Thoughts on online colleges?
September 6, 2015 5:58 PM   Subscribe

Recently I've been interested in transferring from a brick and mortar college (CUNY) to Western Governors University. I'm looking for advice from people who have joined similar online programs and their experiences.

The main appeal of online college is the lack of commuting and huge lecture halls w which give me social anxiety. I'll be going into Info Tech for my B.S. and I've got a few random scattered pre-reqs but it should be simple to transfer them as they're very general.

The only thing I'm concerned is that my internet is somewhat unstable and I can't run a ethernet through the rooms as I'm renting. Although I've done quizzes and homework before for courses is there anything that requires constant connection? I have a old laptop which I plan to take to the library if I need to take an exam or anything.

Also, still looking for part-time work but I figured I'd have something to do and the vouchers are somewhat expensive on their own.

Any advice or info about online colleges would be great as I've mostly been on and off traditional college classes due to my depression.
posted by chrono_rabbit to Education (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I can't speak to Western Governors University, except to say that generally it is better to do an online program that is run out of a regular college (as opposed to online only). Don't know if you're aware but CUNY has an online Bachelor's Degree through School of Professional Studies.
posted by Pineapplicious at 6:25 PM on September 6, 2015 [6 favorites]

I'm currently working on a Bachelor of Science degree from DeVry University (which also has physical campuses). I like the fact that classes are covered online, which saves me a lot of commuting costs for one thing. I transferred my college courses from 20 years ago, and they were accepted with no problem.

Having a stable Internet connection is a plus, but if you can go to the library for exams and such you may not have an issue. DeVry allows me to download my textbooks and read them on my phone or tablet via the VitalSource app - and if I want a print copy, I pay $10 for their Print-On-Demand service and get a hardcopy of the textbook mailed to me for me to keep.

One of the biggest draws to an online college for me is the fact that it's an accelerated program. Each course is eight weeks long, and the entire program takes 3 years to complete. I'll be done with this particular program in May 2016.
posted by Telpethoron at 6:39 PM on September 6, 2015

I know someone who got a degree in an online-only college. No one cared. She might as well have not had a degree. YMMV, of course.
posted by slkinsey at 6:41 PM on September 6, 2015 [8 favorites]

I'm doing a grad program online, from a university six hours away. I would not be able to finish my work if I had to keep running to the library to log in to class. It's an accelerated program and there's something due every day.
posted by Ruki at 6:45 PM on September 6, 2015

I had an employee who was taking online courses from the local public college. The internet connection turned out to be a big deal, because the classes required downloads, videos, and streaming audio, as well as chat sessions and so on. That may not be the case for all online schools, but in this case it forced him to do the work in the office in the evenings instead of at home, which became a serious impediment to continuing.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:01 PM on September 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Online classes come in different formats, and my sense is that a bad internet connection could either be an annoyance or a deal-breaker, depending on the format. You really should contact the school and find out. I would also ask about completion rates: what percentage of people who start your program finish it in a reasonable amount of time?

I'm honestly a little skeptical of online classes: the format seems to be difficult for a lot of students, and they often take more self-discipline and better time-management than classroom based classes. They can work well for some students, but I'm wondering if it might make sense to take a single online class and see how it goes before you commit to a full semester of them.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:09 PM on September 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

huge lecture halls w which give me social anxiety.

Treating your social anxiety sounds like a better solution than attending an online college. Also it will be cheaper to stay at CUNY.
posted by deanc at 8:05 PM on September 6, 2015 [13 favorites]

I took a few online-only classes as part of my in-person grad program and having my internet connection at home flake out was a serious problem. Inevitably it would go out in the evening of a night that I had homework due at midnight. One time it went out around 9. The public library was closed, the coffee shop with wifi was too crowded (no available electrical outlets) and I ended up finishing a paper and turning it in from the grocery store nearby which turned out to have wifi in their coffee shop area.

Short version: if your internet at home is flaky, make sure you know of multiple backup options nearby.
posted by kbuxton at 10:24 PM on September 6, 2015

+1 for doing an online degree through CUNY if possible. Online degrees from online-only colleges generally aren't worth the paper they're printed on (bits they're rendered in?), but online degrees from brick-and-mortar colleges tend to be taken a lot more seriously.
posted by Itaxpica at 11:02 PM on September 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

I have taught in an online-only program devised largely as a new revenue source by an old and very well respected brick and mortar college. If your online program is as ill-conceived and shoddily organized as mine was, your degree might end up being a waste of money and time. If I thought it was ethical, I'd have advised my students to forego the (graduate specialty) degree they were paying for. Instead, I can warn you.

