As a graduate of a competitive U.S. university, I didn’t take online learning seriously. Sitting in front of a computer couldn’t compare with my four-year liberal arts experience collaborating with peers and debating with professors.

However, now nearing completion of my Master of Science in Global and International Education through Drexel University, I am a convert. The professional growth, flexibility and global student body cannot be replicated in a traditional classroom.

Experiences like mine are becoming more common. While once snickered at, online learning is becoming a mainstream choice for students. Forty-six percent of recent U.S. college graduates have taken a course online, and 65 percent of U.S. higher education institutions offer courses entirely over the Internet. Online education graduate programs are numerous and growing. For those in the field of education (or who hope to be), these programs offer an opportunity to increase academic credentials while holding down a job.

Online programs are those in which all content is delivered via the Internet with no required in-person meetings. Workloads vary by program. Part-time courses should require a minimum of six to eight hours per week per course while full-time students may dedicate a minimum of 20 hours per week to the program. Assignments vary, but can include live class time, discussion boards, papers, group projects, presentations and tests. Admissions criteria as well as credit and course requirements for graduation vary by program.

Reasons to pursue online education include improved teaching skills, a higher salary and wider opportunities within education. Ian Roth, a freelance English teacher in Nagoya and graduate of Drexel’s Global and International program, says, “In the future I hope to work as a teacher of international relations or sociology. At the moment English is the convenient option as it is for so many foreigners here.”

Because the program is a Master of Science, the interdisciplinary coursework includes economics, government, anthropology and sociology.

Another advantage is increased market value. Matthew Jellick, an English teacher based in South Korea and graduate of the University of Southern California’s TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) program says that since graduating, he has had job offers domestically and internationally.

“This master’s has opened up doors and opportunities to teach at the level I want to teach and in the location I wanted to teach. So I have no problem turning down offers,” he says.

The greatest advantage of online learning may be its flexibility. Online programs allow students to balance full-time work schedules and household responsibilities with learning from any location in the world. They can move, have children or start a new job, and the online learning can continue. Students can also opt to take terms off when schedules get too hectic. In today’s increasingly demanding world, taking several years away from employment to pursue a brick-and-mortar education is a luxury many adults cannot afford.

One positive aspect of online learning that cannot be replicated in a traditional classroom setting is the global community created within the program. Jellick had classmates based in China, Japan, South Korea, Germany, Brazil, Mexico, the United States, Canada, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. Such exposure to people from diverse backgrounds can strengthen a person’s effectiveness as a teacher.

“English is worldwide,” Jellick says. “It varies in its importance and how it’s being taught. The way I teach to Korean students is certainly different than the way someone teaches English to a Latin American migrant in Los Angeles. And that’s important to realize.”

Joanne Elliot, a fourth-grade teacher at Nishimachi International School in Tokyo and current student of Deakin University of Australia, believes a significant advantage of online learning is becoming an expert in using various technology platforms that can be employed in her classroom.

“Online learning helps me think about how my students learn,” Elliot says.

Similarly, Jellick says, “By taking a program online, you’re inadvertently learning online technological advances to teach your students too, rather than learning out of a textbook.”

Although textbooks provide an easy-to-follow lesson plan, they can become quickly outdated and do not allow for more individualized instruction. Online master’s students become equipped with the skills to customize instruction with the latest pedagogical research.

However, online learning is not for everyone. According to a 2012 Babson Survey Research Group report, 90 percent of academic leaders at U.S. institutions of higher education believe students need more discipline to succeed in online courses. Such programs require students to stay organized and manage their own schedules. Typically, terms are compact at 10 weeks long and students cannot recover if they fall behind.

Another potential drawback is employer perception of online degrees. Forty percent of academic leaders at U.S. colleges fear lack of acceptance by employers. Samuel Bowen, a freelance English teacher based in Osaka and a Drexel student, shares this sentiment.

“Japan is behind in its online learning, and it is not looked at as academic at all,” he says. “They don’t understand it.”

However, most online programs today do not discriminate between brick-and-mortar and online learning on diplomas — an important consideration for some.

A possible disadvantage upon completion of an online master’s can be a lack of connections for those that are not proactive communicators.

“Trying to get into Ph.D. programs and some job applications require recommendations from professors,” Roth says. “I think it’s a little more difficult to get the same level of connection with the teacher if you don’t see them regularly.”

Bowen suggests cultivating and investing in relationships with professors at the start of each term and maintaining communication through subsequent terms.

Overall, online graduates seem pleased with their learning outcomes.

“During the program I felt I was a great teacher, a great student and a great person,” Jellick says.

Linwood Bishop, an English teacher who was promoted to his school’s headmaster after completion of the USC TESOL program, agrees.

“I don’t think I would ever go back to brick-and-mortar learning. The program has made me into a different person. It has opened up opportunities for me that I never even imagined.”

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