Apparently, lots of people are wondering whether or not to pursue a master’s degree in English. Three of my posts, Why Did I Get a Master’s Degree in English?, Five Bad Reasons to Earn a Master’s Degree in English, and Five Good Reasons to Earn a Master’s Degree in English have garnered quite a bit of attention. Several great comments and follow-up emails from readers. Of those questions, one that keeps coming up is on the merit and viability of an online master’s in English.
I have to admit upfront that I’m first and foremost a proponent of the face-to-face classroom–especially when it comes to writing and communication classes. I just have yet to find a digital environment that compares to the value one receives from a good classroom discussion or from focused one-on-one feedback from a teacher.
That being said, I do believe there is potential value in online learning and collaborative digital environments. I know I have a lot to learn about online classes, and especially about programs like that of the online master’s in English. Thus, based on the large number of requests for details and advice about these programs, combined with my own desire to learn, I’ve decided to write a post about the pros and cons of earning an online master’s in English.
Recognizing the Reality of an Online Master’s in English
I don’t claim to be an expert in online learning or on graduate education, though I do know a little something about both. I want to make clear that this post is a discussion of my experiences and the research I’ve conducted and it represents essentially what amounts to my opinion regarding the online master’s in English. But, then again, the previous posts were written the same way and everyone seems to like them and find value in them, so here we go.
First of all, regardless of whether the degree is being earned in person or online, both the learner and the teacher must recognize the limitations of the mode and adapt teaching and learning styles so as to maximize the experience. In my opinion, this is even more important with relation to the online master’s degree in English because the old adage “you get out of it what you put into it” is more relevant here than anywhere else.
If you are considering earning an online master’s in English, recognize that you will almost certainly have the opportunity to fake your way through some of your courses. If you’re assigned to read a novel and write a discussion board post about it, everyone knows you could probably read 50 pages and BS your way through the assignment without getting caught. This old trick, of course, isn’t quite as easy when you’re in the middle of a class discussion and the professor is firing off questions.
I really think that’s about all I need to say about that topic. Will you have more chances to slack your way through an online master’s in English as opposed to a face to face one? Yes. Yes, you will. But does that mean this should be a deciding factor in whether or not to pursue the degree online? Well, I hope not, but it probably is for some.
Here’s the deal. With a degree in a more concrete field, you might have less opportunity to eke it out with minimal effort. Either your answers are right or wrong. Either you learned it or you didn’t. But with a humanities degree, when you go into it trying to cut as many corners as possible, you are only cheating yourself. After all, what good is a degree in literature if you can’t intelligently discuss literature?
My point is this: recognize your intentions in earning this online master’s in English. Why do you want to do it? How likely are you to put in the time required to actually benefit intellectually from the degree? In many ways, the online master’s in English is more difficult than a face-to-face one because you will be required to hold yourself to a very high standard, rather than being able to count on someone else to keep you accountable. This is the reality of an online master’s in English, or in any other humanities field for that matter. You undoubtedly will get no more out of it than you are willing to put into it.
My Personal Experience With Online Graduate English Courses
Hybrid Courses: While I was working on my master’s degree in English, I had a chance to take a course known as a hybrid course, which meant that every other week we met in person. The opposite week we met online. I actually found this to be a pretty useful strategy for a graduate course. During our online week, we all started some kind of open thread on the discussion board that we took up as a class during the following week while meeting in person.
This model was actually pretty solid because it provided those of us who were working professionals with a bit of autonomy and self-guided learning, but it also balanced that with our face-to-face discussion during which we developed our critical thinking and intellectual communication skills. Not to mention the fact that I learned so much from classmates by listening to their perspectives, just like in any other graduate level traditional course.
All Online Courses: I also had a chance to take one class that was taught entirely online. I’m just going to be honest with you–this class was probably the least useful of all the classes I took in graduate school. And it had nothing to do with the teacher or the subject matter. It was an American Realism course and we read some great texts. The professor was excellent and her facilitation of the course could not be faulted. In fact, I really liked the professor and I wanted to do my best in her course.
The fact of the matter, though, is it was just impossible to reach the level of interaction that I could get in a face-to-face class. We utilized the discussion forums multiple times each week, which was about the only opportunity we really had to connect with each other. But this is what it comes down to: I didn’t read all of my classmates discussion board posts because I didn’t have to. I basically read one or two so I could craft a reasonable response and then I made that response and logged out.
I hate to say this, but part of the reason school–yes, even graduate school–works is because we are held accountable by our professors and our classmates. In a face-to-face classroom, if you don’t do the assignment, you face public shame and embarrassment. That alone is a motivating factor. It’s one of those things where you don’t particularly like it at the time, but you’re glad it happened once it’s all over.
In the end, it seems crazy to reduce it all to such a simple metric, but the social pressure that exists in a traditional graduate program gives it the edge over an online master’s in English, in my opinion.
Fine, But Should I Get an Online Master’s in English?
Well, I guess that comes down to you. Why are you thinking about pursuing the online master’s in English? What is your goal?
If you truly want to learn as much as possible about writing and literature, the online degree is probably not for you. You’ll miss the discussion and interaction and peer learning when you leave the classroom. Those are things that technology just hasn’t yet been able to mimic.
If, on the other hand, your goal is to gain a credential or to just casually improve your knowledge and writing ability, then an online master’s in English might just be for you. Remember, though, that you will always get out what you put in. The online degree requires you to be very self-motivated and that you hold yourself to the same high standard to which you would be held on a traditional campus.
Like I said, I’m not an expert on this subject, so I’d like to to hear from anyone who has earned an online master’s in English. How did it work for you? What would you recommend to those who are considering it?
For more information, check out the ebook Should I Get a Master’s Degree in English? from Order of Education Press or Buy it Now.