Distance education isn’t new. Decades ago a handful of colleges offered bachelor’s degrees by correspondence – the earliest form of distance education. The very first online university was accredited in 1991. Today there are a great many options for students who wish to earn a degree online. Some online graduate degrees are offered by universities that operate entirely online. Others are conferred by brick-and-mortar universities that also offer graduate degrees in the traditional classroom setting. Earning a graduate degree online entails the same hurdles as traditional degrees: coursework, comprehensive exams, and a thesis or dissertation. However, the nature of instruction and interaction differ radically. Online courses are, like the label, conducted entirely online. A course online might deliver lectures in written form, PowerPoint slides, audio podcasts, or videos. Interaction might occur by discussion board, blog posts, or real time chats or video conferencing, depending on the instructor and course.  Assignments might be submitted through the course software or by email. Instructors are available by email, phone, chat, or video conferencing. Some might hold office hours by instant message or video conferencing. Some graduate programs include an on-campus component, called residency. Graduate students may be required to travel to the university for a weekend or even a week to take several in-person seminars.

Can you earn a graduate degree online

The lack of face-to-face classroom interaction is one of the factors that makes earning a graduate degree online challenging. Many of online graduate students cite benefits of education online that go far beyond flexibility and convenience at the same time. Online classes often become online communities in which students learn from each other, through their formal and informal interactions. Work is often posted to forums where all students can read, discuss, and critique. Many online graduate students feel that this enhances their sense of personal accountability and cite their peers as a source of motivation. Online classrooms require everyone to share their perspective, whereas discussion in a traditional graduate classroom may be monopolized by a few students while others remain quiet. When they are in their own homes, on their laptops, with time to gather and edit their thoughts, participation is required and most students find it easier to contribute to the conversation. Most online students juggle a myriad of obligations that prevent them from attending brick-and-mortar universities. Most work full time. Some have long commutes to work that infringe on the evening hours when graduate classes typically meet. Students with families may find it difficult to attend classes, especially those who also work or who lack access to child care.  Especially doctoral programs, are often hard to find – this is more important. Doctoral programs are uncommon, relative to bachelor’s and master’s programs. Students who pursue graduate degrees often must move far from home to attend the program of their choice (or any program at all). Students with careers and families often are unable or unwilling to uproot their lives to earn a graduate degree. Some employers remain skeptical about the rigor and value of an online graduate degree.