Earning your master’s fully online or in-person - What’s best for you?

Going back to school to earn a master's degree is no small decision, and besides selecting your program, a critical question to ask yourself is whether a fully online or in-person program is right for you.

As the term "in-person program" implies, it usually happens on-campus between educators and students in the same place and at the same time. On the other hand, online programs are delivered through technology-enabled forms synchronously or asynchronously (we will later discuss these categories).

Some universities also use a "hybrid program" approach that combines in-person and online classes. The hybrid modality is becoming increasingly popular, as it saves precious in-person class time for in-depth, analytical discussions while the more routine learning of core material is shifted online.

Both instruction options [in-person and online] have pros and cons, and the format you choose to earn your graduate degree has to reflect your priorities and goals.

Some of the aspects to analyze are:

  1. Your schedule
  2. Personal characteristics
  3. Expectations as a student
  4. The university you choose
  5. The different categories of online instruction
  6. Career goals

Your schedule

Modern life doesn't give us the chance to wear only one hat; thus, many people start their graduate studies while keeping their full-time job or family responsibilities.

Perhaps the only chance you have available to attend classes is when the in-person program you are interested in is not offered. If your schedule is very hectic or unpredictable, consider an online program that gives you the flexibility to study at your own pace and time and from any location around the world.

On the other hand, if you can commit to a clearly defined class schedule, the recommendation would be investing that time to attend an in-person program.

Personal Characteristics

We all have personal characteristics that define the best way we understand and process information.

Some people need the structure and commitment of attending class at a designated date and time. It keeps them on track making sure they don't fall behind. If you’re that type of individual, you'll probably benefit from an in-person program.

Other people might quickly lose focus in an environment where they need to be paying attention to a screen for several hours. With virtual classroom systems that give the option to mute the microphone or turn off the camera, students need to have the determination, self-discipline, and motivation to stay engaged with their professors and peers during each class through the entire program. If you have no issues focusing and staying engaged for long hours in front of a screen, then online education is a viable option for you.

Also, ask yourself how comfortable you feel using new technology to participate in case studies, discussions, and group projects. As an online learner, you will have to embrace digital communications and the technology that enables them.

Expectations as a student

Some people choose to earn a master's degree not only for the knowledge they'll acquire but also for the life-changing experience they expect to have as a graduate student.

In-person programs allow engaging with peers face-to-face and study for exams in groups. Think about those group projects and the magical bond built with classmates when everyone devours a pizza or tells funny stories to re-energize after hours of mental work.

If you want to build stronger connections with your professors and classmates and have unforgettable memories from your grad school years, then a program with an in-person component is the way to go.

The institution

Not all institutions adopted online education for the same reasons. Some were pioneers and, back in the late '90s, decided to dedicate their time and resources to expand this new instruction format. Other less innovative universities, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, had no other choice than to shift their classes online.

Institutions that have long been in the “online education arena" know how to deliver a flexible yet engaging and rigorous program that mirrors their on-campus counterparts. They have been refining for decades the structure of online education to make it more student-friendly and effective. If you are leaning towards earning your master's degree online, do your due diligence and research about the university's online instruction experience.  

Some institutions also offer a "lighter" curriculum or assign less experienced faculty to their online programs. Respectable universities will ensure that the curriculum and faculty are the best, no matter the instruction format, because they want you to learn as much online as you would have in person.

Established universities also tend to have beautiful campuses and provide students access to their facilities and resources, including libraries, clubs and organizations, advisors, career development services, etc. Usually, it is easier to benefit from all these resources if a student joins an on-campus program, however institutions renowned for the online education history also offer access to all these benefits to those who are thousands of miles away.

Your location

Finding the right program with so many options and unique programs is not an easy task. It might be the case that the one that suits your needs is hundreds or even thousands of miles away. Long gone are the days when geography was an obstacle to advance your education.

Technology has bridged gaps for education as well. So if you live in New York and find that the university that offers the online MBA you like is located in Florida, the answer we have for you is: go for it! Some fully-online programs even offer optional residencies that give the opportunity to students to travel to their institution’s city for only a short period of time and discover new places and people.

No matter your location, a critical component for a successful online learning experience is the use of reliable hardware (computer, mobile devices, etc.) and fast internet. If these requirements cannot be met, looking for local institutions might be the best plan.

The different categories of online instruction

In the realm of online education, there are two major categories: synchronous and asynchronous online classes.

To describe a synchronous online class format, imagine a synchronized swim team moving together harmoniously. Synchronous online classes have professors and students join the class together at a designated date and time. The students complete assignments and projects together, moving through the syllabus' curriculum schedule simultaneously.

This learning environment allows live interactions and immediate responses to questions. On the other hand, it brings some challenges for students in different time zones. For example, if a student in India needs to join a class that starts at 5:00 PM in Miami, he would be connecting very late at night, which can create all types of issues from lack of focus to inability to be functional the next day at work due to lack of sleep.

Asynchronous online classes do not require the presence of students and professors at the same date and time. Students go through materials, lectures, tests, and assignments without a fixed meeting schedule at their own pace while still respecting some deadlines. The asynchronous approach generally offers more schedule flexibility than the synchronous one, but it also creates a more isolated learning experience.

When choosing an online program, inquire about the class schedule and the level of interaction you will have with professors and students. Not all fully-online programs are created equal, and understanding these details before committing to a plan can save you some future disappointments.

Career goals

There are many reasons to earn a master's degree, but one of the most important ones is to advance your education and achieve your career goals. Career goals might be different for each person. For example, some students might be starting their professional lives, others switching to a new career path, yet others are assuming new leadership roles.

If the most important goal for you is to earn your degree to get that promotion at work, you can choose a fully-online or on-campus program since both will give you the accreditation and skills you are looking for.

If your career goals involve leadership skills development or expansion of your professional network, then the odds are that an on-campus program will suit you best. Through in-person communication, you can gather information from body language, voice, facial expression, and many other details that can be lost through a camera lens or video. Nothing beats the "energy" of in-person communication; it is the richest, most complete form of interaction two people can have.

Final remarks

As you can see, there are many elements to consider when choosing the education format to earn your master's degree. Whether you choose a fully-online program, an in-person one, or something in between, your ultimate goal should be acquiring the knowledge and skills that empower you to achieve your personal and professional success.

About the Author:

Cristina Lopez Yakimenko is a marketer and software engineer with experience in the tourism and education industries. She earned a Bachelor’s in Computer Engineering at the Technological University of Havana (CUJAE) and a Master of Science in Marketing from Florida International University. Currently, she focuses on impacting business growth and success through integrated marketing strategies that involve art, data, technology, and science.

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