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Alternative learning opportunities are very important for non-traditional students, as well as meeting the greater expectations of traditional students in the fast, nimble pace of a mobile world. Online master’s programs provide busy students with greater access to complete their degrees with the flexibility of time and location afforded by online classes. But what does learning look like in these online degree programs? How is learning supported and by whom? What structures are typically in place to orient students to these online master’s programs?
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Though coursework in online college classes is typically the same as in traditional classes, the structure of learning is very different. Online students typically interact with their instructors and fellow students through discussion boards, email, and multimedia learning activities, as opposed to in face-to-face class meetings. These interactions are at the core of the learning process and are usually facilitated by an advanced online learning management system such as “Blackboard,” “Canvas,” or “Desire2Learn.” There, students access course content and interact with instructors and classmates using a variety of tools such as email, discussion boards, web pages, web conferencing systems, and multimedia technologies. Instructors may post video of weekly lectures or links to other web content to support weekly learning modules. Most learning management systems are very user friendly and anyone with basic computer skills should be able to dive into course content with little to no orientation to the learning platform. However, in the event that student do need assistance with the technological aspects of the learning platform, IT staff are widely available by phone to assist with any question students may have.
Typically, coursework is organized around traditional start and end dates each semester though a few programs may utilize an even more flexible model where students complete their coursework at their own pace with no deadlines. When organized around traditional start and end dates, courses are administered either through synchronous or asynchronous online learning. Most common is asynchronous which has no required meeting times. Students log in to the learning system and participate as their schedule permits. Instructors will typically set deadlines each week for participation in class discussion through discussion boards and for turning in weekly assignments. Asynchronous learning provides the most flexibility for student participation, but features no direct communication between students and their instructor. In the synchronous format, students are required to log on at fixed meeting times to participate in the course. This is usually through some kind of video conferencing technology which facilitates interactions between students and their instructor in as close to a live environment as the technology can make possible. Synchronous learning is far less common, but may be used in some programs in combination with asynchronous learning. In both types of online courses, at the Master’s level some face-to-face meetings may be required on campus. In some cases a weekend intensive may be required on campus each semester which functions to build stronger relationships between students and program faculty.