Structural Engineers

The Truth About Online Education

Recently I’ve seen a series of advertisements on late night TV for a “For Profit” institution about their online Master’s Degree program.  It shows a woman happily doing her work on a laptop at the beach, another of a parent with their child in their lap while doing her school work, and such type images.  The insinuation is that an online degree is easy to get, which it isn’t.  A true degree from an accredited institution obtained online is not easier than going to school on campus.  I obtained my Master of Science in Civil Engineering from Columbia University, New York online, and Columbia has the #1 rated online program in engineering for veterans according to U.S. News and World Reports.  This is what I’ve learned:

  1.  Going to school online allows you to get education that would be physically impossible otherwise.  If I tried to go to school at a physical campus for my master’s degree, I would have to commute to either Georgia Tech, which is an hour and a half trip from where I live, or Kennesaw State, which is about 2 hours.  I have to make a living, so that kind of commuting time to class would make getting a master’s degree impractical.  Instead, online I was able to get a graduate education from a world class Ivy League school.  That is an advantage that can’t be understated.
  2. Getting an online degree requires a LOT of self discipline.   At Columbia, lectures were recorded you watched them over the Internet on your time.  That’s helpful, but the problem is if you were sloppy you might find yourself falling behind in watching lectures.  There were also the homework assignments given that you had to turn in a certain time frame, and if you were late there was a score penalty.  If you are attending class on campus, there is something to force you to be at the lecture at a certain time, and this helps you schedule yourself to do your homework and study.  Online there is nothing to do this.  I found I had to schedule myself to watch the lecture on a scheduled night each week.  Homework had to be done the same way.
  3. Watching a lecture online can be much more boring than watching it in person.  Although I have to say this wasn’t a problem in most of my classes at Columbia.  I took a math course that in my opinion wasn’t taught so well, and the lectures were agony to watch.  Instead, I found lectures on YouTube that were given by the author of the book that my class used.  This is more of an issue of the professor though, not the medium.
  4. It helps to be able to get to the campus of the institution you are enrolled in for many reasons.  I found I had to go up to New York regularly.  In my first course, Elastic and Inelastic Structures, I was having a very hard time.  I hadn’t taken an engineering course in probably 30 years, and I was doing really bad.  I had to go up to Columbia and go over problems with the professor to be able to make it through.  It was also my last course in the program, I wasn’t happy about how I did, so I repeated it.  I flew through the course the second time.  I also went to New York for other courses, not because I was having problems, but sometimes it really helps to attend a lecture in person.
  5. Forget about doing your class work at the beach, or while paying attention to your children, or other non-conventional settings.  Recently I was on a job site, it was late in the afternoon and cloudy.  I STILL had a hard time reading the screen on my laptop. If you find a laptop where you can read the screen on the beach, I want to know the brand.  I’ll buy it.  As far as having your child sit on your lap – no.  You’ll be too distracted.The point is, you need to focus, just like when you went to a school on campus.  That means working in a specific study area that is set up for you. Sure, you can do your school work while traveling, but it is hard.  I did try watching lectures sitting on my patio, but it had to be at night so I could see the monitor well, and it attracted mosquitos.
  6. Since you aren’t wasting time commuting to campus, you can actually take a higher credit load.  I carried 6 credit hours/semester at Columbia, which I could not have done if I tried to commute to Georgia Tech.  Figure if I took a class at Georgia Tech, and it lasted three hours and was once a week, it would require 6 hours of time counting commuting.  That’s just for class.  Figuring studying in engineering requires at least two hours for each class hour, I had to study 12 hours each week for two courses.  That would have meant 24 hours a week.  That’s tough.  At Columbia, I spent about 18 hours a week working on two courses.  That’s hard, but doable.
  7. The biggest disadvantage to online learning is you don’t get the advantage of asking questions during the lectures or discussing the subject matter with your fellow students.  On the other hand, I never saw anyone ask questions in the classes I took at Columbia, and I don’t recall discussing course work with other students when I was an undergraduate, or when I took my MBA studies on campus. So, I don’t know if that is such a big deal.
  8. Because of diploma mills, online degrees have had a poor reputation.  As more universities embrace online education, and even if you are getting your degree on campus you may take some online courses, the stigma is going away.  However, it is something to consider when you choose your school.  A lot of For Profit institutions have a poor reputation.  You may spend a lot for your online degree and find it does little good.  The “brand” of your degree is very important.
  9. The cost can be high.  My degree at Columbia cost more than $60,000.  Part of that was paid for by the Post-911 GI Bill because of my service when I was activated from the Reserves, but it was still expensive.  If you attend a state institution and get in-state tuition it will be cheaper.  If you go to a for profit institution, the cost can be very high.  You have to decide if it is worth the cost.  For me, the cost of my Columbia degree was definitely worth it.

My advice if you want to obtain online degree is to understand it takes work and discipline.  Choose your institution carefully, I would stick to public or non-profit institutions, and go with ones with a good reputation.  Figure out how you are going to pay for it, and if it is worth the cost.



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