Friday, August 30, 2013

Attending an online for-profit school

A few years ago, I decided to go back to school to finish a bachelor's degree.  The school I ultimately chose was Capella University, an online for-profit college.  Online universities, and for-profits in particular, have a poor reputation, but I decided to attend anyway.  Here's my take on for-profit universities and why I plan to return to Capella to finish a master's degree.


I live in a small town.  When I started going back to school, there were no night-time or degree completion programs that I could take advantage of.  I would have loved to go back to school full-time and attend a well-regarded university, but I support a family and can't afford to relocate and quit work in order to go to school.  I needed a degree program that I could complete while working full-time.


Capella is regionally accredited, as are all reputable schools.  Not much to say here; it's just a requirement.  The IT program is also ABET accredited which is a nice, but probably won't ever make a difference for me.


The program at Capella is well-structured and the school will pre-register you each semester so that you can proceed through your program in lock-step fashion without ever worrying about missing a requirement.  There isn't much flexibility, but you know you will graduate and when as long as you keep passing your classes.

Course Design

I've taken good course design for granted.  I took a few online classes at the community college level (mostly for scheduling reasons) and, by chance, they were all decently laid out.  Capella's courses were a step above the others I'd taken, but I didn't think much of it.  Recently, I enrolled in an online program at public university.  I was sorely disappointed.  The course layout was...crap.  I had to search around to figure out what I needed to do each week and, in some cases at least, assignments were embedded in-line with each weeks' reading.  This would be a minor hassle if I had nothing else to do, but I work full-time and just accepted a new job.  I'm busy.  I can't waste time every week figuring out what I need to do.  I need to be able to just sit down and do it.

At Capella, you can click on any particular unit (week) of the course and see everything associated with it; that weeks' reading, supplemental videos/materials, labs, assignments, discussions, exams.  I usually logged in on Monday morning to see what I had in store for that week.  If there was a lot to do, I'd print out the page so I could carry it with me and check things off throughout the week.  Most weeks had required reading, graded discussions and a paper (about 10 pages on average, for me).  Some classes had labs, only a few (e.g. discrete math) had exams.  It was also straightforward to get to the discussions and assignments for the week.  They weren't just embedded somewhere, you could click on "Assignments", scroll to week X, click, attach, submit, done.  This is all pretty basic, but a lot of places screw it up. 


I wanted to finish school as fast as possible.  I didn't need summers off.  Capella runs on a quarter system without about three weeks in between quarters.  This is just enough time for me to recharge, catch-up on real life and prepare for the next class.


I initially wanted a more technical program.  I majored in IT but I really wanted to major in CS.  I was working in my first management job when I started, but I was trying very hard to stay sharp technically.  Now, I'm happy that I majored in IT.  I enjoy management and the program helped me develop a broader perspective and to learn to manage IT functions.  I spent a lot of time studying policy and procedure, wrote a ton of papers and only did a handful of labs.  The program isn't designed to train anyone as a network engineer, software developer or penetration tester.  Instead, it provides a broad background in IT and some additional focus in one area (I chose security).  For someone who plans to stay hands-on technical, a CS degree would be a lot better.  But, if you're planning to go into management or already have strong technical chops, the program is a good choice.


Capella is a little less high profile than certain other schools like the University of Phoenix which was a plus for me.  Some employers don't like to hire people with online degrees, especially in management roles.  That may still hurt me later on.  It's possible that I'll eventually go into an executive MBA program at a brick-and-mortar school.  That would probably do a lot to erase any stigma attached to the online degree and to convince employers that I'm worth a look.  But, it hasn't hurt me so far.  I just got hired as the Director of Technology for a K-12 district.  Several of the people on my interview panels (which contained four local IT directors) also went back to school online, at least one of them at the University of Phoenix.  And, they probably did so for many of the same reasons that I did.  The supposed stigma apparently didn't bother them enough to dissuade them either, but I don't think the bad reputation that online schools have nationally is nearly as strong outside large cities (which typically have several universities). 

If I lived in San Francisco or Boston, I'd probably go to school at night but since I live in Podunk... 

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