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Nine Factors to Consider: Online vs. Onsite Graduate Degree Programs

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By Basil J. Valente, O.F.M., Professor of IMC at St. Bonaventure University


“You have to do something that sets you apart from the rest of the world,” once said Gert Boyle, chairman of Columbia Sportswear Company. A graduate degree can do just that—set you apart from the rest of the world—but you need to find the right program to do so.

When choosing among the vast opportunities for higher education (especially online vs. onsite/in-person programs), consider a program where the college or university has reinvented online learning—a school that sets itself apart from the rest of the academic world can be the platform for you to do the same.

Demand for high-level business skills, particularly in the public relations and integrated marketing communications arena, has reached an all-time high. Graduate school should set you up to meet that need, but finding the right program means looking closely at its features. According to a recent survey by The Learning House and Ashlanian Market Research, “The largest proportion of online students today (one-third) continues learning because they desire a promotion or increase in their salaries.” Additionally, the report suggests, “The economy has also driven numerous people back to school because many people are unemployed or underemployed as the nature of work changes due to recent and rapid changes in technology.”

Thanks to the Internet and other innovations, students and professionals today have more access to and opportunities for graduate school than ever before in history. The depth and breadth of choices—especially with online programs—can be empowering. But before you sign on for a completely virtual master’s program, it’s important to ask yourself: “Is an online degree really right for me?” And, ask yourself the follow-up question, too: “Is the online program offering me something that can’t be garnered at another competitive university?”

A serious consideration of those questions may lead you to choose a reinvented graduate degree that includes a combination of online, onsite/in-person, international and hybrid courses (courses offered with both online and onsite/in-person formats).

As you explore your graduate school options and the important decision of how to set yourself apart from the rest of the world, here are nine elements you should weigh to determine which type of format—100% online, 100% onsite/in-person or a hybrid—meets your learning style and career goals:

1. Learning Style: Do you easily comprehend reading material, or do you need to hear content, as well? Do you enjoy engaging in face-to-face discussions, or are you comfortable writing and responding to online forums? There are many ways graduate courses can be executed, and it’s important to honestly evaluate the ways you learn best (and your preferences) before you sign up for a program. If you decide to go with an online degree, talk with the school first to find out what tools they use and the typical format for the program. Some will employ Skype or YouTube videos, while others will have a strong reading and composition focus. And, find out what types of support networks are available, too. Some individuals get very frustrated when they’re not able to discuss information work with their professors, or their colleagues, on a timely basis.

2. Making Connections: One of the most valuable tools for any career—but especially one in PR or marketing—is your network of connections. In fact, many people say it’s not what you know … it’s who you know. I think it’s important to have a strong body of knowledge, but it’s equally important to forge lasting industry relationships. An in-person graduate program, or a hybrid program, is more likely to create valuable connections with faculty and classmates. From stimulating debates to late night project work or blowing off steam at a pub, connecting in the real world often creates deeper, more enduring relationships. And, sometimes the important “cohort-based” learning model can ensure the valuable connections that will help to propel your career.

3. Time Convenience: Graduate school doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Most students return for a master’s degree after spending time working in the field—and their careers and personal lives don’t get put on hold for classes. Seriously consider the time required from graduate school, and look at the flexibility of your schedule. If an emergency comes up at work, will you have to miss a class or will work understand that school’s important, too? Can you give up your family Saturdays for a year, or do you need flexibility to squeeze the time in between commitments?

4. Location: An online program makes total sense if you live in a rural area, without close geographic access to the type of master’s degree you want. For students with local grad school options, consider how much time you’re willing to commute and look at schools within that radius from home and/or work. Then evaluate the benefits of attending in-class locally, studying online without geographic limits, or hybrid options where some of the work is done in person and some virtually.

5. Tech Familiarity: Being comfortable with the basics of technology and communication are a requirement for today’s business professional. But do you often have questions for your IT department, or do you easily pick up and learn new systems and tools? Online courses might require you to record and submit presentations in video or SlideShare. They might post assignments through an unfamiliar portal with quirks that take time and patience to iron out. Whether it’s online or in-person or a hybrid program, don’t hesitate to ask the school’s dean or department chair to provide a list of technology requirements—from hardware to software to online platforms.

6. Distraction Factor: From barking dogs and rambunctious kids to work emails or the lure of Netflix, taking graduate classes from home can be rife with distractions. Some people can block out the chaos and concentrate on their reading and online course work. For others, it’s a recipe for frustration and possible failure. In-person programs also require a lot of time studying from home, but there’s a built in haven of learning to escape from distractions when you’re in class. And regardless of the program you choose, establish your study zone, and if distractions are an issue—then find solutions that work for your life.

7. Extra Costs: Evaluating tuition rates is a given—but don’t forget to calculate the extra costs of attending graduate school. What does the program estimate for books? For in-person courses, how much will you spend on gas, parking, food and other travel expenses? With online programs, will you need to buy a new computer or tablet, a better web cam, or perhaps boost your Internet speed with a premium service package? Is there software you’ll need to own, or for in-person courses, could you use a school computer lab? When you’re weighing the pros and cons of programs, make sure you have the full picture of the financial investment you’re making.

8. Participant Diversity: We work in a global environment, and a graduate school with diversity among students, faculty and alumni will help prepare you for the increasingly international structure of organizations. Online programs remove the geographic barriers between participants—but look closely to see what opportunities exist for in-depth interactions. In-person programs might offer more cultural exchanges and experiences, both in class and outside it. Ask about not just the country of origin for students and faculty, but also the mix of ages, industries and experiences.

9. Employer/Government Requirements: If your employer offers tuition assistance or reimbursement, it’s a wonderful opportunity to get a master’s and bring what you’re learning back into the office. But check with your HR department about requirements. Some might mandate a specific degree, or they might specify types of experiences they want you to have (like public speaking in-person, or familiarity with international teleconferencing). If you’re from another country, some governments require students to attend in-person or hybrid programs if they wish to reside in the U.S. Whether it’s an employer’s rule or a government’s regulation, make sure you know what works and doesn’t work before you get very far in the program review and selection process.

So, the final question becomes, what graduate program will help you to think critically, reason effectively, market creatively, and code and calculate precisely at the highest levels possible? This answer, I firmly believe, may be most easily found in a re-invented graduate program, offering a combination of in-person, online, hybrid and international course offerings. Find a unique program that will inspire your growth and set you apart. Happy reinventing!

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