For many people, studying for a graduate degree has moved from the classroom to the chat room.
For baby boomers interested in getting an advanced degree, the astronomical growth in online graduate programs has made it more practical – though no less expensive – than ever before. The mid-career, 9-to-5er can keep working and earn the certificate that leads to a move up the ladder. For those nearing retirement, the graduate degree becomes a launch pad to an entirely new career. For still others, getting in the graduate program is merely the vehicle to learn more, think more deeply about things that interest them.
A look at two programs, the University of Southern Maine and Saint Joseph’s College of Maine in Standish, offers different perspectives of what it’s like to be back in college, if not in a classroom.
At one end of the spectrum are the youngest boomers, who graduated high school in the early 1980s.
Susan Chase of Falmouth began her college career in 1982 after graduating from Falmouth High School, and is just now finishing her bachelor’s degree in communications in USM’s online program. When she graduates in December, she will enter the school’s graduate program in leadership studies.
Chase had closed phase one of her scholastic career in 1985 with a two-year certificate and went out to take a shot at making money as a real estate broker. When the real estate market softened, she went to work for L.L. Bean, the last five of her nine years with Bean working as a training coordinator.
“My end goal is to become an executive coach, working with leaders in business,” Chase said.
At the other end of the age range is James Bodine, a Navy veteran born in 1948 who retired in 2005 after 33 years as a civil service worker for the U.S. Army. He is studying for his master’s of arts degree in pastoral theology at Saint Joseph’s.
Bodine, who lives in Madison, Ala., has been a deacon in the Catholic Church since 2000, working alongside parish priests, serving as a hospital chaplain, performing baptisms, committal services, witnessing marriages outside of mass and presiding at vigils.
Since becoming a deacon, he said, “I wanted to go back and pursue my theology studies, so once I retired I enrolled in about 2008.”
Bodine’s graduate study is an integral part of, but incidental, to his work in the church.
“I’m doing it for me. It’s my way of trying to stave off Alzheimer’s. I’ve always enjoyed learning,” he said.
The technology of online learning frees people to make their own schedules and do the course work when they can. The challenge for administrators is to fill the void of isolation that exists for students sitting alone at a computer trying to learn difficult subjects.
“Most adults coming back to school want to be interacting,” said Tara Coste, the director of Leadership Studies on the Lewiston-Auburn Campus of USM. “The sense of community is really important, particularly in graduate school because it’s hard. It’s important to have that support system.”
The USM program uses video conferencing technology to create virtual classrooms where students can show up for a televised discussion, as well as active chat rooms for each course where topics are hashed out as the instructor observes and comments when the occasion arises.
The online learning system keeps track of student time on line and instructors are available by email for individual questions.
But chat rooms and video conferencing do not a classroom make.
“I do miss attending class because that is part of the whole school experience, but it works for me,” said Kimberly Waite of Benton, who got her education degree from the University of Maine at Augusta in 2009. She now is studying for her master’s in education in the Saint Joseph’s online program.
Born in 1958, Waite has two grown children and has worked in the vocational office of the Waterville public school system for 24 years. She also teaches adult education classes in Waterville.
“It’s a lot of work, it’s self-paced, which is nice because if you have something going on you can wait to the next day to do it. I think most of the classes are manageable,” Waite said.
Her goal is to be a classroom teacher. “Ever since I was a little girl I had a dream of teaching,” she said.
She will finish her degree in February with a conditional teaching certificate. The challenge ahead of her is managing to complete the student teaching necessary for certification, which will be difficult with a full-time job.
She doesn’t regret the time spent in the online classroom, but she might have done it differently if she had it do all over.
“I would say go to college right after school if you can, because it is a harder road if you have family and have to work,” she said.
Lisa Hird of Rehoboth, Mass., says online learning is just a lot of work, period.
“It’s a lot more work to do online classes,” said Hird, who is studying for her master’s degree in nursing administration at St. Joe’s. “You have to be very, very organized.”
Hird manages the cardiac catheter lab at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston. She’s taking the graduate course “because I needed the skills for my position.”
