WORK/LIFE BALANCING ACT

Online courses help workers juggle education, life

 
 
Vedner Guerrier,director of oncology services at Memorial Hospital West,  studies for his MBA during breaks and before and after work.
Vedner Guerrier,director of oncology services at Memorial Hospital West, studies for his MBA during breaks and before and after work.
Joe Rimkus Jr. / Miami Herald Staff

balancegal@gmail.com

It’s 8 p.m. and after a long day at the office, Nadia Espinosa is in front of her computer, baby son on her lap, immersed in class — virtually. As a working single mother, 27-year-old Espinosa felt the only way she could get her paralegal certification was to find an online program that accommodated her busy schedule.

For working professionals, going back to school used to mean dashing from office to classroom. Now, the explosion of online education opportunities has made it easier for Espinosa and others to juggle their jobs and school. Colleges are pushing web courses and online degrees for people who want to take their careers to the next level without stepping foot on campus. Today, seven in 10 public and for-profit colleges are offering full online academic programs, as are nearly half of private nonprofit colleges.

As schools boost their online offerings, there are new options for working adults who want to add a career skill. The 2012 Survey of Online Learning reveals that the number of students taking at least one online course has now surpassed 6.7 million; 60 percent of those online degree seekers are employed full time.

But getting a degree online is not as easy as you might think. The rate of those who fail or give up is significant — as much as 30 percent higher than among on-campus students, in some cases.

“Students want the flexibility but some of them don’t realize how rigorous the courses can be,” says Joyce Elam, Dean of University College, home of Florida International University’s online learning.

Working adults like Vedner Guerrier are experiencing the challenge. Guerrier, a 37-year-old director of oncology services at Memorial Hospital West, started online classes three weeks ago with the goal of earning his healthcare MBA from FIU. Already, Guerrier has discovered time management and discipline are critical. On lunch breaks and after work, he reads for his two classes and works on assignments. During the week, he has scheduled virtual project meetings with his classmates.

Fall behind and you’re doomed, he says. “I don’t foresee a disorganized person passing these classes. You cannot procrastinate because things move quickly.”

Along with discipline and time management skills, Karen Southall Watts, a business coach and author who has taught online courses, says success requires internal motivation and full awareness of your goal. In most programs, no one takes attendance, and students take the initiative to watch a lecture in real time or participate in online discussions.

“It’s a lot different than when you are physically going to class and socializing.” She also cautions that some adult students want to finish education as quickly as possible and overload their schedule, creating a no-win situation.

Some of the school recognize the obstacles, and are beefing up online degree programs with 24/7 technical support, reference librarians and virtual tutors. At FIU, Elam says students now work with “success coaches” who check in on progress and pair them with online tutoring when necessary. “Our online degree program is growing and getting better.”

Working professionals say there’s another challenge, too, in completing an online degree: cost.

While top schools often offer massive online courses for free, in many cases, an online undergraduate or graduate course for degree-seeking students is actually more expensive than a comparable on-campus course. A U.S. News analysis of about 300 ranked programs at public universities shows the average per credit, in-state cost for an online bachelor’s program is $277, compared with $243 per credit at brick-and-mortar schools.

Isabel Chavez says she spent about $50,000 to earn an online master’s in mental health counseling from Nova Southeastern University, a private school about 60 miles from her home in Boca Raton. It was the only way she could have juggled school, young children and a catering business, she says. “The experience was wonderful.”

But she advises weighing the cost carefully. “I don’t think people are being educated on the reality of student loans and how much they have to pay back on a monthly basis. If people really thought through what they were going to do with their online degree before getting into debt, they might reconsider,” she says.

Chavez, who graduated in December 2011, says for her, it was necessary debt to accomplish her goal of becoming a life coach, or to work in Florida as a therapist. She now has her own business, LifeUP! Coaching . “Having the degree gives me a lot more creditability with my target demographic.”

Southall Watts, the author, says budgeting — knowing how you’re going to pay for classes and how your degree will pay off — will help you stay motivated in an online program. “You have to seriously think through where you are, where you want to be and what your resources are to pay for your back-to-school experience. “

Mohamed Abdalla says he has carefully thought through his educational plan. He works at Lynn University in admissions and uses his spare time to earn an MBA degree from the private college in Boca Raton. He began the program in January and plans to use the knowledge learned in the MBA program to run a private aviation fueling business.

Abdalla, 24, has found the only way he could complete his MBA degree in a reasonable time frame would be combining brick-and-mortar classes with online learning. So far, he finds online classes more conducive to balancing academic and job commitments and has just taken two eight-week courses in a row.

“I can sit home or on a plane or in a hotel and have the ability to do my class work.” Abdalla says he was reluctant, at first. “I felt like students who took online courses got lost.” Instead, he has found professors extremely responsive, usually answering questions by email within a few hours.

Espinosa, a legal administrator with Zarco, Einhorn, Salkowski & Brito in Miami, says she too enjoys the unexpected interaction with teachers via an Internet portal; in her case, all are Miami-Dade Circuit Court judges. “I feel like it’s worth my time because they do get to know your work and your name.”

As schools offer more online learning options, businesses are beginning to see the benefits, too. Law firms, technology companies and others are offering more of their training and continuing education courses virtually. Paul Berkowitz, a shareholder with Greenberg Traurig, says he participates in at least one online course every few weeks that the firm offers – some are live, others replayed. “It allows me to keep up with new issues and aspects of law.”

As technology evolves, he says, his company has improved its offerings to make some courses more interactive. The firm now offers an average of four training webinars a week nationally and saw nearly a 40 percent jump in attendance in 2012.

Meanwhile, Elam says she is bullish on the growth of online education – particularly for mid career professionals. “You do need little bit of maturity. It really is more successful for working professionals that have some experience in balancing different demands on their time.”

Columnist Cindy Krischer Goodman is a provider of news and advice on how to balance work and life. Connect with her at balancegal@gmail.com or visit worklifebalancingact.com.

Read more Cindy Krischer Goodman stories from the Miami Herald

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