual educational process with less of a focus on extra curricular activities.  The university doesn’t have to be involved in finding parking spaces, dealing with rowdy students in the dorms or spending money on toilet paper.
  • Just in time education – It is hard to predict what you will need to know for your next job.  Online programs let you get the training you need close to the time that you need it instead of spending four years and guessing what you should study.
  • Continual education – Many modern workers are going to find that they need to keep going back to school every few years to stay competitive and learn new skills.  With continual education, it is a lot easier to get another online degree by doing work in the evenings or on Saturdays than it is to take another 2 to 4 years off work to go back to a traditional degree program.

The problem is that not every college or university is good at offering quality online classes.  Online programs require a significant shift in the way teachers and students approach the educational process.  The way actual coursework is conducted with online programs can vary dramatically from school to school and even class to class. Here are a couple ways universities and colleges present classes for online degree programs.

  1. Correspondence style – These programs are basically run the same way older correspondence courses have been taught.  You get a book, a study guide, some assignments and mail things back and forth with your teacher or the person administrating the course.  The courses are “online” because you are using email instead of the USPS to send papers back and forth.
  2. Forum interactions – Programs following this model are similar to the correspondence style, but you have interaction in a forum.  The forum allows the teacher to communicate with the students to make assignments, post readings, etc.  Students interact with the teacher and with each other.  Often assignments will take the form of “Post your thoughts on X and comment on two other student’s posts.” Often the reading and book assignments are similar to correspondence course and usually there is no actual lecture to watch.
  3. Interactive courseware – This is a step up from the forums with much more interactive and multimedia content available designed specifically for the specific class.  These types of classes are usually pretty rigid in their structure because of the amount of time that goes into preparing the interactive content.
  4. Video lecture for online students – This usually involves a teacher preparing a lecture and giving the lecture to a video camera so students can watch it.  Sometimes the lecture will be done in real time.  Other times it will be pre-recorded. Live classes may involve some type of chat to communicate with the teacher, ask questions, etc.
  5. Lecture from a live class – This model involves videoing a real class and using that video either live or as a recording.  Live classes may also include some type of chat component.

Learning Style and Course Presentation

The five types of online courses all require different styles of learning.  There is a big difference between reading a book and following a guide and watching a live professor who is answering your chat questions. I tend to learn very well by sitting down with a few books and reading. However, I can do that without paying all the money for an online course.  If I’m paying for an online class I want to have an actual lecture.

You have to make sure you understand your learning style and don’t assume that just because something works well for someone else it will work well for you.  If you are looking at an online degree program, it is well worth your while to take a few classes to see if is a good match for the way you learn.  Taking three classes from three different schools to see which online degree program is the best fit for you, may be a very good investment compared with getting halfway through a program only to discover that you simply can’t learn from the more advanced classes with the presentation options offered.

Many online degree programs will not allow you to transfer credits from another school.  This is particularly true with masters degree programs. If you are taking courses from a couple different universities to decide which one is best for you, you’ll want to be strategic in which classes you take.  You may be able to find a prerequisite course that will help you regardless of which program you eventually choose.  Even if there isn’t an official prerequisite, you may be able to identify a class that will help prepare you for the actual program by giving you a better foundation than what you already have. Careful selection of your “trial run” classes can help make your course work significantly easier later on when you’ve chosen an online degree program and are working toward your degree.

Real-time vs. Pre-recorded Online Classes

Online degree programs that offer real-time lectures or have some component that requires you to be online in a video or text chat are starting to become more common.  It wasn’t that long ago that the technology to make something like this work was very expensive and required the end user to have a lot of computer and networking experience. Now, setting up a video conference is well within the reach of most computer users.

Real-time has some great advantages.  It gives you better interaction with other students and having the ability to ask questions as a lecture progresses can help make sure you don’t miss a concept in the first half of a lecture that is crucial to understanding the second half.

On the other hand, real-time interactions require that you be online at a particular time.  Much of the benefit of online degree programs comes from the ability to work your classwork around a busy schedule of work and social commitments.  If you have to be online at 8pm every evening, you have a fixed unmovable item on your schedule and everything else has to work around it.

The ideal setup is probably some type of hybrid where you can watch the class in real time and ask questions or watch a recording within the next 48 hours or so. If you live near the university, some online degree programs will let you show up for class in person when it fits into your schedule.

Another potential plus for real-time classes is that it forces you to attend at a particular time.  Some people find that a class they can put off for 2 hours ends up getting put of for days and weeks.  Of course if you tend to do this, the online classes are probably going to be very difficult to complete anyway, but be aware that along with the flexibility to schedule your class time comes the responsibility to actually get it done.

