You may be surprised by how hard you'll work–and how well
you'll get to know your classmates
Night is falling in Paris, and instead of heading out for
dinner, Judy Rowe is in her hotel room, chatting online with
her psychology classmates. As an international purser for
American Airlines, Rowe, who lives in Davidsonville, Md.,
spends much of the week traveling. But her often frantic schedule
hasn't kept her from pursuing a doctoral degree in psychology
at the University of Maryland. She's fortunate, she says,
that she doesn't have to "schlep" herself into a classroom
each week. "If we didn't have online it would be nearly impossible
for me to do my job and go to school at the same time."
Like Rowe, millions of people have rejected traditional
education in favor of E-learning. In many ways, however, the
two experiences aren't so different. As she would at a brick-and-mortar
university, each semester Rowe peruses a course catalog and
registers for classes. She reviews a syllabus. She studies
textbooks, writes papers, takes exams, and engages in lively
debates with other students, guided by her teachers. So how
does her education differ from that of students enrolled in
For starters, she sits in front of a keyboard for most of
this activity, connected to the class via the Internet. Thanks
to E-mail and threaded discussions–nonlive, electronic forums
in which her classmates interact–Rowe never sets foot in a
classroom, nor does she meet her colleagues face to face.
But convenience doesn't mean such courses are a piece of cake,
say E-students. "Don't think you [will] get off easy," says
Steve Rauschkolb, a recent graduate of SetonWorldWide's online
master's program in strategic communication and leadership.
Rauschkolb, who took one course at a time, estimates he spent
10 hours a week–mostly evenings after dinner–reading, writing
assignments, and participating in online discussions.
Equal time. His classmate, Michael Mahony, initially
assumed that the course wouldn't be that tough but soon realized,
he says, that "oh, my God, this is a lot to do." Mahony learned
to slip in an hour of coursework every morning before work.
He supplemented this time with additional hours in the evenings
and on weekends. In general, says Nancy Stevenson, author
of Distance Learning Online for Dummies (Hungry Minds,
$19.99), E-students can expect to spend as much time on their
courses as they would on equivalent campus-based courses.
By contrast, the pacing of E-courses may be quite different.
By the end of college, most students are all too familiar
with the standard system for evaluating students each semester–a
midterm, a final, and a couple of papers. Instead, online
courses often require students to write papers each week and
contribute regularly to class discussions. In Gina DeRossi's
online poetry class at Syracuse University, for example, students
were graded on the quality of their critiques of their colleagues'
work. In a course called "Ethics in an E-global world," Lawrence
Didsbury, an M.B.A. student at Jones International University
(JIU), is required to submit two, two-to-three-page papers
each week and to post contributions every day to the class's
threaded discussion. All the writing, Didsbury says, requires
students to "dig heavily into the content."
"Most people working full time find [the number of] 'deliverables'
required each week to be taxing at first," warns Stevenson.
If you're prone to procrastination, be prepared for many late
nights. "When you have the freedom to do the work at your
leisure, you invariably wait until the last possible moment
before the deadline," says Tony Sellars, who is working on
his M.B.A. at Oklahoma City University. He admits he sometimes
ends up taking tests and submitting papers at 3 a.m. "or some
other ungodly hour."
Working on some E-courses can feel more like playing a video
game than joining in a discussion group. In his capital budgeting
class at the strictly online Cardean University, M.B.A. student
Jeremy Morrison was charged with figuring out which company
his firm should acquire. For help in evaluating four prospects,
Morrison could turn to video clips of a professor elaborating
on important points and market projection spreadsheets. Other
courses incorporate animation and PowerPoint presentations
to help simulate business problems. Morrison says he likes
the Cardean approach because it makes him feel like he's at
work, doing a project for his boss.
For now, though, the majority of online courses–with the
exception of corporate training, for which students typically
have access to big company servers–are pretty low tech. Says
Stevenson, "At this point universities are having to use technology
that most people can access." And that usually means a 56-kbps
dial-up modem, through which streaming video can look fragmented
Even though most online courses don't employ electronic bells
and whistles, students' most common complaints about E-learning
revolve around technological snafus. Navigating a course's
options and jargon–various folders, forums, study guides–can
take practice and patience. After six futile attempts to file
her first online paper, Rowe called her teacher in tears.
Mike Burke, a classmate of Didsbury's who is taking his first
online course, has had his share of misplaced assignments
and says at times he feels "out of the loop." Then there was
the time JIU's server went down: All Burke knew was that he
suddenly couldn't access his course. "The ideas are great,
the people are great, it's the technology that can be overwhelming
if you don't have a background in it," he says.
Time out. A student's own Internet connection also
can get cut off. "My biggest frustration was with my ISP,"
says Mark Plunkett, a Harvard M.B.A. student who, along with
his classmates, took two online basic finance and accounting
courses before starting Harvard's on-campus program. Besides
getting knocked offline on several occasions while traveling,
access was sometimes so slow that text-only was the sole real
option. George Hutchison, who earned his master's in human
resource management through Florida Institute of Technology
while he was a naval officer stationed at the Sigonella air
base in Sicily in the late '90s, recalls being in the middle
of a timed online statistics test when his Internet connection
crashed. A couple of anxious phone calls later, Hutchison
was allowed to restart the test.
For some students, no amount of time spent in a chatroom
can replace the feel of a classroom. "Sometimes people who
are more outgoing find this sort of a lonely experience,"
says Stevenson. Dede Stabler took one online course toward
an informational systems degree at the University of Maryland-University
College before dropping out. She says she missed the social
aspect of school, calling her venture into the world of E-learning
"flat." People "who need a lot of face-to-face interaction,"
says Pamela Pease, president of JIU, "probably aren't going
to do very well."
That said, there are individuals who actually prefer to interact
with teachers and fellow students online. In a real classroom,
a few students may dominate the discussions, and shy individuals
don't stand a chance. By contrast, both the pushy and shy
can easily speak up online. And because E-students tend to
reflect more before participating, their viewpoints often
contain more logic and coherence than those expressed in campus-based
classrooms. Says Mahony, "People are extremely open; they're
not overprotective of themselves." Just like anywhere else
on the Web, says Syracuse's DeRossi, "the whole faceless thing
helps people [reveal] problems that they wouldn't tell their
Although Mahony and Rauschkolb actually met their classmates
three times in the course of their Seton Hall program, their
relationships took root during their threaded discussions,
many of which were about students' real-life professional
problems. "We actually taught each other," says Mahony. "It
was a lot of mentoring." Mahony graduated in the spring of
2000 but regularly keeps in touch with five of his 12 classmates.
Hutchison was similarly enthusiastic about his E-experiences
with education. "I only wish I could have met some of those
folks face to face," he says. "They were great."