After a recent conversation on a list serve for mental health counseling graduate students, and several comments and emails about my experiences at Walden University, I thought I would post an update to my original post about starting my graduate degree.
My experience is that that are several issues that seem to be inherent in the online educational environment that affect the overall experience of some online institutions, specifically Walden University. I agree that the future of education includes a strong online presence. However, just as brick and mortar establishments vary in their reputations as well as in their ability to deliver a high quality education, the same issue is present in online universities.
Perhaps the “for profit” institutions are lax in providing the best quality. Although I am not aware of any “real” evidence, I can speak from my own experience at Walden University where I am a graduate student in the mental health counseling program. One of the problems at Walden is that anyone can matriculate there. Again, in my personal experience, I see the value of this for individuals who cannot meet the expectations of other, more selective institutions, however, others, including myself, agree that this admittance policy tends to lower the quality of conversation in the classroom, as well as the overall expectations for the students.
I understand the implications of what I’m saying, and my intention is not to insult anyone. However, after a full year of classes, I am still engaging in classroom conversations in which some of my classmates remain ignorant on the basics of APA formatting, writing complete sentences (!?!), and engaging in critical and even somewhat original thought. There are students in my classes who have no business being in graduate school, and it is frightening to think some of these people may actually graduate with a degree in mental health counseling. Although I am not happy with this, I have had to lower my expectations, at least in the classroom environment, I don’t necessarily believe my original expectations were extraordinary. This is not to say I have not met highly intelligent and articulate classmates along the way. I have. But the few exemplary students do not make up for the rest.
Another issue in the online classroom, such as Walden’s, is that the discussions are not conducive to vital, or lively conversation. One discussion question rules the conversation each week, and for the most part, there is far too much redundancy in response, so, I read the same basic response from all 12-19 students in the class. It is far from stimulating. In addition, because there exists a requirement to the number of responses a student must make, it is often evident that some posts are written simply to fulfill an obligatory response.
Part-time instructors pose a problem as well. For example, in my current two classes, both instructors have full-time jobs. Judging from the cut and paste responses in the classroom and in the personal feedback I receive, I’m guessing that it may not be easy fitting in time for the online class. This is not to say that I believe all instructors in brick and mortar institutions are all highly dedicated, however, my experience regarding cut and paste instruction has been troubling, and even frustrating. I often think the instructors at Walden are told to "dumb it down". I cannot imagine professors in other universities accepting the quality of scholarship that I see at Walden.
I don’t mean to be negative, however, I believe a graduate education is costly and prior to entering any program, every aspect of it should be scrutinized. I remain at Walden because there are no brick and mortar graduate programs that are CACREP-accredited in my state, and not one graduate program on the island on which I live. So, for this reason, I am pleased that institutions like Walden exist. My hope is that as the demand for online education increases, more universities will develop online programs and apply to them, the same expectations already established in their brick and mortar programs.
The bottom line in my recommendation is this...if you are intelligent, articulate, and believe you could obtain relatively good scores on the GRE, find a brick and mortar school to attend (or check out Wake Forest's new online program for mental health counseling). If you intend on becoming licensed, make sure the program you choose is CACREP-accredited. Don't settle for less than what you want, and finally, don't choose a graduate program whose bottom line is to admit as many students as possible simply to increase income.