For many students, one of the biggest draws of online education is the ability to study and participate in class from anywhere and at any time. Ph.D. candidates are able to access their course materials before or after work, read online during a commute, or respond to class discussions continuously throughout the day. This is a new development in higher education and is quite different from the traditional, on-campus classroom model. People no longer have to take time off from their jobs to earn a doctorate. The flexibility of an online degree can often provide students with the ability to not only advance their careers, but reorient and expand them without interruption. Amanda Jacobs, a doctoral candidate at Capella University working in education psychology with an emphasis in music and the arts, says that the flexible and self-determined learning environment afforded by online education has been a huge benefit to her career.
“I had wanted to pursue a Ph.D. ever since I completed my master's,” said Jacobs, “but my life and my career always took me in a different direction. My master's was in music education, and I thought I wanted to go into chamber music. But when I got settled, I started composing music for musical theater, and I absolutely loved it.” She is currently a working playwright and producer and has decided to combine her love of the performing arts with her passion for education by studying arts education from a psychological perspective.
Jacobs travels frequently between the West and East coasts and needed a degree program that would allow her to keep that momentum. “I looked into brick-and-mortar universities and putting my life on hold for two years, but they were less open to the idea that with my background I could actually put my life on hold and do my degree,” she said. “Capella was more flexible.”
And, while the more open admissions policies of online schools can be cause for hesitation among students looking into doctoral programs, Jacobs said that “once you get into the heart of it, you have to be able to write and do the work” and that the program has been the most intense she has ever experienced.
Like in many online programs, all doctoral students at Capella begin with a mandatory class that offers instructions on navigating course boards, databases and the virtual community. Walden University, which also has a well-established doctoral program, provides an initial Student Readiness Orientation to all graduate and undergraduate online students. The program guides them through all aspects of the online experience, including communication via chat, assignment submission and collaboration via email. The University of Phoenix offers a similar introduction to its doctoral students.
At Capella in particular, students are given questions or discussion prompts to practice written communication via discussion boards. “You will meet people in that first course who you know should not be there,” said Jacobs, “but once you get into your first real class, you see people have been weeded out and you are left with students who can write and support their arguments, and you support yours, and there is highly educated discussion.”
A major component of the doctoral course work at Capella is discussion based. Posting on discussion boards is a required part of class, and, unlike undergraduate work in online programs, students in the psychology doctoral program must write posts in the form of APA (American Psychological Association) essays and support their statements with peer-reviewed journal sources. The exact method of class communication varies among Ph.D. programs, but many emphasize the sharing of well-supported, written arguments as a fundamental part of their course work. For instance, according to the Benedictine University online Ed.D. program website, “course work is topical in nature, interdisciplinary in focus and grounded in an inquiry-driven methodology characterized by critical thinking, analysis and self-reflection.” Frequent collaboration with classmates and communication with professors via online discussion forums is one of the basic elements of the learning, the site says.
Each doctoral course at Capella is 10 weeks long and the pace is rigorous. Jacobs is currently taking three classes for which she must write six discussion essays each week and read at least 200 pages of literature, on top of completing the regular class assignments. “People who think that an online degree is an easy thing are kidding themselves,” said Jacobs. “It's more intense than being in a traditional college.” Students cannot hide; they have to participate, she said. Technically, if a student does not submit an essay for discussion, he or she is not counted as being in class. “APA becomes second nature,” she said. “You just start doing it. My writing has improved like you would not believe.”
Jacobs is now in the process of producing a show in New York, but is living on the West Coast. She also travels to Seattle three days a week with her college-age daughter. “So I read [for class] all the time when I travel,” said Jacobs. “You just find ways to cope and take every minute you can to read. I don't like to read from a Kindle because I like to highlight and physically feel the pages. I usually cut up my textbooks and print out journal articles. I rip a chapter out so I'm not carrying a five-pound book around,” she said.
Jacobs is planning her dissertation, which will be a quantitative study on the creation and benefits of lullaby programs for at-risk mothers and their children. “I find that one of my concerns as a teacher in the classroom is a lack of respect for the arts,” said Jacobs, adding that according to studies as far back as Bloom's Taxonomy, the highest form of cognitive thinking is evaluation and creativity. In pursuing a doctorate, Jacobs said, “I want to be able to articulate and make a case for the arts from a scientific perspective.”
“I have never had such intense courses,” Jacobs said, “and I've loved it because I'm responsible for what I've learned and what I know. I'm not taking notes; I'm reading and then answering questions along with people who have read the same stuff. I see it coming out in everything I do.”
In addition to the quality of the education, Jacobs is impressed with the “unbelievable” system of learner support she has received in her online doctoral program. “They want you to succeed,” she said. “In all of my schooling, in all of my years, this is the most supportive environment. And I've been to a lot of schools.”