• GradHacker

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

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How I Learned to Flourish in an Online Grad Program

Advice for making the most of the online degree experience.

November 28, 2016
 

Katie Kapro holds her MFA in nonfiction writing from Lesley University. When not at her writing desk, she can usually be found tromping in the foothills behind her home. Connect on Twitter @kapro101.

It only took two years for the town of Cambridge, MA to lure me into the romance of higher education. I’d moved there for a job just out of college; the siren’s song of the working world was just too appealing to ignore. I wanted to be a full-fledged member of society. Farewell studentdom.

I had arrived, and I would earn my way in the world.

But after two years and two jobs, the romantic brick walkways of Harvard, Radcliffe, MIT, and Lesley did what they do best: they charmed me into academia.

I’d walk through Harvard Square on my way to work and look upon the textbook-laden students with envy. I wanted a study session I had to rush off to. I wanted exclusive access to a world-class library. I wanted my brain to churn with new information and insights. I wanted to be part of a community of intellectuals.

Perhaps, if I worked hard enough on my craft, I could be the next Jhumpa Lahiri, the Pulitzer Prize winner who once lived in my neighborhood.

Since I’d already made the plunge into the real world, there were logistics that had to be accounted for. I had to pay rent, buy groceries, and continue chipping away at my college loans. I couldn’t afford to quit my job and flit off to an isolated graduate program somewhere in the woods.

Not only could I not afford to quit my job; I didn’t want to quit my job. I wanted to continue living a full life in the working world and gain experience that would not only make me more hirable in the future, but also give me something to write about. Life’s too short to toil away in one’s own head for too long.

I applied to a low-residency MFA program, a primarily online program that would allow me to balance work and life. With college degrees becoming the new high school equivalent, students the world over are beginning to shun and struggle with programs that separate them from their daily lives.

Online education is a taste of the real world. It is career training.

The best employees are able to constantly absorb new information and integrate it into their workflow, just as good artists know how to commit themselves to their art and still find a way to hold down a job. Successful people can’t take a hiatus from life every time they need to learn a new skill.

Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, was one of the first to recognize this trend and cater university programs to the diverse lives of degree seekers. The model, which he calls the “New American University,” focuses on the confluence of academic excellence, demographic inclusiveness, and maximum social impact. This model manifests itself in the form of inexpensive, accessible online education.

When I first started my MFA program, I harbored deep concerns that I lacked the discipline and self-motivation to succeed. I’ve always been one who benefits from shared community — whether to bounce ideas off of or just to gripe — and the idea of not having traditional classmates worried me.

It hasn’t been a problem at all. It simply takes a more mature approach than just showing up to a class in pjs and bonding with whomever sits nearby.

Most graduate students, savvy humans that they are, are more than capable and up to the challenge of flourishing in an online program. Learning how to be successful in online classes just takes a bit of preparation.

1. Set a schedule

One of the most valuable pieces of advice I received at the beginning of my program was to set a clear schedule for my study time. It helps structure the day for the people around us — my roommates know that I won’t hang out between the hours of 6:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. — and it also helps to keep an internal rhythm by adding urgency to one’s work. (I have three hours to finish this chapter. No procrastinating. Get it done!)

There are two major misconceptions about study routines that new students have to get over before they’re really able to dedicate themselves to a schedule: first, that work has to happen in large blocks of time, and second, that the only way to work is when motivation strikes.

If these unhelpful ideas are not addressed, usually they just rear up later as procrastination and - we’ve all felt it - dread.

Accepting the idea of a schedule — in whatever form it may take, even if it’s committing to an hour here and there throughout the day — is especially important in an online program. There’s no one forcing you to go to class between 8am-4pm, so an online student really has to figure out when the reading and writing will get tackled, otherwise it simply won’t. And there goes the grade.

2. Protect your sleep

It’s all too easy to let school seep into time that should really be dedicated to other things. Like resting up for the next day. It’s not healthy, for example, to be up working on the computer late at night. Not only are you not sleeping in the moment, but the blue-toned light emitted by our wonderful technologies has a knack for messing with our circadian rhythms and depriving us of precious sleep.

We are just now seeing innovations like the Night Shift feature on the iPhone that will help ease the problem of blue light disruption. Even though the innovations are awesome, the best way to protect one’s sleep will always be simply to have regular sleep hours and not get sucked into the stereotype of the exhausted grad student.

When the computer is your educational ally, like it is for an online student, it’s easy to slip into the notion that working in front of a screen late into the night is healthy, that it’s best for getting work accomplished, but in reality it’s just a symptom that you haven’t yet figured out how to balance life and school in a sustainable way.

We all have to stay up late studying every once in awhile, but it doesn’t have to be the norm.

3. Get comfortable with technology

The computer is a crucial part of an online education - obviously! It’s only natural that we feel a certain amount of mild trepidation when confronted with new technologies and platforms.

Do yourself a favor: be clumsy. Poke around in the new platform as soon as it’s accessible and ask all the stupid questions that arise.

Familiarizing oneself with the technologies early on can save a whole lot of strife later. If your school uses Blackboard, for example, it’s best to figure out how to submit an assignment before the 12 a.m. deadline. Online platforms have bugs, it’s just the way it is, and it’s much better to be able to outwit them than lose out to them.

In one online course, every time I submitted an essay through the online platform, I’d send the professor a little note letting her know it had been sent. More than once, she hadn’t received it for one reason or another and I was able to catch the error before it came back to bite me. It’s always best to find out the quirks of a platform before your grade depends on it.

4. Create a study space

I can’t overemphasize the value of having a dedicated study space. Whether it’s a nook in the library, a desk in a home office, or a special chair, having a dedicated space for work will help prime your mind for concentration.

The form of my study space jumped around at first - from a makeshift floor desk to a writing space squeezed into the nook in the attic - before I finally realized I’m just not a desk person. I eventually set up two chairs in front of the bay windows in my bedroom - one chair for sitting, the other for feeting - and my productivity went through the roof. In my case, comfort opened the floodgates for creativity.

In short: ambiance matters.

For what it’s worth, online instructors are taking the matter of ambiance seriously as well. In her post “Designing a Digital Classroom,” doctoral candidate Heather VanMouwerik discusses how to make an online course just as engaging as an offline one.

5. Immerse yourself

Immersing oneself in a topic of study takes many forms. It’s easy to forget that online coursework is a living, breathing entity. Buying journals and periodicals that discuss the subject is a useful way to be involved in the conversation beyond one’s own computer.

In addition, building community outside of coursework is a great way to deepen a student’s real-world education. A student in a writing program can participate in a weekly writing group. Someone in an education program can join a teaching meet-up. Just because online programs do not always have industry connections built into them doesn’t mean that they’re not easily accessible. All a student has to do is open the front door and seek them out.

In closing, an online graduate education has the benefit of being accessible to adults with full, active lives. The schedule is spacious enough to give students with kids and professionals the chance to succeed and actually earn the degree.

It is a taste of the real world. It is career training.

The best employees are able to constantly absorb new information and integrate it into their workflow, just as good artists know how to commit themselves to their art and still find a way to hold down a job. Successful people can’t take a hiatus from life every time they need to learn a new skill.

Online education helps us learn to expand ourselves beyond what we ever thought possible, and continue living our lives while we do it.

Are you enrolled in an online graduate program? How do you find community? Have any tips for organizing your semester? Please share in the comments!

[Feature image from Pexels.com and used under the Creative Commons license]

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