Online Master’s in History — Is It Worth It?

As a struggling graduate student in an M.A. program in History, I have done my share of research regarding the value of online Master’s in History, but have been repeatedly frustrated by the misinformation and dead-ends floating around out there.  Digging through the Internet can be infuriating sometimes.  Way too many people with way too many loud opinions, and oftentimes it can be difficult to find information regarding your specific situation.  So since this is related to the field of history, let me share with you what I’ve learned by reading through the lines and sifting through the garbage floating around on the Internet.  I will not tell you here whether or not you should take your Master’s online, but I will give you information that will make that decision easier for you, because I’m tailoring this to real-world situations.

For starters, the debate that rages on the Internet over online vs. brick and mortar universities misses the point: Each field of study is different.  Let’s get one thing straight:  there are different reasons for pursuing a Master’s degree in History online and not just because someone wants a short-cut.  Online degrees work extremely well in most fields for people already working in their field who are looking to advance or hone their skills.  A perfect example of this is American Military University, an online “for-profit” that is used by many military and government types.  Look around online and you’re going to find a lot of loud opinions in favor and against places like AMU (or its sister school American Public University System),    but a lot of the chatter misses this very important point.  History is an extraordinarily hard field to break into, and what I’ve learned in my research is that you don’t want to pursue an online Master’s in History if you aren’t already working in a historical field.

Why is this?  Well, it’s an unfortunate reality.  It doesn’t matter how strong the history program at online universities like American Military University, APUS, or Norwich are.  What matters is how they are perceived by employers.  As of July 2011 there have been no studies done showing just how an online degree in history will affect your job search.  But the field is hard enough to break into, completing a Master’s online will make it harder to get a job in many cases.  Which can be frustrating because a lot of brick and mortar universities are truly no better than some online colleges.  So for many (most?) students, you have to lose more money at a brick and mortar school simply because it is perceived to be better, not that it actually is better.

Don’t consider this an endorsement of any of these online universities, however.  I have not attended any of them and cannot vouch for them.  But I can vouch for the subpar quality of many brick and mortar university history programs.

Okay, so the first consideration is out of the way.  Whether or not you are already working in the field is probably the first thing to  evaluate before further investigating online Master’s in History.  The second is whether or not you will be going on for a Ph.D in History.  There are no online Ph.D programs in history as of 2011.  So you’re going to have to live with the expectations of brick and mortar universities.  Do not, under any circumstances, get an online degree.  The History field is too much of an old-boy’s club to accept such new-fangled things as online degrees into Ph.D programs.

The online route might be acceptable if you are aiming at going into public history and stopping with a Master’s.  It certainly seems that some online universities are tailored more toward the practical application of history than the academic.  If you’re not looking to teach, an online education would theoretically work fine.  Again, no studies have been done to show how successful online history Master’s are.

The third thing to consider in evaluating online programs is this:  One of the arguments brick and mortar supporters use frequently is the value of classroom structure.  But when you really think about it, you get plenty of lecture and classroom experience in undergrad.  If you’re not at a prestigious university, chances are the graduate level debates in your classrooms won’t be as enlightening as professors like to think they are.  Also, as with any education, the level of determination in the student determines the quality of education.  If you are not self-driven you will not succeed in online classes.  But there is nothing inherent in a classroom that cannot be achieved online.  What do you do in a graduate history classroom?  You read books, you discuss those books, and you write research papers.  In this day and age you are probably using the Internet (thank you Google Books and archive databases!) for your research anyway.

The one thing you might miss, depending on what brick and mortar university you were considering, is the amazing research libraries some of them have.  My alma mater, Central Michigan University, has an especially awesome library that has helped me in research countless times.  But as far as the discussion goes, some online schools use modules including video chat.  And finally the classroom experience can include lectures.  I don’t want to insult professors, but many lectures are bloated and lack proper depth.  Readings, I find, are much more effective.  But this is a matter more of preference.

The future is online, regardless of the condition of online universities right now.  The steady (but slow) trend of adopting online classes is spreading.  Which makes the decision all the more difficult for history students.  While only Western Kentucky University and Sam Houston State University offer completely online History Master’s, most universities now offer at least some online history classes.   So in 10 years an online Master’s in History may be perfectly acceptable and widespread.   But it’s still a risky investment to spend that money on a degree without knowing what it’ll get you.

But as most History M.A. students are finding, any degree in history is a risky endeavor anyway.

So be careful out there, beware the online lackeys, employed by the for-profits to promote their schools.  A lot of message boards are inundated with positive reviews of these universities, but often these praise-worthy posts are the only ones made by those users.  Suspicious indeed.  But also beware the shills for tradition, who cannot see any value in a non-traditional education.  As I mentioned in the paragraph on classroom structure, is it REALLY a substantial difference, or is it merely a matter of preference?

