“Accelerated programs available. Finish your degree in as little as 18 months!”
How many times have you heard something like that? Doesn’t that seem exciting?
Finishing an entire online degree program in less than two years is an impressive, and attractive, pitch to working adults. What they don’t focus on is that students can graduate in “as little” as 18 months. While graduating in 18 months (or less) is technically possible if your plan of study allows it, life has a way of keeping us busy outside of class. Like it or not, dropping a class will at some point, probably be necessary. Jobs, family, travel, illness, or injury can play a part in affecting our academic plan of study. Though it may be tough to keep perspective, remember it's not too late to scale things back mid-semester. And, there are worse things than dropping a class.
How to be a Tortoise, Not a Hare, When it Comes to Online Learning
1. Don't Max Out Your Course Load, Just Because They Let You
When I started my first semester as an online student, I was ambitious to say the least. I hoped to enroll for two classes at a time, and graduate with an information systems masters degree in less than 2 years. (The fact that I was already working both a full and part-time job seemed irrelevant in the face of being able to attain my degree so quickly.) Reality quickly set in when I found that weekly quizzes, mandatory participation on class discussion boards, and group project work gobbled up nearly 2 hours a night per course. My coffee pot was working overtime to keep up, and so was I. I eventually learned a (painful) lesson: Just because a school says you can, doesn't mean you should. For the rest of my tenure in the masters program, I’d regularly follow a three-step process whenever I faced needing a change in pace. Dropping a class became less taboo when I found a way to evaluate my needs.
2. Revise Your Plan of Study and Allow For Easy Adds and Drops
Your “Plan of Study” is the class schedule that you’re planning to take in order to complete your degree. If you haven’t defined your plan yet, this is the best time to make one. Look at the course(s) that you plan to add/drop…if you’re dropping a class, when is the next time that you can take it? If you want to add an extra course to this semester, which ones are available? Often there are classes that are offered only during specific times of the year (ex. Fall, Spring, etc.) , so adding or dropping a class multiple times without affecting your graduation date may require some strategy. Additional tip: Try creating both a “best-case” and “worse-case” Plan of Study, to determine the minimum and maximum number of semesters you may have before graduating, and see which path is closer to your comfort zone.
3. Estimate The Cost of Dropping A Class or Other Changes
Whether you plan on increasing or decreasing your class-load, take into account the related costs before you plunge ahead with plan of study changes :
- Scaling Up: If you’d like to add classes, are you confident that you’ve got the extra time? Will you have the funds (via student loans, savings, tuition reimbursement, etc.) for the additional tuition?
- Scaling Down: If you’re dropping courses and scaling back for a semester or two, when will you be able to take the classes again? Are these courses prerequisites that have to be taken before you can move onto other classes? Will you get back any of your tuition if you drop? How could this impact your graduation date?
As you balance the costs of changing your plan, you may need to go back and revise your Plan of Study again. Additional tip: If possible, drop a class that’s offered during multiple semesters, so you can catch up more easily.
4. Visit With Your Academic Adviser Before Changing Your Plan of Study
After coming up with a plan that you’re comfortable with, double-checking with your adviser can be helpful to make sure that you haven’t missed something. It’s especially helpful if your adviser is one of the faculty, as they may have some insight on the difficulty level of the courses you’ve signed up for. They might also know if one course won’t be offered in the future, and/or there may be a substitute course that you could take to fill a requirement.
Online Learning is Flexible, But Not Easy
One terrific advantage of online learning is that it’s much more flexible regarding when and where you do your classwork. However, “flexible” doesn’t mean that it’s easy…the work still has to be done, and sometimes you need to scale your semesters up or down to fit what you can into your schedule. As a distance learner, it’s essential to be able to scale your class-load up or down as your life allows, keeping you on track towards graduation.
Keep Your Eye on the Prize: Graduation
The path to graduation isn’t a race, and how quickly you get to the finish line isn’t as important as the fact that you finish. Regardless, the diploma will be there waiting for you. Hindsight being 20/20, I should have started with one class at a time. That’s what I eventually did, but it helped to learn that I had to adjust my semesters to fit the rest of my schedule. Dropping a class is sometimes necessary, but the peace of mind you need to study will be worth it. Editor's Note: If you have questions about online learning plans, check out Get Educated's distance learning forums.
About the Author: In addition to pursuing and writing about higher education, David Handlos works as a Lead Software Performance Engineer at Fiserv. He has also worked for Kansas State University as the webmaster, managing both the College of Engineering and Engineering Extension web sites. Handlos holds a Bachelors of Science in Computer Engineering from Kansas State University and a Masters in Information Systems which he earned online from Dakota State University.