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.