Born in 1958, she graduated from Archbishop Sheen High School in Dartmouth, Mass., and got her undergraduate degree from UMass Dartmouth in 1998. She began the master’s degree program in 2009.
Hird is the mother of three and the youngest, 17, is still at home.
The course work is primarily reading and writing papers.
“I have an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening that I usually do my reading and then papers I do on the weekends,” Hird said.
“The workload is very heavy because they have no other way of evaluating you,” she said. “They’re not listening to your thought process.”
E. Michael Brady, a professor of adult and higher education at USM and also a senior research fellow at USM’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, said online instructors pay close attention to who is online and how often they log in.
They also pay attention to what is being said in the discussion rooms in much the same way as a classroom teacher.
Brady now teaches exclusively online, adding that all of his students are post-graduates, some of whom graduated from college as many as 25 years ago.
Online learning is more difficult for some than for others, he said. The students who long for the immediate feedback of a classroom setting can get frustrated with the slower reaction times in online discussion rooms.
“The face-to-face environment favors extroverts,” Brady said. “Talking is promoted” in the classroom and “having fast response times is productive.”
Introverts often are left out. But in the online setting, “I do think we tilted the balance in favor of the introvert,” Brady said.
There is time to reflect and think about an answer before posting it to the discussion board.
“The introverts can think a little while, maybe take a walk,” he said. Then they can post a response to a discussion. “Sunday night is a good time for people to post.”
The students have control of the forum, unlike traditional classrooms, where, as Tara Coste described it, “the sage on stage” is in charge.
“There’s constant discussion going on,” Coste said, adding later, “So it’s really a partnership between us and the students.”
Richard Garcia of New Gloucester, a native of Portland, commutes 45 minutes each way to his job in Manchester, next door to Augusta, and is nearing the end of his two-year course of study for a master’s in accounting at St. Joe’s. When he graduates in October, he begins a prep course for the exam to become a certified public accountant.
“My goal is to be a partner in a small firm in five years,” he said.
When he started the course, he had a large chunk of life experience behind him.
On graduation from St. Joe’s in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in accounting, he found a job as a footwear buyer, which he did for 12 years. “I really enjoyed it,” he said.
Then he started a business, a small fitness center, and ran that for nine years before the “big-box” fitness centers ended it.
“I saw the writing on the wall and looked ahead to the kids’ college and made a decision back in 2011 that I was going to become an accountant because that’s what I want to do.”
He and his family struggle with the complexities and frustrations of life wherein one of the working parent is in school, in a graduate program. Like most families where both parents work and the kids are in school, the heavy lifting required to complete a graduate degree comes on weekends.
Garcia said he spends as much as two hours a night working on the course, and from four to eight hours on weekends.
“The instructor gives us two questions each week,” Garcia said.
Students answer the questions in the online forum and, over the course of a week, there is a dialogue about the answers.
Garcia’s instructor in his current class requires three posts from each student, and posts can’t be on consecutive days.
“Wednesday, Friday and Sunday would be your minimum,” he said “But they always like you to dialogue more than the minimum of three days.”
He concedes that it “is a stretch” for everyone in the family to accommodate his schedule. His wife, who has been a computer programmer at LL Bean for 26 years, feels the load as much as he does.
“I have to do something (for school) and she wants to do something else,” he said.
The couple has two children, a son, 15, and a daughter, 17.
To make it work, you have to plan your life carefully and try to balance work and family time, Garcia said. “But it’s doable. If you plan it right.”
Garcia quickly notes that his family is fully behind the effort. Speaking of his wife, he said: “She’s glad I’m doing it but she’ll be glad when it’s over, too.”
Rik O’Neal is a freelance writer and filmmaker who lives in Gorham.
Rick Garcia works a day job has an accountant, but he and his family are making the sacrifices that allow him to pursue an on-line Master’s Degree that he hopes will help him better his employment.Rick Garcia works a day job has an accountant, but he and his family are making the sacrifices that allow him to pursue an on-line Master’s Degree that he hopes will help him better his employment.