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Top Five Factors for Choosing an Online Master’s Program

The decision to pursue higher education is not an easy one, especially for those who already have been in the workforce for a few years. Once one has started a career, adding the responsibility of studying for a master’s degree to a 9-to-5 can be stressful.

Adding to that stress can be figuring out the right program. Thousands of schools across the United States and around the world offer programs; however, many of them offer entirely online programs making it much easier to obtain a master’s degree.

As with any educational pursuit, taking a class from the comfort of a laptop is no walk in the park. According to research on e-learning technologies, between 40 and 80 percent of online students drop out before completing their programs.

A degree is a considerable investment of time and money, so it is essential that applicants thoroughly research the institutions and online programs before applying. Prospective students should also learn about the advantages and challenges of virtual education, which can provide valuable clarity and insight before making a decision.

If earning an online master’s degree seems like the best next step to a brighter future, consider these five important factors for choosing a program.

Featured Interviewee

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Featured interviewee Sky V. King is a senior instructional designer with FIU Online and an adjunct lecturer with Florida International University’s Department of Marketing and Logistics. As an instructional designer, she assists the faculty with the development of high-quality online courses utilizing best practices in pedagogy, design, and technology. She is passionate about life-long learning, with interests in social media, organizational culture, and professional branding. Before joining FIU, she worked as a librarian in the public and private sectors, including the Miami-Dade Public Library System and the Knight Foundation.

King holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Austin Peay State University, a master in library and information science from the University of South Florida, and a graduate certificate in online instructional development from Florida State University.

Five Factors to Consider When Choosing an Online Master’s Program

1. Faculty Support

Whether online or on-campus, it is paramount to have support from the faculty and administration when earning a degree. The primary responsibility of professors and instructors is to optimize the learning experience for students, and that can be a difficult task when teaching classes with high enrollment.

In addition to providing course material, faculty members provide advisory support, help students navigate their educational experience, and prepare them for future career opportunities. Many take on roles as academic advisors, while others serve as unofficial mentors.

“One of the things I really love about FIU Online is the level of service we provide to our students to help them be successful, from enrollment to graduation,” says Sky V. King, a faculty member at Florida International University.

Sky V. King is a senior instructional designer with FIU Online and an adjunct lecturer in FIU’s Department of Marketing and Logistics. Her role as an instructional designer consists of helping faculty create high-quality online courses utilizing best practices in pedagogy, design, and technology.

At FIU Online, the school’s enrollment associates help prospective students better understand the school’s online programs. “They guide them through the application process until the student is admitted and assigned their advisor and FIU Online Success Coach,” explains King. “Success Coaches are with students from the beginning of their academic journey until they finish. These coaches help in various ways, like connecting the student with relevant university resources, developing a success plan with academic and personal goals, and developing time-management and study skill tutorials.”

Because online programs lack face-to-face interaction between students and instructors, it is essential to enroll in a program that prioritizes support from staff and faculty. Resources such as mentor programs, tutoring, and forums to specifically support online students are all signs of a quality educational experience.

2. Student-Centric Online Learning Experience

Learning from the comfort of your own home does not come without its challenges. Although most students enjoy the benefits of virtual learning, online education is not for everyone.

Location independence, flexibility, and the ability to study at one’s own pace can make online degree programs attractive to those with full-time jobs and families, but some people struggle to learn the material without an on-campus experience. The lack of a structured daily class schedule forces students to hold themselves accountable and stay focused.

The best online degree programs are specially designed with these challenges in mind. FIU Online, for example, offers several support services to its students. King works closely with the school’s distance learning librarians, support services, and technology services to ensure that students succeed in their online classes.

“Distance librarians help by creating tutorials specific to the needs of students, conducting research chat sessions with online courses, and providing library assistance through various modes,” she says. “This level of support is extremely valuable since some online students can’t make it to an in-person library to receive research instruction or conduct research.”

Similarly, the FIU support services team teaches students how to use Canvas, the school’s learning management system (LMS), and provides support if students have any technical difficulties. The team consists of trained student employees who can support online students in many different formats including live chat, telephone, email, or in-person. Students can also get help through Canvas all day, every day through the live chat functionality. “Even if it’s 2:00 am for the student in their part of the world, there is someone available to help,” explains King.

A quality educational program is interactive and student-centric. Be sure to review the technology used for an online program, the software requirements, and webinar demos.

