For many students, one of the largest draws to 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 couldn't be further from the traditional, on-campus classroom model. Candidates no longer have to take time off from a full-time work schedule in order to gain a doctorate. In fact, the flexibility of an online degree can often provide students with the ability to not only advance their careers, but re-orient and expand their career paths altogether while earning a doctoral degree. Amanda Jacobs, a doctoral candidate at Capella University working in education psychology with an emphasis in music and the arts, maintains 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 passion for 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.
All doctoral students at Capella begin their degree programs with a mandatory first course that offers instructions on navigating course boards, classes, databases and the virtual community. This is a feature in many online programs. For example, 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 similarly guides students through all aspects of the online experience, from communication via chat, to assignment submission, to collaboration via email.
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 coursework 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 essays and support their statements with peer-reviewed journal sources. The exact method of class communication most likely varies between Ph.D programs, but other programs also seem to emphasize the sharing of well-supported, written arguments as a fundamental part of coursework. For instance, according to the Benedictine University online Ed.D program website, “coursework is topical in nature, interdisciplinary in focus and grounded in an inquiry-driven methodology characterized by critical thinking, analysis and self-reflection.” The site also cites frequent collaboration with classmates and communication with professors via online discussion forums as one of the basic parts of class.
Each doctoral course at Capella is ten 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 intense 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.” Jacobs said that students cannot hide; they have to participate. Technically, if a student does not submit an essay for discussion, then they are not 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 text books 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, maintaining 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.”
Jacobs said that her experience in an online doctoral program also rests on top of an “unbelievable” system of learner support. “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.”