Social Aspects of Online Degrees

People who haven’t taken very many online courses invariable overlook the social aspects of going through an online degree program.  Sitting in a real classroom with physically present teachers and physically present students offers social opportunities that are easy to take for granted.  In a purely online class, you lose many of the social interactions like taking with students before class starts, comparing notes from the previous lecture, asking questions like “when is the next quiz” and all the little things that go into making your education socially fulfilling.

There were two particular events that I remember from getting my online master’s degree where I really noticed the difference of being present only on the Internet.  The first one was when the Red Sox finally made it into the World Series (or won some big game).  Evidentially there had been a great deal of celebration in Boston and the class after the game, the teacher made quite a few mentions of the event and subsequent celebration in the streets.  The second situation was when a well known teacher was teaching a particular class for the last time.  It was the same class he had taught to Bill Gates when he was a student and he was finally passing the torch on to someone else.  The teaching fellows brought in a cake and some gifts and had a little party at the end of the last class.  Obviously I was unable to download the cake over my DSL connection.

Neither of these things were a big deal.  I didn’t feel that I was significantly missing out on some part of the classroom educational experience.  However, the fact that I still remember them 5 to 7 years later highlights how much we are wired to thrive on shared social interactions.  Sitting alone at a computer monitor watching hours of lectures can feel very isolated because you aren’t sharing it with anyone.

That isn’t to say that you can’t create social interactions online.  It is possible, but you have to do it much more intentionally than you do when you are meeting in person. Here are a few ideas for minimizing this social isolation when taking online courses:

  • Try to connect with other online students and get their instant message ids.  It is amazing how refreshing it is to  be able to ask someone, “I’m having trouble understanding X.  Do you have any suggestions?” and get back a message that says, “I did to. Try reading this page.  It helped me get a better understanding.”
  • Meet teachers and teaching fellows in person if possible.  Online classes can be more difficult for teachers as well.  Giving them a face and handshake to go with your name can be very beneficial if you ever need to ask a question or get extra help.
  • Take the class with someone local. This could be meeting together to watch the lectures or even just taking it at the same time so you have someone to study with or interact with around the course content.

Some degree programs try to keep the flexibility of an online program while introducing more social relationship building by having week long in-person classes 4 times a year.  This is ideal from a social standpoint because you are able to meet your classmates away from the keyboard, but it introduces the challenge of trying to put your non-academic life on hold for four weeks during the year and the associated travel cost.  This type of setup is often used as part of executive MBA programs.

Reputation of Online Degree Programs

Not every school is created equal and not every online degree program has the same reputation. You need to be very selective and make sure you know not only what academic credentials you are obtaining, but also what academic reputation you are going to put on your resume for the rest of your career.

Right now, online degree programs have a bit of a worse reputation because some of the first schools to offer online degrees were diploma mills or schools known for dubious academic standards. While this may not be entirely fair and the stigma may wear off in the next decade or so, it is worth considering.  One way you can minimize negative connotations that sometimes go along with an online degree is to make sure you attend a university that has a real live physical presents with in person teachers and students.

Established institutions with long standing reputations are generally going to be a good bet as far as the academic reputation.  However, fewer of these types of schools offer online degree programs because they tend to be a bit more careful with maintaining their academic reputation than being on the cutting edge of educational technology.

Even going to a great school can’t shake all of the stigma attached to an online degree. Many online degree programs make it easy to sign up for a class, but hard to actually complete the degree.  Since schools can basically scale up to take any number of students, your “admission criteria” tends to be the ability to complete the classes.  If 100 students sign up for a class and pay the fee, but 75 drop out half way through the course, it really doesn’t hurt the school–they already have the money from everyone who dropped out.  Obviously this type of strategy would cause all kinds of problems on a physical campus where the social element is a very important part of the educational process.

Since many online degree programs will let anyone sign up and take classes–regardless of their intelligence or discipline–there are people running around applying for jobs saying that they attended X or Y and generally damaging the reputation of schools.  When Hilary Duff signed up for some classes from the Harvard Extension school there was a huge uproar about whether or not she should be able to say she was going to Harvard. As far as I know she took two classes and that was it–just like everyone else can.  However, if you have people running around saying that they went to Harvard, but leaving out the fact that in truth they only enrolled, but never completed anything, I can see why it might give the online programs a bad name.

