How does graduate education differ remotely versus in-person?

By Tamala Malerk

Covid-19 forced students and educators to resort to online classroom formats. Many struggled to navigate this new academic world; however, there are currently millions of Americans who are earning college degrees online. My husband is in the Army and we frequently move. During my master’s, I lived in multiple cities in Georgia and Florida. In 2017, I earned my M.A. in History from the University of Memphis, never setting foot in the state of Tennessee. For almost two years, I read monographs, journal articles, had in-depth discussions with classmates, and wrote historiography papers completely online. I am currently enrolled in a doctorate program at the University of South Florida where I completed classes in person but now, I reside in Texas as a Ph.D. candidate.

 If you are working on a degree online, the classes are designed as such, unlike the situation the pandemic has created. There is a common misconception that online classes are easier because you have the internet to assist with your assignments. Conversely, some believe that online classes are harder because they require a lot of self-motivation. Neither one of these statements are inherently true from my experience. Earning a history degree online entailed weekly discussion posts and seminar-like meetings. Classes were typically asynchronous.  I wasn’t held to any schedule, so I could work ahead on my assignments. This flexibility allowed me to take long weekends if I wanted and gave me time to deal with personal matters. The overall level of difficulty of the classes related more with the actual subject and professor rather than how the content was delivered and accessed.

A major difference between online and traditional classes is the interaction and creation of close bonds with your peers. A lot of people form a cohort with the people they go to graduate school with. Doing a degree online makes it difficult to establish close ties with your colleagues. I compensated for this by being involved in various internships and group activities such as yoga; however, my real cohort was my basset hound and family. The networking connections I made were mainly at conferences. We live in a world where it is not just what you know but who you know. Consequently, it is important to think of alternate ways to make connections and build your academic profile.

The best cohort member ever, Otto von Barkmark. He couldn’t help me edit my papers, but he was a great listener when online school got ‘ruff.’

Unlike my online degree, I had many more opportunities in my Ph.D. program to enhance my academic skills and learn what it really was like to be a graduate student. I missed out on some of the graduate school experience and skills during my master’s which carried over to my Ph.D., particularly my tendency to work alone and not take time to focus on the fun that graduate students can have interacting and collaborating with one another. I was able to receive multiple graduate assistantships, which went to those who could be on-campus. I was now contractually obligated to work a certain number of hours per week and hold office hours in the department. Though this position gave me less time to work on my assignments, it exposed me to the rigorousness of graduate school. For example, I would have to balance grading student papers while trying to write my own. From this experience I learned how to differentiate which assignments required more of my time and effort. The skills I gained from participating in a traditional academic setting proved to be more valuable than my online learning experience.

Those who earn their degrees online do so for a variety of reasons. It can be an isolating and demanding endeavor to complete a degree online; however, it permits more freedom. I cannot say that earning my degree online was any better or worse than earning it in-person. Ultimately, I think having academic training through both formats has helped make me a versatile student, worker, and educator. Overall, my online and in-person degrees were different experiences, which both have their advantages and disadvantages. Ultimately, I acquired unique knowledge and skills from both. Choosing online versus traditional formats truly depends on your personal learning style preferences and circumstances, and demonstrating the ability to switch between these different learning formats is a marketable skill.

Guest Contributor: Tamala Malerk is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of South Florida. Her focuses include British Imperialism, Modern Europe, Public History, and Women and Gender. Her dissertation is about a British Gandhian disciple and still does not have a catchy title. In her spare time, she does freelance content writing for websites and, now, humanities blogs. Find her on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/tamala-malerk-m-a-5749b999/ .

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