In addition, my time teaching in an online-only program of a brick and mortar college made me look even more askance at job candidates with online-only degrees. The quality of work is, in my opinion, rather low, as are the expectations. All else being equal, I would rank a job candidate with a a degree from an online-only school lower than I would candidates from brick and mortar schools. I've seen how quickly curricula and so-called lesson plans are slapped together to start enrolling students and charging tuition.

Yes, your spotty internet connection is likely to be a problem. The school likely has someone in staff to answer your specific questions about your setup. Be very, very wary if they can't answer your questions or are at all hand wavy about your expectations.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 5:01 AM on September 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

I think you are much better staying off at CUNY, make use of their mental health services to deal with anxiety and maybe look into seeing if you can take a class or two online through them as well. It sounds like you are taking a good, practical option and potentially turning into a non-useful, potentially very expensive and even unworkable option. I would caution you not to do that if at all possible.
posted by bquarters at 5:41 AM on September 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Ask WGU to send you their last few commencement programs with lists of graduates of the program you are thinking about. Spend $20 (or whatever it is these days) for a month's were of premium LinkedIn subscription. Research EVERY graduate: what job did they have before and during the program? What job do they have now? Do they proudly list their degree? If at least 75% haven't clearly moved up in the professional world, or didn't already have a good job in the field and felt that the degree would help them get promoted, don't consider it.
posted by MattD at 6:30 AM on September 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

There are at least two issues that I can see with these online degree programs.

One has been highlighted pretty convincingly here: these programs are often money grabs with little thought going into curriculum development. Moreover, I'd like to make a more subtle point: even if your program is the exception to this trend, it is likely that it will be grouped in with all the lower-quality money-grabby programs by perspective employers. In other words, even if your program is as good or better than a brick and mortar program, it is likely not to be perceived as such by perspective employers.

A second issue which has been touched on a couple times but deserves emphasis is how challenging it is for students to complete these programs. The amount of self-motivation you need is so much greater than what you need for a brick and mortar program and, even people who think they are going to be motivated enough for this often are not. The numbers cited on the Wikipedia page for WGU (which otherwise reads like a promotional booklet for the place) concern me: the college has been open for 18 years and has 60,000 currently enrolled students, but only ~50,000 graduates. Think about that: it has fewer total graduates in 18 years than it's current enrollment. That really speaks to the challenges students face in completing an online degree.
posted by Betelgeuse at 6:37 AM on September 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

Agreed that taking classes online through a school that also offers classes in a traditional setting might be a better way to go. You're in NY, so there are tons of options. A while back, there was the SUNY learning network. I can't find it now, I think it's now called Open SUNY:
Open SUNY is a SUNY-wide collaboration that opens the door to world-class online-enabled learning opportunities. Open SUNY is not a new degree program or a new school; it’s a seamless way for you to access the courses, degrees, professors, and rich academics of all 64 SUNY campuses flexibly—wherever and whenever you want.

In my experience, credits transfer fairly easily within the SUNY/CUNY systems, so you could even take a few classes though Open SUNY and put them toward your degree at whatever CUNY you're currently enrolled in.

There's also SUNY's Empire State College program ("the SUNY solution for working adults" I've often heard). There's online offerings, but they also a lot of small classes. I took a bunch of classes there that were either independent study (meet with your professor 2-3 times a month for an hour) or smaller classes (meet weekly for 2 hours with your small class of less than 10). ESC costs a bit more than the going SUNY rate due to the student ratios, but it's something you might want to consider. They've got locations in Manhattan, Brooklyn and SI (and a bunch of others). This older-than-me article talks about the colleges goals, etc.

As for prestige, I'm in the camp of "there's very prestigious schools [where you'll make top of your field connections and listing on your resume will open doors], there's schools that people will think less of you for attending [University of Phoneix] and then there's everything else [probably 85% of the colleges and universities out there]".

Good luck!
posted by Brian Puccio at 9:55 AM on September 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: So, I have a BS in IT/software from WGU.

It's very different from what you might think of as "online classes." You don't typically interact with other students. You have a mentor that you check in with every week by phone, but other than that, everything you do is self-directed.

There aren't even typically "assignments" or "quizzes" as such. You do whatever you have to do to learn the material well enough to pass the final exam, which is usually some kind of IT certification exam. Passing the exam is the whole grading system for the class. WGU provides resources and guidance to get you through this process, but there aren't lectures or classes or schedules the way they're typically conceived.

A few courses have a final project instead of a final exam, that is graded by actual humans. You don't really come out with a big portfolio, though.