People who graduated from Harvard College often look down on the people who got their degree primarily by taking online classes and some of them would like to see the entire Harvard Extension program abolished. At first I didn’t understand this. Only a small percentage of people who take an online class through the Harvard Extension School actually finish some type of degree.  It seemed to me that the traditional students were very safe from having the value of their degrees diminished.  However, after hearing some of the arguments I realized that many of them hadn’t graduated yet. Some were relying on their admission to Harvard to validate their self worth. Having a school at Harvard that made it easy for people from all over the country to say they were “going to Harvard” or “taking classes at Harvard” was diluting the rare currency of admission to Harvard. They may not care quite as much once they graduate and the prize of their education becomes the degree rather than admission.

I was very happy with my degree through Harvard’s Extension School, but my point is to show you that there are people out there who are going to argue against degrees that are using an online model.  If this is true at Harvard, then just think how true it is of schools that don’t have the same academic reputation.

There area number of schools that are marketing heavily to non-traditional students.  Some have good academics others not so much. However, when you get into for-profit schools, you are going to have to deal with the reputation of these institutions. The reputation of University of Phoenix and the reputation of Capella University are good examples. Regardless of whether they are good or bad schools, they have reputation issues right now.  Perhaps it won’t be an issue 5 years from now, but on the other hand pressures to make a profit could make their reputations even worse if they aren’t careful with their academic standards.

Since you don’t know what your career is going to bring, it probably makes sense to stay away from schools that have any chance of having a bad reputation either now or in the future.  Large established state schools or private colleges with longstanding reputations are probably a safer choice.

Interestingly enough, choosing a school with a better reputation doesn’t necessarily mean choosing the more expensive option.  Harvard’s Extension school often works out to be cheaper than University of Phoenix or Capella University.

Read the Fine Print

A lot of people get into trouble when pursuing an online degree because they don’t read the fine print.  You want to watch out for things like residency requirements, limits on how long you can take to complete the degree, and specific order of courses.

For example, the degree I earned through Harvard Extension School had a one semester residency requirement.  They also had stipulations on how many classes must be taken from Harvard professors (some courses are taught by industry leaders who aren’t members of Harvard’s faculty).  There was also a 5 year time limit that could require you to retake classes take at the beginning of the program if they were out of date when you passed the 5 year deadline.  After I started my courses they started a new rule that specified the order of some of the first classes you could take and still qualify to be admitted as a candidate for the actual degree program.

Every school is going to be different and it is important to make sure you understand all the little details. Here are some tips for making sure small but important requirements don’t come back to bite you:

  • Keep good records – Write notes about telephone conversations and keep printouts of webpages showing the requirements.  Things are changing constantly and you need to be able to show that you were acting on the information that was available to you at the time by keeping good records.
  • Meet with an advisors in-person – If you can possibly talk to someone in person at least once for 30 minutes to make sure you can ask any questions and ask if there is anything additional you need to know, it may save you a lot of grief down the road.
  • Talk to other students – If you can find someone who has already graduated, ask them what they found that was hard or unexpected.  Keep in mind the requirements may change, but it can still be useful to hear someone else’s experience.

Can You Write?

Most online degree programs are going to require a lot of writing.  Many don’t require this until the final stages of their program.  This is particularly true of master’s degrees.  Many people are horrible writers because they never really had to do it in highschool.  I’m sure you can see the problem.  People get 80% through a program, hit the writing part of things and suddenly it is all 10 times as hard as it was before.  That is why a lot of people get stuck writing their thesis and never actually graduate.

Writing is something that comes a bit more naturally for me–well maybe not naturally, but this website is approaching 500,000 words of text so I at least have some experience getting words from my mind into the computer. I didn’t really realize how big of stumbling block this is to some people until I started working on my thesis proposal.  I wrote the proposal and sent it in, got back some corrections and that was about it.  Later when discussing the proposal with the thesis advisor I was told, “The thesis shouldn’t be too difficult for you because you write very well.”  I took that as a complement and didn’t think much about it until I later discovered that other students were sending back and forth revision after revision just for the proposal. Since then I’ve discovered that writing is extreme agony for many people and even when they do get enough motivation to write a page, the results require a great deal of editing to turn into something useful.

If you have trouble writing, make sure you understand what will be required before getting deep into the course.  You don’t want to get to the end and find you’ve drastically under-estimated how much time will be required for you to produce the final paper that will meet the requirements.

Hard Online Degree Classes

I know someone who was trying to get a degree from a correspondence school.  He completed all of the classes except for two.  When he finished those two classes he would graduate. It turns out he had left the physics classes until the last.  No matter how hard he tried, he could not complete those classes.  It wasn’t for lack of effort on his part, but without the actual class structure and tutors to help he couldn’t grasp the materials.  He was also working full time so he wasn’t able to just stop everything to work on school. In the end, he spent a great deal of time and money toward a degree that he was never able to complete and eventually exceeded the time limit to finish the program.

