Marilyn Price-Mitchell, Ph.D.
Institute for Social Innovation Fellow, Fielding Graduate University; Columnist, Psychology Today; Founder, Roots of Action
Are you overlooking the human side of an online degree program? Beyond acquiring knowledge and skills, it pays to explore how your education contributes to your own positive development.
Schools design their online academic degrees and certification programs first-and-foremost to give students expertise in their chosen fields. But there is more to education than meets the eye. Smart prospective students look beyond impressive brochures to investigate the human side of their online programs.
Once you find a core curriculum that best fits your career aspirations, it is time to consider your own developmental needs. Online education is different from traditional classrooms but it is not inferior as long as you take responsibility to get what you need to thrive as a student.
Choose a degree program that helps you believe in yourself, cultivates caring relationships, and fosters internal strengths that lead to career and life satisfaction. When you look beyond academics to examine how an online university develops you as an individual, your top choice becomes more apparent.
Use the online description of a degree program as a starting point. Talk with admissions staff at the university to clarify academic questions and seek additional information about the institution’s culture of learning.
Like traditional universities, online programs have student ambassadors and alumni that volunteer to talk with prospective students. Ask the following questions about the programs you are considering and talk with alumni about their experiences in the areas that most resonate with you.
1. Are there opportunities to be curious?
Curiosity is the cornerstone of life-long learning. Choose a program that welcomes diversity and encourages critical thinking. Ask alumni if they were urged to explore new ideas, ask questions, and think outside the box.
2. Are there opportunities to develop authentic relationships?
The ability to engage with others is vital to learning and education. An online program should provide regular opportunities to interact and exchange ideas with other students and faculty. Ask alumni about the meaningful relationships they developed while earning their degrees.
3. Are there opportunities to practice resilience?
You build resilience when you are encouraged to learn from mistakes, overcome challenges, and adapt to change in a demanding but supportive environment. Ask alumni about the greatest obstacles they encountered in their program, and how faculty and peers helped them overcome these challenges.
4. Are there opportunities to reflect?
Good education cultivates self-awareness, the ability to examine and understand who you are relative to the world around you. Curriculum that includes metacognitive assignments that help you reflect on your thinking help you integrate and apply your learning in the real world. Ask alumni what they most learned about themselves or their careers, and how it changed their lives.
5. Are there opportunities to express your values?
Finding the right degree program is a bit like finding an employer you respect and for whom you would be proud to work. What values, beliefs, and moral principles does a university claim to hold? Are they similar to or different from your own? Ask alumni if they were comfortable sharing their own values and ideas with others.
6. Are there opportunities to solve problems?
Excellent online programs make use of project learning, allowing students to engage with others in assignments that involve mutual goal setting, problem-solving, and decision-making. These experiences nurture resourcefulness throughout life. Ask alumni how collaborative projects were organized online and what they gained from them.
7. Are there opportunities to be creative?
Regardless of whether you enroll in a skills-based or highly academic degree program, it is important to feel encouraged to produce and communicate original ideas. Creativity not only ignites social innovation and ideas for ground-breaking products and services, but also leads to greater life satisfaction. Ask alumni how their creative ideas were rewarded in their program.
8. Are there opportunities to serve others?
Outstanding educational institutions promote civic-mindedness and citizenship by broadening student awareness of and engagement in social and environmental issues. These activities strengthen empathy and compassion, attributes that are foundational to civil society. Ask alumni what they learned about contemporary societal issues and how it made them better citizens.