There's no preset amount of time a "class" has to take; I took some exams with only a week of preparation. You just have to convince your mentor that you're ready to schedule the exam.

Your own internet connection is irrelevant for the exams. You go to special proctored testing sites for those. These are basically everywhere. Even in the rural exurbs of Houston there were 2 sites within biking range for me. WGU pays for the exams as part of your tuition, which is pretty cool.

For me, all of this was a piece of cake, because I already had years of experience in IT, I'm an experienced autodidact, and I learn well by reading. I was able to finish very quickly. I had transfer credit going in for general ed stuff, and I finished the IT curriculum in a year and a half while working full time.

I can definitely see how the program isn't for everyone and many people wouldn't finish at all. If you don't keep up a certain level of progress, they wash you out rather than steal your money. I was concerned about this aspect going in, because online schools have this reputation, but WGU is not a money-grab and it is in fact the cheapest option for getting an accredited degree that I could find, which is why I did it.

It can also be pretty isolating, and I think at least half of the benefit of getting a degree at all is making contacts and meeting collaborators. You get zero of that at WGU.

The quality of the curriculum was mixed. I thought it was too easy, but I also already knew a lot of the material from prior experience, so perhaps I'm not the best judge. It looks like they've revised the curriculum in the last few years to target more difficult certifications, so that's something.

To sum up:

Pros: Super, super cheap. The faster you go, the cheaper it is. It's an accredited degree, and even if the name isn't worth a whole lot, you get a stack of entry-level IT certifications to beef up the degree. It should be enough to get you in the door at a company for a junior position. A BS from anywhere clears a lot of automated hiring computer hurdles.

Cons: Isolating. You do not come out of the program with a network. Curriculum is just a guided tour of entry-level certifications, some worth the trouble, some less so. If you're not autodidactically inclined, you're gonna have a bad time.
posted by zjacreman at 9:56 AM on September 7, 2015 [4 favorites]

I don't think anyone else has pointed this out, so I will. Most online universities are for-profit corporations that answer to shareholders, rather than students. WGU is, as far as I know, the only non-profit all-online university. So when people talk about online universities in general, they're talking about something else, with a whole additional set of problems. If you asked whether you should go to a for-profit online university like Kaplan or University of Phoenix, my answer would be an unqualified no. I think students should not go to for-profit colleges and universities. I still think it's very likely not a good idea for you, but there are some situations in which I think WGU would make sense for some students. For instance, it might be a good choice for some working adults who had dropped out of college before graduating and who needed a degree to qualify for a promotion.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 10:36 AM on September 7, 2015

Arizona State University offers a significant number of their degree programs online. They were and still are a brick and mortar university. I don't know if they developed their online program before or after they got hooked up with Starbucks, but Starbucks offers tuition assistance to employees.

I have no sense of the quality of this program but thought it should be included here.

When I got my MBA (graduated in 2008), I had a choice of a traditional evening/weekend program in my local area or a hybrid weekend + online program. I chose the hybrid program because I think remote work is the future in my industry (high tech).

Currently, I manage a program of over 100 engineers strewn across the globe - in 4 sites in the US, one in Latin America, one in Canada, and one in India. This isn't the way I would draw up an organization, but it is what my company has chosen to do -- and it has worked a lot better than I expected. We do have face-to-face meetings and make extensive use of Skype and the like for remote meetings.
posted by elmay at 11:10 AM on September 7, 2015

The comments from zjacreman about lack of networking are key here, to my mind. One of the reasons that people who go to college get better jobs is that they are able to learn about what jobs even exist based on the jobs that their acquaintances in college take. If your college degree doesn't help you make these connections, you will be at a disadvantage.

Have you talked to the disability office about accommodations for anxiety and depression? Have you had a long conversation with a knowledgeable academic advisor about your specific plan? (This might or might not mean your official academic advisor; if you don't find that the person assigned to you is helpful, I'd recommend making an appointment with someone in the office of the Dean of Students.) Often freshman- or sophomore-level classes are larger, while classes for majors are quite small. You might be able to satisfy some of those prerequisite classes online and take the upper-division classes in person, or find a major in a department where they steer away from large lectures. Somebody who's comfortable with academic bureaucracy will be able to guide you toward a more comfortable program.
posted by yarntheory at 11:15 AM on September 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the comments. Yes, I'm wary of for-profit colleges but I ended up finding WGU via SA megathread for IT work. It had a lot of positive reviews and it didn't seem *that* expensive compared to regular college.

Also, I'm already seeking treatment at the local mental health clinic for anxiety/depression but mostly worried about finding a job right now for living expenses.
posted by chrono_rabbit at 5:57 PM on September 7, 2015

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