Summer is ending and students are headed back to school. But what if you are past college age, replete with family responsibilities, holding down a full time job, and still feel like some additional training would improve your career? Thanks to the Internet, there are all kinds of options for getting a degree while keeping your current job and still making it to your kid’s baseball games.
I recently completed an online master’s degree in software engineering through Harvard’s Extension School, and I can definitely say that in a world where you have to constantly retrain yourself with new skills, online education is the future.
Most online degrees give you some flexibility regarding when you do the work. Instead of trying to get everyone together at a specific time, the lectures are recorded and you can watch them when it fits into your schedule. This means you can get up early or stay up late when things come up that interrupt your planned study time. Even beyond the scheduling flexibility, just cutting out the commute time of driving to your nearest college or university is a significant time-saver.
If you are looking at going back to school to get a degree, here are some things worth keeping in mind about online studies.
1. Choose a good school
Some people think of online degrees as something you get at a diploma mill. Since you aren’t limited to schools nearby, choose the best school you can. Harvard, Stanford and Columbia all have excellent online programs.
2. Try things out
Take a class or two and make sure that online classes fit well with your learning style. Pick something that will help you–even if that is the only class you take. Watch out for programs that want you to pay tens of thousand of dollars up front before you even get a chance to see if it is a good fit.
3. Don’t get behind
Procrastination can be deadly. In a real classroom, peer pressure can help motivate you to get things done. With online classes, it is easy to get far enough behind that you can’t recover. Putting things off for a few days can easily turn into a few weeks and then months. Keep your focus. Going to school at home means fighting the same types of battles with distractions as people who work at home.
4. Read the fine print
Make sure you understand things like the residency requirements, how long you have to finish a degree, etc. You don’t want to get all the way through a program only to discover you can’t graduate because of two sentences you didn’t pay attention to in the fine print explaining the requirements.
5. Understand for-profit universities
I think for-profit universities have a role in the educational spectrum, but you need to be extra vigilant if you are looking at attending one. In the past, they have had problems with bonus and incentive structures that encourage aggressive recruiting that isn’t necessarily in the best interest of students.
6. Look at certificate programs
Certificate programs are typically very focused on a particular skill or topic. Normally a certificate is something you’d get after a bachelors degree. It requires significantly fewer courses than a full master’s degree. Ideally, you’ll want to try to head toward getting a certificate as a stepping stone toward earning a master’s degree. That way if you can’t finish the full master’s program, you’ll at least have something to put on your resume that goes beyond, “I took a few courses in X.”
On a final note, if you are just interested in learning and aren’t looking at getting a degree or a certificate, there are a growing number of high quality, free options available. MIT’s Open Courseware makes the resources from many classes available online. Khan Academy has huge number of videos and exercises in many subjects, but seems to be best at teaching mathematics. Stanford offers a number of video lectures for entrepreneurs and is experimenting with a new model where they let anyone take the class online (including quizzes and tests) for free as long as they don’t need the college credit. This idea is currently being tried with an artificial intelligence class and it looks like other classes will follow.
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