3. Flexibility

Before the advent of the internet, anyone wanting to earn a master’s degree would have to do so immediately after earning a bachelor’s degree, juggle a full schedule with a 9-to-5 job and night classes, or take a couple of years off from their career to go back to school. Fortunately, educational technology empowers professionals with already established careers and family responsibilities to have the best of both worlds.

“Many students use the convenience of online classes to fit education into their busy lives, often juggling their home-life with working full-time,” explains King. FIU Online students are from 47 different states and 33 countries. Almost three-quarters of those students are female and a majority of them take classes part-time, according to King.

For this reason, virtual learning programs are designed to be flexible. That said, they are not entirely structureless. Most programs have scheduled dates for exams, class discussions, or video lectures so prospective students should make sure that a program’s academic calendar does not interfere with their current life commitments and responsibilities.

More accommodating programs offer asynchronous learning so that students can access material on their own time. As most master’s programs take two years to complete, many schools allow a five-year completion timeframe to accommodate students with busy schedules.

4. Networking Opportunities

One of the benefits of traditional, on-campus university programs is their networking potential. The relationships formed at any educational phase can last a lifetime and steer students through several life paths. Classmates, faculty, and alumni can open doors to valuable opportunities well beyond graduation.

Although socializing with peers might not seem necessary when focused on obtaining a degree, isolation can lead to missing out on worthwhile experiences. According to a 2016 survey by Performance-Based Hiring Learning Systems, 85 percent of job placements are a result of having the right connections.

Connecting with peers is without a doubt more difficult when taking an online class than being in the classroom. A program that focuses on student success can provide opportunities for virtual students to interact, engage, and be involved with the community.

When researching online master’s programs, applicants should notice which resources are provided for virtual students to network with their peers and alumni. Although proactive students can create an online presence through social media and web-based discussion, institutions that want to see their students succeed can encourage community involvement.

5. Accreditation and Credibility

One of the main reasons people shy away from choosing an online master’s program is the stigmatization of online degrees. Years ago, many for-profit online institutions received a bad reputation for shady recruiting processes and not providing quality education. Consequently, employers across the country became hesitant to hire someone with an online degree from certain schools.

Many prospective students still worry that future employers perceive online degrees as lesser than their on-campus counterparts. However, times have changed. Quality online education is more accessible than ever before because many well-respected accredited traditional universities recognize the benefits of offering distance programs. As a result, employers today are more likely to accept an online master as a qualifying experience than they would in the past.

FIU Online works with Quality Matters to provide national recognition for quality certification of its online courses. King has helped more than a dozen instructors obtain a QM certification for their online courses. The school also has a trained quality assurance team to support its teachers.

“During the faculty-centered peer review process, a robust rubric is used to evaluate and provide feedback to instructors. This rubric has annotated standards, based in research and best practices,” says King about the process towards obtaining QM certification. “These efforts have helped FIU earn recognition for having the highest number of QM certified courses nationwide for public institutions.”

Certified and accredited online programs also tend to be of higher quality. According to a report by FIU Online “The Benefits of Quality Matters Certification: What the Analytics Reveal,” certified courses tend to be more effective and engaging. The study revealed that students tend to ask fewer questions about course assignments and where to find course materials. Instead, they tend to ask questions that relate to the subject matter of the class, allowing professors to focus on the course’s substance.

“It’s a win for both students and professors, without technology or design getting in the way of learning,” says King.

When choosing a program, be sure to pay attention to the school and course accreditation, as well as rankings and awards. A program with a great track record can provide a higher quality degree and lead to better career opportunities upon graduation.

Earning a master’s degree from a quality institution can help boost anyone’s career. Thanks to technological advancements over recent decades, pursuing higher education is easier than ever, but the decision to enroll in an online program should not be made lightly.

Being a distance-based student is an investment of time and money. Choosing an accredited school with support from faculty, a student-focused learning experience, career-based networking opportunities, and accommodating academic schedules is critical to making the most of an online educational experience.

As more individuals around the world realize how an online degree can help boost their careers, educational institutions are preparing for a shift to this unique style of learning.

Although there is no one-size-fits-all approach to being an online student, knowing what an online degree may offer can help make the right decisions to furthering a career and an education.

Stefanie Veneziano

Stefanie Veneziano is a freelance content writer and editor based in Tbilisi, Georgia. Originally from Maine, she left her political career in the United States in 2015 to travel the world and has since been to over 40 countries. When she’s not working on her laptop or posting her adventures on Instagram (@stefanieveneziano), she likes to conduct culinary experiments, study vexillology, and play a game of backgammon.