4 Tips for Surviving Online Grad School

I would say that online education is the way of the future, but that would be a cliche. It would also be false. Online education is the way of the present. Digital media is pervading every aspect of our educational system. Don’t believe me? As all the parents of my local school district who had to buy ear buds for their kids in addition to the usual pencils, washable markers, and glue sticks.

You can get a quality education online, and as we move forward, the stigma attached to that education will diminish. Last week, I finished the coursework for a Master’s degree in literary arts. I studied literary criticism and theory online through Fort Hays State University’s graduate school for the last two and a half years, taking two classes at a time. I still have my literature comprehensive exam to take, but having completed the coursework with a 4.0, I felt it would be a good time to pass on some advice.

1. Don’t pursue an online degree because you lack the time for graduate school. Your schedule can be hectic. It can be erratic. It can’t be full. Even though you are not spending time in an actual classroom, you will spend just as much time, if not more, on your classes. On average, I think I spent around 28 hours a week on my degree. That’s four hours a day, seven days a week. Days when I couldn’t get the work in meant making it up on the weekends. Some weekends, I would seclude myself in the basement and work from morning through evening writing criticism, discussion posts, and reading research.

2. Live by your calendar. You aren’t an undergrad any more. Your instructors will expect a certain level of professionalism in your work and your approach. The fact that you aren’t face-to-face with your instructors means that there isn’t going to be anyone to remind you that you have a 25 page paper due in two weeks. You are going to need to be on top of things, or risk running behind. I would guess that my literature classes had a fifty percent drop rate based on the discussions throughout the semester. Most of those people were swallowed by their own procrastination monsters.

3. Do not procrastinate. Notice how all of these tips are about time? There are 24 hours per day. You are going to need to sleep between six and eight of them. Most people who are in an online program work full-time jobs. Which means you are probably out of commission for at least 14 hours of the day. Remember how I said I spent 28 hours a week working on the degree? That’s another four hours. You can not afford to procrastinate, particularly if you have a family or other commitments that are taking up your time. Liberal arts graduate programs are reading and writing intensive. You will be reading a lot. I usually made time for around 100 pages a day. It’s not always easy reading.

4. Trust yourself. You are going to have to build some confidence. When you are face-to-face with a class or an instructor, you get a lot of immediate and non-verbal feedback. You aren’t going to get it in the online format. You may put something out there and not hear a thing about it for days. You need to have faith that you are producing quality work and get on the next assignment right away. 

If you can manage those four things, you will go a long ways towards surviving, and thriving, in an online program. I don’t think it is for everyone. If you need a lot of external motivation, it’s going to be an uphill struggle. Part of what helped me was the knowledge that I was sacrificing time as a parent and as a writer in order to do this. If I was going to put my career on hold and give up my already scarce time with my child, I was going to be the best damn literary critic in the program.

I had a good experience. I think the program has made me a better writer and has opened a world of academic research possibilities for me. It turns out, I am damn good at analyzing literature. I hope to do more of it in the future. Perhaps, I will even go on to a Ph.D. in the future. For now, however, expect more blog post, more writing, and hopefully more publishing.

Test-Takers Don’t Change the World

NOTE: I am not a resident of Florida. But while these results do not affect me, nor my child, personally, I believe they are symptomatic of  an issue that does.

Recently, the State of Florida noted a significant drop in student test results for their writing basic skills test. The drop was contributed to a communications failure with teachers, and the passing grade was subsequently lowered so that more children passed.

Apparently, the percentage of passers dropped from 81 percent to just 27 percent because teachers did not know how the test would be scored. Thus, becoming the basis for the rant you are about to read.

For years, teachers have been encouraged to teach to the test. Standardized testing has taken the power of teaching from the educator and put it in the hands of the test writers. Teachers have been told that if the students pass the test, they keep their jobs. If the students fail, they are fired.

As a result, we are a nation of test-takers. We learn what we need to know to pass the test, and then promptly forget it in favor of the next testing subject. Our government seems to believe that education is based on pieces of paper, not knowledge. Students are passed through school, some who don’t even know how to read, because it would stunt their social development to hold them back.

The diploma was never meant to be the goal. The test was never meant to be the objective. The diploma, the degree, and the certificate are not pieces of paid for paper, but a symbol of the knowledge you obtained over the course of your education. The test was supposed to symbolize the things you learned, it wasn’t supposed to be the only thing you learned.

Our education system in the United States is a mess, and it is only getting worse. The FCAT reflects the problem. The concern, it would appear, is less about the fact that their students can’t write, and is more about some failure on the part of the test designers because they didn’t tell teachers exactly what they would be grading. They blame the low scores on a new focus on grammar, punctuation, word choice, and relevance.

