Dianna Searles, online human services management degree holder

After spending seven long years working on her associate degree, Dianna Searles decided that earning a human services management degree online was the way to go. A 17-year veteran of the banking industry, Dianna enrolled in a program that allowed her to continue her full-time job as a senior loan support specialist while she earned the bachelor's degree she needed to further her career.

Q:Why did you choose an online human services management degree instead of an on-campus one?

A:After high school, I went straight into the workforce and ended up attending a community college where I took one class at a time. It took about seven years to finish my associate degree. After that, I wasn't interested in any degree program that would mean spending time in a classroom each night after working all day!

The cost of an online program was also comparable to attending a ground university once I calculated parking, gas and books. I can't speak for other online colleges, but my university had a set price for books for each class. The prices were always the same and always less than $100. I liked that there were no surprises at the bookstore. Not to mention that I didn't even have to take a trip to the bookstore.

In addition, with online classes, I made my own schedule. Attending classes at home meant that I didn't have to fight the weather on cold winter days. Then, in the spring and summer, I could enjoy working outside on class assignments.

Finally, many online colleges offer accelerated programs which was a bonus for me because, having taken so long to finish my associate degree, I wanted to be done sooner rather than later.

Q:Can you tell us a little about how your program was structured? How did you receive lessons and communicate with your instructors and classmates?

A:My bachelor's degree program consisted of five-week classes--but those covered 16 weeks worth of material. A syllabus provided the first day of class outlined all the assignments, reading material, and activities for the entire five weeks.

All my classes were structured the same in terms of participation. Each week, the instructor submitted three or four discussion questions that correlated to the readings for that week. In addition to answering those questions, you were expected to participate in class discussions. The questions were set up as threads in an online "classroom," and a minimum of two responses to other classmates were required at least four days a week.

By the end of the first week, I was paired with three or four other individuals in each class to form a learning team. Each week, there were typically an individual assignment and a learning team assignment due.

Sometimes communicating with other classmates was difficult due to time zones and language barriers. It could also be frustrating when a teammate was not pulling their weight--turning in assignments at the last minute and being difficult to contact. But overall, we learned how to work around those barriers.

If I had any concerns, I could post a question in my instructor's private forum, email him or call during office hours. In addition, instructors visited the learning team forums to grade team assignments and make sure everyone was contributing.

Q:What was the most surprising thing about the online learning experience?

A:The most surprising thing was the amount of reading and paper writing required. The majority of my assignments were research papers--usually 700-1500 words in APA format and submitted through a program that scans for plagiarism.

To help with the assignments, in addition to offering online tutors, my university offered a program that would proofread papers immediately. Within a few moments of submission, students could receive a "marked up" version of the paper with suggested changes.

Q:What did you like most about your program? What did you find most challenging?

A:I liked scheduling my own hours as well as the consistent structure my university had for each class. The most challenging aspect was finding time to get all the homework completed. Each week, I had reading assignments and papers to write as well learning team activities. Often, I was online every night for at least an hour and spent most of my weekends doing papers.

Q:Do you have any advice for other students considering an online degree program?

A:First and foremost, my advice is to be self-disciplined. Once you get a day or two behind, you will play catch up the rest of the class. My financing program allowed me 28 days between classes which was helpful. Be sure to know if you can take breaks between classes and how long you have for each break.