How do graduate schools admission departments view online classes?
May 13, 2009 11:51 PM   Subscribe

How do graduate schools view "distance learning" (online courses)? I'm not looking to get a HS diploma/bachelors/masters online; I already have my bachelors and I want to take some classes on the side to strengthen a graduate application in the future. Does it generally matter where I take online classes from?

I graduated last year from a small liberal arts college and after working some months at my current job I realize what I want more than anything is to go back to school. There are a few different areas I'm looking into for graduate school but I fear the weakness in my application would be the lack of math courses past first year calculus. Initially, I looked at the local community colleges and local university but quite honestly the college/university system is poor in this state and offer few classes online. An added difficulty is that I'm working full time and the local comm. colleges / state university offers few classes during the evening. My goal is to get into a well regarded graduate school in economics or international affairs. So with that background information I would really appreciate any insight into the following:

When taking online courses how important is the institution from which you take it? Obviously I mistrust diploma mills like ITT/University of Phoenix and I suspect that many admissions office don't view them highly. I'm interested in the difference between taking online courses from somewhere like Harvard/Stanford with a potentially less prestigious but still well regarded State University. I notice that some online classes require a proctored final exam and others do not; is there a big difference here from an accreditation/graduate admissions point of view?

Second, do graduate schools tend to value attending physical classes more than online classes? For example, if I were to actually attend classes through the University of California system versus distance learning through UC Berkeley/UCLA.

Specifically I'm looking to take calculus up to multivariate, linear algebra and perhaps up to real analysis. The problem is that there seem to be hundreds of online learning programs of varying standards and reputations (i would prefer a program that was linked to a reputable brick and mortar). I've only found a handful of programs that offer calculus (differential and integral) and in fact have only found one (Stanford) that offers multivariate and linear algebra. Are there any online programs out there that offer math courses past linear algebra?

Finally, I'm hoping some wise metafilter members out there can give me general advice to strengthen any future graduate school applications. Should I take graduate courses? And if so, since my local university system sucks, how are online graduate courses regarded? I'm looking into volunteer programs (teach for america, americorps and peacecorps) and am planning on embarking one at least one of those programs soon. Other than that I appreciate any advice and thank all readers for making through my long and rambling post.
posted by EvilKenji to Education (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Honestly there's not enough information here to give you a good answer. What field are you talking about? What schools are you aiming for? What are your GRE scores if you have them? Graduate admissions are made largely at the departmental level, not through the Admissions office like in undergraduate.

Let's talk about the GRE. For the GRE Math in the sciences, it doesn't matter what courses you take as long as your Math scores are strong. And by "strong" I mean a perfect score for the best programs.

For the GRE Math in the humanities, you can get by with 550 or so. If you're taking extra math for the GRE you are wasting your time.

If you're talking math for about economics or IR, or some other math-lite social science, and not the GRE, a lot of the big schools put you through math boot camp when you get there. Talk to the departments or do research on whether you need more math before you apply

But if you're going for a hard science, but I'd bet good money that lab experience, co-authorship of papers, actual math competency and GRE scores matter more than the reputation of a school where you took classes to obtain that competency.

Also, what precise schools are you dismissing? If you are talking about Texas, your conclusion about the state system and community colleges is patently false. The community colleges are strong, particular ACC and SAC; so are the branches of UT, A&M, U of H, among others. All those are public. Sure, Sam Houston State, Stephen F. Austin, and San Marcos are party schools, but there's nothing wrong to take one of their distance learning classes if they suit your needs.

Two things give me pause about your question. One is your snobbishness about schools. Just no. The other is about why are you considering teaching if you plan to go to grad school in the near future? Is that teaching something you genuinely want to do, or do you think it will strengthen your application? If it's the latter, you're wrong, it likely won't.

Whatever the case ask to audit a graduate course in your field at a local university. See how you feel in a year.

You sound young and not quite ready to throw away your 20's to grad school. That's not a bad thing.