As a parent, I understand concern, but the concern shouldn’t be for the test your child is taking. Your concern should be that their schools are not teaching them to write. If a child knows how to formulate an argument and communicate it in the written word, it doesn’t matter if you know what they are looking for ahead of time. They will pass because they have the skill, not because they practiced to take the test.

Education is not a sport. There is no practice. The training is the objective, not the game at the end of the week. These children are being failed, not by tests, but by people who didn’t take the time to teach them to really learn. They are being failed by the people who decided tests were more important than the sort of academic skills that can last a lifetime.

You do not lower standards so that more students pass, you bring the students up to the standard. Teach children, not for the test, but for the education, and it won’t matter if they don’t know what is going to be on the test ahead of time.  Teach them to learn or condemn them to a life of ignorance.

Test-takers don’t change the world.

Never let education get in the way of your kid’s learning.

The only thing interfering with my learning is my education. – Albert Einstein.

There is a fundamental different between teaching and learning that we seem to be missing in our society.  We have become statistic-driven.  Our children, both yours and mine, are statistics in the war of education.  Unfortunately, true learning has never been about education.  While education is meant to facilitate it, more than ever it is interfering with it.

Education should be about learning.  But it isn’t.  We have become a country that cares more about teaching than learning.  Tests are no longer an educational tool, but a means to gauge teacher performance.  The problem is that teacher performance, true educational performance, cannot be measured by testing a bunch of kids.

When I look back on the teachers I had in my life and those whom I valued most, it comes down to a simple trait, easily observable.  Those teachers who learned the most from, where the ones that taught me to learn, rather than just teaching me facts.

Facts are relatively pointless when it comes down to it.  I know that the sky is blue because that is what they tell me.  But, more interesting that that is the fact that the sky is blue because of the way the air molecules scatter light from the sun.  I know my shapes, yet more interesting is the way that certain shapes combined are more universally aesthetic than others.  Facts, while testable, are fairly useless.

Yet, as a result of the way our system is structured, we encourage teachers to teach to pass the tests, when our teachers should be teaching our children to love to learn.

Regurgitation of facts will get a student their diploma, maybe even a degree or two, but true love of learning lasts a person for their entire life.  Love of learning is what gets you up in the morning.  It gets you on the internet researching things you see on television.  It makes you want to learn to play harmonica, speak Italian, read books, and a million other things.

We have endangered that love on learning for the next generation because we have placed to hard an emphasis on teaching.  Rather than learning to learn, students have been taught how to know what the teacher wants to hear.

Unfortunately, what made or country great was not desire to tell people what they wanted to hear, but to go further.  We are a country built on the backs of pioneers who wanted to know more and wanted to do more.  They pushed their knowledge to the limits, always wondering what they could do next.

Where will that come from from this point on?  I wish I knew.

I have taken great pains with my on son to teach him about thing in which he is interested.  He loves dinosaurs, and so we read a lot of books about dinosaurs, we excavate model dinosaur skeletons, we talk about what different dinosaurs ate and how fossils are found.  It’s important to note that my son is four, so I keep all of this relatively simple.  All dinosaurs with plates on their backs are Stegosauruses, because that is what they are, but they are also “Spike-tails” because that is what they are on Land Before Time.

Recently, he found a book on anatomy that he loves because you take a body apart in layers.  We have spent a lot of time since then going over names of body parts, where they are inside him, and what they do, yet at the same time, we chuckle when he calls the lungs “people backpacks.”

My hope, more than anything else, is that my son will learn to love learning.  I want him to know that when he thinks something is interesting, there is nothing wrong with learning more.  I want him to take the things he loves and explore them, finding out what makes them tick.

Teachers will be telling him what facts to regurgitate for his entire life, but I hope when all of that is done, he still feels the need to go to the internet, go to the library, and more than anything else, never stop learning.

Along with that, will come an added bonus, for me, a fellow lover of knowledge.  I explore all of these interests with him.  His interest in dinosaurs meant I needed to learn more about dinosaurs.  His interest in anatomy means I will learn more about anatomy.  Whether it be astronomy, robots, or trains, I will happily learn along with him.

The old saying went that if you give a man a fish you will feed him for a day, but if you teach him to fish, you will feed him for a lifetime.  Our schools have gotten comfortable with giving our children nuggets of information, shoving factoids down their throats, then declaring them satisfied.  Don’t allow it.  Teach them to love learning, and give them a lifetime of knowledge.

P.S.  In an update from the NaNoWriMo front, the first draft of my novel was finished on the 16th.  Way ahead of schedule.  I am spending the rest of the month going back through and developing the setting a bit better.  I found it was like driving a hundred miles an hour through the countryside.  I got where I was going, but I never really got to stop and admire the scenery.  I look forward to the rest of the month and the rest of the first pass through, so I can see where it was I went without having to worry about getting there.

Until next time, keep reading, keep writing, and for the sake of humanity, keep learning.

-Jack