How to Map Out Courses in an Online Degree Program

For prospective online students, it’s important to choose an online degree program that meets both their professional and personal needs, and how different programs are structured plays a huge part.

For instance, prospective students may want to check either on a school’s website or with an academic adviser about whether students in a program of interest are part of a cohort, meaning they progress through most, if not all, courses alongside the same group of classmates, enabling them to build stronger relationships. Students typically take classes according to a timeline set by the school.

Other programs allow students to decide how many courses they enroll in each term and are more flexible about when students take each online class, though there may still be some requirements around when certain courses must be taken, such as foundational capstone courses. Experts say this structure can be a good option for those who balance their education with a full-time job and family obligations, and are unsure of what situations may arise along the way in their personal lives.

Kristy Sherrod, an instructional coach at the Jackson Madison County School System in Tennessee, has experienced both types of online degree programs.

[Read: What to Know About Earning an Online Degree in a Cohort.]

The now-37-year-old Tennessee resident completed her Master of Education degree and a post-graduate Education Specialist degree, both partially online. For those, students could complete classes in the order they desired, as long as any prerequisites were completed as needed, she says.

For Sherrod, staying organized was essential.

“I always kept an idea of how many classes I wanted to take and which ones I wanted to take at certain times every semester,” she wrote in an email. “I kept a sheet in my planner with all the classes on it and marked when I took them and my grade so I could keep up with it all.”

Sherrod is enrolled in a cohort model online doctoral program at the University of Southern California which has a set course sequence.

“Our classes are set up to build on each other where we can work on our dissertation throughout the program and finish in the appropriate amount of time,” says Sherrod, who notes this structure is especially beneficial for students who don’t have as much experience with online graduate education.

If there is flexibility with the sequence, many experts suggest mapping out which courses to take when, with the understanding that life happens and plans may change.

“It’s highly recommended that the student has something laid out in front of them where they can see the path that they’re likely to take, so that way they can figure out how much time it’s going to take, what it’s going to cost, and plan their time accordingly,” says David Starnes, chief academic officer at Purdue University Global, which has online undergraduate and graduate degree programs.

Here are some expert tips for completing this process at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Determine what transfer credits you may have. This is especially important for online students, who often have some previously completed coursework from other institutions. Experts say a transfer adviser can help them determine which credits will be accepted.

“That can change the path a bit and move things around, and we certainly want to have flexibility,” Starnes says.

Incoming online undergraduates should be aware that they may be able to transfer in courses that aren’t applicable to their intended major, says Josie Miranda, an academic adviser for online business administration undergraduates at Oregon State University Ecampus.

Online students may also be able to receive academic credit for work or military experience or by taking tests such as the College-Level Examination Program.

[Read: 7 Ways to Reduce the Cost of an Online Degree.]

Consult an academic adviser. After online students first enroll, they should work with the advisers at their school either virtually or by visiting campus for a one-on-one meeting.

“We know which courses go together best. The deans and the faculty of each school have laid out what they think is the best path for someone to take,” Starnes says, though he acknowledges that suggested pathways can change according to an individual student’s needs.

Academic advisers can also suggest which courses to take concurrently if a student takes several at once. This may depend on factors such as overlapping content as well as rigor and weekly time commitment.

At some schools, academic advisers may even provide newly enrolled students with a degree planner showing course requirements — including general education requirements for undergraduates — along with offered electives and other information.

Still, Miranda says, “The further out you project, the more difficult it is to really lock something in.” She recommends that students meet with student services staff throughout the course of a program to make adjustments to the course road map as needed and ensure they are on track to graduate.

Look into requirements and prerequisites. Even if they plan to meet with an adviser during this process, incoming online students should familiarize themselves with what courses they have to take and any foundational or capstone requirements. Many upper-level courses in a given online degree program have prerequisites, Miranda says, which can affect how students lay out their online degree program road map.

“For the Ed.S., I did have to finish a certain set of classes for my administrative licensure, and my thesis classes had to be toward the end, but others could be taken at any point,” Sherrod says.

Overall, mapping out online courses is a bit more complex for online undergraduates, says Frank Rodriquez, director of operations and student support services at the College of Professional and Continuing Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

“We have to assess them for completion of all the requisite general education requirements,” he says. “We have to review their transfer credit carefully to see that they’re not repeating courses.”

Weigh how many courses to take each term. This consideration is particularly important for online students, who must decide whether they have the time on top of their work responsibilities to take multiple classes in a given term.

[Read: 4 Reasons Online Learning Works Well for Working Adults.]

An online student may be required to take a certain number of credits to be eligible for federal financial aid. Students who receive tuition reimbursement from their employer should also check whether their stipend covers a set number of classes for each semester, says Pamela Jeffries, dean and professor at the George Washington University School of Nursing, which also offers online degrees.

The suggested number of credits to complete at once varies between schools, experts say, and the factors that impact the number of courses can differ for students.

“Life, sometimes pregnancy, gets in the way, sickness, personal issues,” says Jeffries, acknowledging many online students also have families. “So sometimes, instead of taking three classes they might take two, or instead of taking two they might take one. So then the degree map changes.”

Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.

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