At any rate, if you do go the route of an online degree, you might want to look into Sam Houston State or Western Kentucky University, because they are actual brick and mortar universities with some prestigious graduates.  As with any education, research carefully and look deeply.  A lot of brick and mortar universities aren’t all they seem, either.

Hopefully this helped give you some tools for your evaluation of the endless pile of misleading information out there trying to convince you that only one of these options is legitimate.

21 thoughts on “Online Master’s in History — Is It Worth It?

    • Thank you for this blog. In all seriousness, breaking into the field of history is a heartbreaking reality for me. I have a BA in history as well as a double major of History Education. In over 12 years I have never been able to be hired as a history teacher. Most especially being a woman in the field. I have relocated, added endorsements, specialized done it all in order to break into a district. $75,000 later in student loans/tuition, I am still not doing what I really desire and that is to teach history, continue studying history and ultimately be identified as a historian. All the schooling in the world will not open doors to the field when what most schools really want is a good coach. They do not tell you that when you enter into a university. I caution anyone wanting to make History a profession, as most schools of all levels do not respect the what it means to be a highly qualified history teacher.

  1. Norwich is a brick and mortar school. There are more brick and mortar schools that offer online master’s in history.

    Louisiana Tech
    University of Nebraska – Kearney
    University of Louisiana – Monroe
    Wayland Baptist University
    Austin Peay State University (Military History)
    National University
    Fort Hays State University

    And I’m sure there are more.

    • I believe that this is the text from the deleted blog:

      A funny thing is happening on H-Net lists. M.A. students from National University—especially students in history—are posting M.A. thesis queries that employ nearly identical language. Their topics are different, but they use the same phrases in their appeals for help in generating thesis statements and bibliographies, not to mention identifying the key debates on their topics. A word might be omitted or the order of the words is altered, but the basic format is always there.

      How are all these students managing to write posts containing such similar sentence constructions?

      I could not help but wonder if someone at National University was providing the students with templates for H-Net queries, thus putting list members in the position of providing free, online instruction.

      I am reluctant to provide links to the actual posts, as I’m not interested in publicly denigrating the National University students in question. I do, however, think that members of the various H-Net communities should be aware of this issue before they all but write someone’s M.A. thesis or thesis proposal for them.

      Here are some of the phrases that turn up often:

      “What seem to be the key debates on this topic?”
      “Since I am at the start of my research”
      “I am a M.A. history student at National University writing a thesis on”
      “[W]hether anyone on the Listserve knows whether what I am proposing has already been done.”

      Simply do a google search for the quoted phrases along with “National University” and you will see what I’m getting at here. You’ll also quickly learn how willingly H-Net members provide the students with the key debates on their thesis topics, in addition to literature surveys.

      Anyone who has completed a reputable M.A. or Ph.D. program knows that the questions the students are asking are ones that they should be asking and answering for themselves. Learning to ask and answer such questions are the bread and butter of an M.A. program.

      Why do these National University students know what they need to be asking but at the same time don’t know how to answer their own questions?

      The queries are also similar in that all of the students make their H-Net posts at the start of their M.A. research. That, along with the similar language, indicated to me that maybe someone is providing them with a kind of template for asking scholars on H-Net to do their work for them.

      The messages are simply too alike to be coincidental.

      So, I wrote a National University student asking why she made a particular post to an H-Net list. She replied that her professor required it of her.

      Maybe that professor is making the template?

      Scholars do not contribute to H-Net in order to do the basic legwork that an M.A. student should do on his or her own.

      I’m sure that those of us who donate to H-Net don’t do so with the intention that we will be providing free instruction to online M.A. students.

      If you see such a query on H-Net, think twice before you answer.

  2. Update:

    You’re right Janice. I actually took two online M.A. level classes from American Public University System and was not as impressed as I thought I would be. The discourse in the classes are non-existent and sub-par. Lots of typos, poor grasp of historical ideas and the like. Compared to my brick and mortar MA program it was night and day. Now, I don’t think online programs are destined to fail. There is a lot of potential there, but most of the innovative work is being done at Brick and Mortar schools. Video lectures, scheduled chat times, and the like would be beneficial. However, nothing quite compares (until scheduled skype meetings, that is) to an in-class discussion in a colloquium class.

  3. This pretty much sums up what I’ve found too. Thanks so much for putting it together.
    It seems inevitable that there will be good online MA’s in history sometime, but I assume that demand isn’t pushing for more offerings. On one hand that keeps the MA History field to a more select and well-trained group, which is probably good. On the other hand, bread-winning teachers with young kids at home like me are out of luck.

  4. I don’t understand, though, really. I mean, if you get an online degree from let’s say, Oklahoma State University, for instance, why would you write “online” on your resume? That kind of seems unnecessary to me.

