Mediaplanet: What is the greatest benefit you have experienced from online education courses?

Partha Murali: The greatest benefit that I have experienced is the learning resulting in a deeper understanding of what I do at work as well as the growth in the breadth of technical areas at work that I contribute to. For example, I was predominantly a VLSI and digital signal-processing designer at my company before my course at Stanford. In my MSEE coursework, I focused primarily on analog and RF circuit courses, which enabled me to expand my knowledge and be able to handle the whole spectrum of both analog/RF and digital signal processing which gave me an edge over my peers.

Joseph Anton: Online classes and studying on my own time allowed me to balance a demanding career and family commitments while pursuing my graduate degree.

MP: What advice would give a potential student considering an online education program?

PM: Don't give up. I was working in a startup while pursuing my Master’s and it was crazy at times. There were take home exams from professors that were supposed to be returned within a day and it literally took me 24 hours to finish the exam. Also, weekends will be when office work ends and college work week begins—after a year or so you may be tempted to give up. Just take a short break and jump back in—just don't give up!

"While an online education may be appealing to almost all students due to the flexibility and convenience it offers, not all students are suited for online learning."

JA: While an online education may be appealing to almost all students due to the flexibility and convenience it offers, not all students are suited for online learning. An online course requires a lot of self-discipline and initiative. Students should carefully consider if this is the right learning environment that will allow them to be successful.

MP:  Why did you begin considering online education to further your education?

PM: I was working in an excellent startup for five years and at the same time was haunted by my desire to earn my graduate degree from one of the top universities. I couldn't give up my work because I was very happy with it. Luckily, I talked to my management and got excellent support from them towards my ambitions. I ended up doing both, excelling at my work place and getting my Master’s at the same time.

JA: When I was evaluating options for graduate school, I was in a position that demanded considerable hours and had a growing family with a two year old daughter and a son on the way. It was important for my career that I pursued my graduate degree, but I wanted to minimize any impact on my ability to dedicate the necessary hours to work and make sure I wasn’t missing out on much family time.

MP: Where did you spend the majority of your time doing online coursework?

PM: Half of my course work was done from Hyderabad, India. For the second half I had the opportunity to transfer to our company's headquarters in San Jose. It took me four years to complete my degree as opposed to a year and a half or two years for those doing it at the farm. Because I was working while pursuing coursework I had the opportunity to have more clarity on which courses to pursue based on what is important for me to know in my industry. It's as if I already knew which areas I wanted to specialize in, unlike most Master's students, who never get this clarity.

JA: The majority of my online coursework was completed on a laptop in the comforts of my home. The most remarkable place I studied was while aboard a boat cruising the Mediterranean. 

MP: What is the biggest obstacle you faced with online courses?

PM: The biggest obstacle while I was working from India was of course the time zone difference. I was probably the first person in the engineering department to attempt this from outside the states, which sometimes amazed the professors when they realized they had a student in a time zone 12 hours apart from them. Other than being in different time zones, the fact that I was working in a fast-paced startup during the week and trying to get my Master’s on the weekend was pretty crazy—looking back it was well worth it.

JA: I didn’t experience any significant challenges with the technology. Similar to a traditional class, the biggest challenge was to remain disciplined enough to keep up with the demands of the course. This is especially important when juggling work, school and a family, as you will not have the time to catch up.