Make sure you know what the hard points are and give yourself some room for some failures.  Keep in mind that what is hard for you may not be hard for others and vice versa, but try to get the best advice you can on what to expect.

I found the Theory of Computation class to be very difficult. Coming from a bachelors and master’s in music, it required a type of math that was different from what I was accustomed to.  Half way through one semester I was earning a B, but I wasn’t grasping the materials enough to feel confident I could pass it.  So I dropped the class and that summer took a math class that helped give me the proper foundation.  It was still difficult, but I understood things much better the second time around.

When scheduling out your degree plan, make sure you expect to run into some similar issues and make sure you have enough time to handle any unexpected detours like that. Better still, try to take any classes you may need to give you an adequate foundation before the clock starts ticking on completing your degree.

Degree Alternatives

Most people are familiar with bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees. There are two other forms of graduate recognition that might be worth considering.  Citations and certificates are not full graduate degrees, but they do offer you some level of academic recognition for the completion of fewer courses than would be necessary for a full degree.  Often citations and certificates are more focused in their topic so they can offer a great career boost if you can find one that matches well with your line of work.

Typically a citation will be issued for 10 to 20 credit hours worth of work while a certificate would generally be awarded for 30 to 50 hours.  This can vary by school.  In some cases a certificate is about the same as a master’s degree but with out the thesis or capstone course.

If you already have a master’s degree, getting a certificate or citation can be a great way to show that your skills are up to date or to qualify yourself to work in a more specialized field. Certificates and citations can also help you get a prestigious institution on your resume without going back to school for a full degree.

If you are pursuing an online master’s degree, certificates and citations can be a very valuable stepping stone.  If you can order your work so you can obtain a citation, then a certificate on the way toward earning your master’s degree, it gives you a great deal of protection should you need to abandon your master’s degree studies.  If you get half way through the master’s degree program only to find that you can’t complete it, you’ll be a lot better off if you’ve earned a certificate and possibly a citation along the way.

This may take some careful planning, and your best bet is to talk to your academic advisor and let them know what you are trying to accomplish.  In some cases you may have to take additional classes, but getting some type of academic credential early on may be well worth the extra work.  Not only does it help insure that you get some type of formal recognition out of your studies, you may be able to use the certificate or citation to negotiate higher pay or obtain a better paying job before you obtain the full degree.

Not every school offers certificates and citations, but if yours does it can be a very valuable tool and insurance against unpredictable changes in the future.


Online degree programs have some significant advantages–particularly for someone headed back to school or who can’t afford to take a few years off of their job.  Hopefully this post has given you some ideas of the things you need to consider.

If you are looking for more information, you might enjoy reading my post about my last master’s degree that I got primarily online through Harvard’s Extension School


  1. says

    I’m currently finishing my degree online. It just seems like the best option for me. Less pressure, I’m going at my own pace, and I’m still able to do other things besides sit in a classroom all day.

  2. imajoebob says

    My feeling s the online degree will fast gain the reputation of the mail order diploma. While there will be a few exceptions, the quality of the degrees are suspect, especially for advanced degrees. Speaking for myself, I will always look skeptically at an online masters degree. part of the value in a masters degree is the overall program involved, including the interaction with other students and professors. You simply can’t do that online.

    I’ll hire a candidate with a “standard” degree from good ol’ State College over somebody with an internet degree from harvard almost any time. I know that person is someone with a well rounded experience, not just one who passed a series of comprehension exams.

    • CircuitRider says

      I’ll hire somebody who knows what he or she is talking about. Anyone who thinks the Harvard Extension School CSCI graduate level courses are “comprehension exams” clearly doesn’t.

      I had over a decade hands-on as a programmer and DBA when I took my first Harvard Extension course. I was initially as skeptical – and prejudiced – against the idea of distance education as you seem to be. I changed my mind very quickly. The amount of coding work required was stunning, not to mention the amount of study and research required. Half the class dropped out after the first two weeks, still more later in the course, and a good number of them were experienced professionals. In 10 years of consulting for Fortune 500 companies I never did work as demanding of either my time or intellect as I did for that one course.

      With all due respect to the “standard” degrees – and I have considerable respect for them – I prefer to hire people who have shown they are capable of performing to the standard of a degree program like HES.

    • says

      Another view point might be that if the classes are rigorous, the experience of doing work at a distance would uniquely prepare students for what it is like working in a real job where you are interacting with people all over the world.

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