Thursday, September 3, 2009

Online Graduate Education


It's September, and students everywhere are back in school. This year, I almost counted myself among their ranks again. Almost... Since I graduated with my MA in Technical Writing back in 2003, I have been wistfully imagining my name with "Dr." in front of it. So, last December, with layoffs looming at work and the economy tanking, I took the GRE (AGAIN!) and applied to the only English department PhD program at the local university.

But as the time neared for me to start my classes, I began to have doubts. This was not ultimately the program of my dreams; it was just the only one available to me. I would have enjoyed focusing on a different aspect of language than I had previously studied as an undergrad (literature) and graduate student, such as mass communication or rhetoric. However, the local university doesn't have any programs that fit the bill. As the thought of spending 5-7 years doing something I wasn't in love with didn't appeal to me, I decided to drop the classes and look for an alternative.

Of course, I turned to the Internet, but to my surprise, my choices there were limited as well. One would think that in today's technologically-savvy culture, more universities would be offering degree programs that could be completed entirely online. It seems like a win-win situation for the school, as it would attract a broader student base (possibly even more out-of-state students to pay higher tuition rates) and spend less money on classroom space. And while there are quite a few online master's programs, the PhD programs, especially in the fields of writing and communication, are few and far between. In fact, I was only able to find four that even came close: Technical Communication and Rhetoric; Language, Literature, and Linguistics; Professional Studies in Information Management (library science); and Media Psychology.

Why aren't more universities offering online graduate degrees? Graduate education is ideally suited for the online format: much of the learning takes place outside the classroom anyway through directed reading, writing, and research, and any discussion among students or between students and professors can easily take place in forums or through email or web conferencing. So, what's the hold-up? Are universities falling sadly behind the times?

I feel as though the old guard is unwilling to make any significant changes in the hallowed halls of academia because it is trying to hold onto an outdated model of teaching and learning. Graduate education, while still elite to some degree, is now available to a much broader segment of the population and has become somewhat of a mass commodity. A graduate degree is no longer a direct path to a teaching position at a university but a stepping-stone to a myriad of career options. Graduate students are no longer twenty-somethings attending full-time but working (or recently laid-off) professionals who must balance other responsibilities. Universities must evolve to provide more options in graduate education. They are missing out on at least this student's tuition and probably many more who find their degree opportunities limited.

P.S. Thanks to Hayley's last post about idioms, I had to look up every expression I used in this post (such as "fit the bill," "win-win situation," and "few and far between") to make sure I was using them correctly :)

1 comment:

Zea said...

I think you are right that the old guard is just trying to keep the "ivory tower" mentality and mental images and keep grad education as elitist as it can stay. Law schools are prevented by ABA regulations from having any more than the tiniest percentage of class time anything other than classroom instruction. While law school might not be quite as perfectly suited to online learning as PhD programs might be, there is an awful lot, I think, that could be successfully and cheaply conveyed online. Alas, I think the ABA and the grandees of academia will be equally reluctant to make progressive changes.