    I understand what you’re saying, but honestly, if you’re not going to one of the schools that’s synonymous with online education, such as phoenix or capella, etc, how would anyone know?

    I’m in no way, shape or form suggesting that one should hide important information when interviewing. But if it’s fact that employers think less of online masters programs, why would you include this information that’s impertinent to being with? Number one, anyone who gets a master’s degree online knows that there’s no difference. Number two, it’s the same degree. In fact many of the universities that offer such degrees go on to make statements such as “your degree is from (in keeping with our previous example) Oklahoma State University, plain and simple”.

    If you think that including the word ONLINE after your university is crippling your chances of gaining meaningful employment, you may be right, however sad or wrong this may be. But you also may be wrong, because typing that one word is awkward, unnecessary and may lead others who wouldn’t have even asked to jump to conclusions about the level of your education.

    My advice, leave it out. If it comes up, it comes up. It’s not dishonesty, the information is just kind of irrelevant. If anything it can be used in your favor, because it takes more perseverance and determination than on-campus degrees.

    All the best

  5. I have to disagree with what you suggest. You shouldn’t leave out pertinent information on a resume. But that’s not the issue here. As I suggest in my article, if you go the online route, stick with a brick and mortar school that offers an online degree. Having taken online courses at American Public University and at brick and mortrar online schools, I can say that there is a vast difference in quality. For example, a 600 level history course at CMU involved 15 (15!) books to be read and several book reviews. At APU, a 600 level course required a whopping two books and one 10 page paper based on secondary sources. I’m not saying online classes are worthless, but they are not as scholarly as the brick and mortar ones yet. That 600 level course at APU would have been a 400 level course at a brick and mortar. They simply don’t equip you with the tools for the actual study of history. They are good for learning about topics, but not the actual craft of history.

  6. I don’t know about History, but I obtained a degree in Business Administration online from a University that also has a campus. Having attended a school in person I can tell you that online courses are harder than attending school in person – why? Because you have to teach yourself everything and don’t have the discourse or the professor right there to hold your hand. Plus they make you write many more papers and give more homework. So I have found an online degree to be just as difficult if not more difficult than going to a brick and mortar college.

  7. I earned both my BA and MA in History at American Military University while I was enlisted in the United States Army. After spending three years at a brick and mortar CUNY school, I found my coursework at AMU to be just as challenging as it was at CUNY. I will also say this, I am now a licensed secondary ed social studies teacher in NYC, as well as an adjunct professor of History for CUNY. I have created a Reacting to the Past game, which is being used at CUNY and I even had my research from my MA thesis cited in a recently published book.

    Whether it is online or brick and mortar, what you get out of it all depends on how much you put into it. I do not regret doing these degrees online. It taught me how to pay more attention to my research and writing, as I did not have a professor holding my hand every step of the way at a brick and mortar school. When I was on the right track, I would receive modest responses from professors that I worked with. When my research and writing was going off track, I received the responses necessary to ensure that I would put it back on track.

    • Glad to hear it worked for you. Sounds like you’ve had success, which is more than over 50% of history students find, even if they went to a brick and mortar school. What area did you study or tech?

    • Thanks, very encouraging I want to teach secondary social studies, I was debating if M.A History APU online was a wise decision.Thanks

  8. For many folks, such as myself, we’ve found that the B & M colleges cost more, plus having to take the G.R.E., faculty evaluations, and additional fees (for God knows what). What…. do they think we’re made of money… yes, we have to pay off those student loans sometime too! As students, are we paying for the college professor’s Mercedes…the chance to be taught by published authors….. maybe have a Division I football team…. or is it the manicured lawns? When I received my Bachelors degree, I wanted to teach the subject of History. Now, seeking a Masters in the subject, I still get the worst run-around from a B & M college than I ever received from an online college. Again, what am I paying for? Now, those same B & M colleges are getting in on the online bandwagon (most are putting their classes online), in order to make more money. You can B.M.C. (Bitch, Moan, & Complain) about online colleges all you want, but what the heck is the difference now-a-days?

    • I sympathize with your frustrations, but students need to be careful of their frustrations coloring their judgement. You can look at an online program and a brick and mortar program and see no difference. And maybe there really isn’t one when it comes to content. But the world doesn’t always work the way it should, and the reality is that without connections made with professors and other students, or without the reputation of a brick and mortar school you are putting up another obstacle in a field where you need every single advantage to get one of those rare open jobs.

  9. This post kind of misses the point. It’s not about online versus offline, it’s about the quality of the university and the teaching. APU and American Military University suck because they are a bad third-rate university, not because they are an online university. Similarly, there are very prestigious online degrees coming from well ranked schools like Hopkins, Harvard and Edinburgh. They are the EXACT degrees the on-ground students are getting. What matters most is what has always mattered most – what you study and where you go to school. The delivery method is a footnote.

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