Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A word on online education

A little over a year ago, when I was first looking into MFA programs, I sort of had my heart set on enrolling at either BYU or the University of Utah (yes, you read that right). But because I hadn't taken the GRE yet and had missed the application deadlines by about five months, the earliest I would have been able to start school was September 2013, assuming I got in. One adviser at the U said I could take a few classes before being officially accepted, but even then it would be January 2013 before I could start anything.

I didn't want to wait that long. My decision to go to grad school literally happened overnight (on Memorial Day, to be exact), and once I had decided, I couldn't stand the thought of delaying. I wanted to seize the opportunity before I had a chance to talk myself out of it.

So I started looking into online programs. After some obsessive researching, I applied to Southern New Hampshire University, and by mid-June I had been accepted.

I had my doubts about doing my masters 100 percent online. I didn't think that an online degree held as much weight as a brick-and-mortar degree, and I worried that I was taking the easy way out.

From where I'm sitting now, though, it's obvious by the way everything fell into place so quickly that SNHU was where I needed to be.

So here's how my program works. Each term is 11 weeks long, and each week has readings, discussion boards, workshops, writing assignments, etc. (this is not a go-at-your-own-pace program). Instead of recorded lectures, we are given a module overview (usually a couple of pages) to read, and the teacher does the rest of his/her teaching by responding to our discussion board posts and asking deeper questions when relevant.

It's a fantastic system. I don't feel like I am being short-changed at all. With the exception of one professor my teachers have been awesome, the classes are very interactive despite the fact that we're spread across several continents, and I have grown immensely as both a writer and a person.

In fact, this learning environment is better for me in a lot of ways than traditional schools. I thought I would miss having live classroom discussions, but I actually get more out of the online discussions. I've always been a backseat observer and I've never been good at coming up with brilliant responses on the spot, but now I have time to "listen" to what others are saying, process it, and form my own opinion before responding when I'm ready. This is the first time I've really been an active part of the discussion, which has made my learning experience so much richer.

I think it goes without saying that I also love not having to find time to meet with an assigned study group, participate in stupid group projects, and sit through days of boring presentations. Schools put way too much emphasis on group interaction these days. Learning to work in teams is important is a skill everyone should develop, but it is not the best setting for people like me to learn in. My teachers thought they were doing us all a favor by planning "fun" group learning activities, but this usually left me exhausted and a little traumatized. I never thrived in that environment, but I'm thriving at SNHU in ways it wasn't possible at Payson High or BYU, simply because I'm left alone.

Because my program is all about writing and reading, it works perfectly online. It would be really, um, difficult, to learn how to be, say, a doctor, online, but we writers are in a much more flexible field.

I still don't think online education should replace brick-and-mortar schools (especially in grades K-8), but I also don't buy the long-held assumption that live classroom instruction is always better, either. There's room for both in this world. I, for one, am glad I got to experience both.

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