Once you tell us your field, GRE scores and schools you're aiming for someone with direct knowledge of your field will chime in. FWIW, I'm a humanities prof who did a BA at UT, MA at Osaka (Handai), & the PHD in an Ivy League school.
posted by vincele at 6:39 AM on May 14, 2009

Call the Admissions Dept. at a few schools you're interested in and ask.
posted by theora55 at 8:22 AM on May 14, 2009

I'm seconding that the state schools in many cases offer very good quality courses via distance. Also, in many cases, these courses are not shown any differently on your transcripts (as compared to on-campus courses). This is because they are not materially different. The work you complete will be comparable regardless of the delivery method. Another school is not likely to know if you took it on campus or off (unless they realize you couldn't have taken the class in one state while working in another).

Proctored exams are more an issue that arises out of Professors feeling uncertain about the security level of online exams. They are not connected with accreditation.

If you feel uncertain about your graduate level math skills, do NOT take a distance ed graduate math course to show that you are ready for grad school. As vincele says above, your GRE scores will make a bigger difference. Wait until you are admitted and then take the courses that particular school recommends to bring you up to speed.

Full disclosure--I have my PhD from a state school and work as a director for a distance ed program at a different state school
posted by midwestguy at 9:17 AM on May 14, 2009

Response by poster: I'm trying to shoot for econ or IA. Second, I didn't mean to sound snobbish (I'm not in texas btw) but the local schools here aren't bad they just simply don't have the courses I want to take. Well they do have the courses, just not in distance learning/evening course format (work full time). I want to go to graduate school eventually for teaching, which is why I mention those other programs (I believe it's a good way to get some teaching experience).

I know schools put you through math boot camp for IR/IA but I also know for a fact that many econ programs just won't accept you without a decent background in math (calculus + linear algebra + discrete math). It's not that I'm unsure of my math skills, I did take the GRE and GMAT and did quite well; however the GRE and GMAT don't really go into the required calculus/lin. algebra topics (unless you count the math GRE which is not a requirement for econ).
posted by EvilKenji at 10:08 AM on May 14, 2009

Response by poster: I work full time right now which is why I'm interested in online courses. My only concern was how online classes were viewed on your transcript. From what it sounds like, this doesn't seem to be a concern. I didn't mean to sound like a snob when it comes to schools but I've honestly heard from many admissions people that places like ITT and University of Phoenix and other diploma mills are more harmful than helpful when it comes to admissions. I just want to find a decent place for online courses. Thanks for all the feedback so far.
posted by EvilKenji at 10:12 AM on May 14, 2009

I applied to IR programs and took an online econ class. At the programs that I applied to, they were NOT okay with the online class at the local okay university. This was 5 years ago. YMMV.
posted by k8t at 1:08 PM on May 14, 2009

I've taken four courses through Stanford's distance learning program and actually plan to start a distance MS in the fall. The courses are the same, and they show up the same on your transcript. You're graded on the same curve as on-campus students. My MS will be the exact same degree as someone going to on-campus classes would'll just take me five years instead of two.

There have been frustrating moments taking distance classes at Stanford, but on the whole it's been a good experience and I've learned a lot. It isn't for everyone, but I think it's good for anyone who can afford it and who doesn't mind not being able to show up at office hours like everyone else.

I think taking classes at Stanford helped me get into Stanford. I assume classes from a different school would have said less about my ability to thrive at Stanford. However, it really depends on what your goals are school-wise...if you had a particular grad school in mind I'd say aim for that school, or a school that has some relationship with that school.
posted by crinklebat at 10:25 PM on May 14, 2009

There's a difference between for-profit and not-for-profit distance-ed schools. ITT and University of Phoenix are for-profit. They are really shady for a number of reasons. Not-for-profit distance-ed schools will be just fine-- regular state and private universities. For economics, just apply and see what happens. Good GRE scores and work experience are strong assets. I think it's going to work out for you, internet stranger.
posted by vincele at 1:08 AM on May 15, 2009

Are there any online programs out there that offer math courses past linear algebra?

The Diploma for Graduates in Mathematics from the University of London External programme sounds right for you. The programme begins with the assumption that you've passed first year calculus and linear algebra, you can check out the syllabus here. It's entirely a self-learning programme and the exam is tough (I'm taking it too now).

I'm not sure how well recognized it is in the USA though, but if you're planning to go for graduate schools in Europe, I'm pretty sure that it is fairly recognized.
posted by joewandy at 8:59 PM on May 15, 2009

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