But Whats it Like?

By Margaret Loftus Bookmark and Share

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 campus-based classes?

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 and jerky.

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 best friend."

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."