• GradHacker

    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online



Online learning for graduate students.

January 9, 2018

Patrick Bigsby is an alumnus, former employee, and lifelong wrestling fan of the University of Iowa. Sometimes, he tweets.

About halfway through my second stint as a graduate student, I registered to take an online course. I dreaded it. The class focused on an extremely dry, extremely technical topic (albeit also an extremely critical one which I would go on to use frequently after graduating) and I had already heard and internalized all of the usual knocks about online classes and their perceived stigma. But, in spite of my uncertainty about the whole idea of online classes, I decided to give it a shot. Online or in person, three credits were three credits.

To my surprise, the experience was overwhelmingly positive. Although the material was difficult and the final exam one of the most grueling I endured (four years later, I can still vividly recall the shell-shocked relief I felt while lying, sweat-soaked, on my office floor after submitting my exam and putting on my victory soundtrack), I really did learn and retain a great deal of new knowledge and even came to enjoy and appreciate the subject.

But why and how did this happen? Conventional wisdom indicates that online classes, although cheaper to run and more portable, can’t entirely replicate the educational benefits of live classroom teaching. I don’t dispute the value of in-person classes but I would, however, contend that many of the perceived drawbacks of online classes are mitigated by the specific characteristics of graduate study to the point that graduate students would benefit from having more online options.

One concern associated with online classes is students’ ability to stay motivated. Without set class meeting times or a professor looking over her shoulder, can the typical online student really see the course through? Online classes’ relatively lower retention rates would suggest not. But what about the typical online graduate student? Grad students are already self-motivated enough to be in grad school, for goodness’ sake! Anyone willing to sacrifice devote multiple years of their young lives to perfecting their mastery of oft-obscure, complex subfields surely has the necessary self-motivation, discipline, and maturity to tackle online coursework.

Another criticism of online classes that I consider a non-starter when applied to graduate students is the suggestion that they encourage isolation. Even setting aside the idea that all graduate students are accustomed to dealing with solitude, I would argue being physically untethered from your classmates is more likely to help grad students than hurt them. Yes, even a curmudgeon like me can see the benefit of real-time, face-to-face, live classroom discussion, but grad students lead busy, fragmented lives - research, jobs, kids, you name it. I and several of my online classmates were completing internships simultaneously with our online class and some folks were hundreds or even thousands of miles from our brick-and-mortar institution. The online course, without a set physical location or meeting time, allowed us to take advantage of as much of the curriculum as possible and as many professional opportunities as possible. Taken further, this flexibility is the whole idea behind online-only programs. Additionally, an engaging teacher or well-designed assignments can do a lot to increase the opportunities for interaction between online classmates and instructors.

Finally, online classes might be easily dismissed as too limited by available technology - some material can’t be conveyed by video lectures and message board discussion, students can’t receive timely feedback, etc. Again, I don’t think this concern is all that applicable in the context of graduate study. A typical graduate humanities seminar, for example, involves a lot of reading, a lot of reflecting on said reading, and a lot of writing your reflections in various forms - three things that can occur in a digital space as readily as in a real space. Explicit quotas for discussion posts (to ensure lively repartee online) might strike graduate students as juvenile, but the instructor’s implicit expectation for student participation already exists in every graduate course, even if not quantified by the syllabus. While some coursework, like clinical skills classes, might never be replicated online, classes devoted to a field’s literature (with which grad programs are replete) are logistically simple enough to transfer to an online environment.

As the usual hand-wringing about online classes is less relevant to graduate students, graduate programs and faculty should consider giving their students the benefit of increased time management flexibility by offering more online course options where appropriate in the curriculum. Online classes can be administered with the usual materials and rigor while also allowing grad students the control over their schedules necessary to maximize research, professional development, and other key opportunities for scholarly growth.

Did you take an online class as a graduate student? What did you like? What didn’t work? Would you take more online classes if they were available? Let us know in the comments!

[Image by Flickr user zhengk9999. Used under Creative Commons licensing.]


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