Stephen F.



His goal is to launch his own online school. He obviously knows a thing or two about higher education.

An enthusiastic student, Steve has attended more than a half dozen colleges. The 33-year old holds a bachelor's degree in Information Systems from Charter Oak State College, and is pursuing an online master's degree in Educational Technology Leadership through George Washington University. With plans to complete it by the end of the year, he already has designs on doctoral work.

“I'm looking exclusively at non-U.S. universities,” he says of his search for a doctoral program. “They're a better value and I'm interested in international education, particularly in the developing world.”

“Because of my work experience, a great deal of my coursework, even at the Master's level, has been covering things I already knew,” he explains.

“In a sense I've been doing this so that my credentials will catch up to the knowledge I already possess.”

He knows that it will be hard work, but understands that it is critical to his success.

Before he can realize his dream of marketing distance education to students in the developing world, he will first have to market himself. “By finishing advanced degrees, I'll have the training and academic credibility to move that project forward.”

Steve understands better than anyone the risks of overextending himself. The demands of being a husband, father, boss, employee and student took a toll, finally.

“I would've finished the master's in December 2006,” he volunteers. “But I bit off more than I could chew and failed a required course. It was the biggest setback I've had since I went back to school.”

“Definitely the hardest thing has been balancing work, school and family,” says the father of four. “I had been in jobs that were not as demanding. I had the opportunity at work to do some class work.”

That recently changed when Steve landed a job as director of e-learning at a university. While university life does afford more of a 9 to 5 existence than his previous jobs in tech, there is simply no downtime during the day.

His job may require him to do anything from help faculty integrate podcasting, blogs or other Internet related activities into the classroom experience, to helping them actually build courses to be offered online. His workday is too unpredictable for studying.

Much of his time is spent putting out fires or answering questions. Any given day he may be called upon to act as a consultant on a technical or copyright issue, or sometimes, even jump in and guest lecture.

His new responsibilities forced him, however reluctantly, to make adjustments in his study schedule.

“I had been studying about 10 or 15 hours a week,” he recalls reflecting on earlier courseloads. “But they weren't in blocks. I had a half hour here, and an hour there. The courses were a lot easier for me. I could skip reading. They would cover tech subjects with which I was already familiar.”

Weekends do not provide much of an opportunity to catch up. Every other weekend, Steve's three children from an earlier marriage come to visit. He has had to develop certain economies to maximize the time he does have to himself to complete his schoolwork.

He regrets that he doesn't have any specific time management tips to share. “It helps that I'm a very fast typist; I can bang out a paragraph or two that is reasonably substantive,” he says of his ability to stay on top of discussion board posts.”

“I specifically chose programs where I am familiar with the material,” he admits. Though he warns, “that's a double-edged sword. I'm still interested [in the material.] But I'm ready to start research. I'm ready to be done.”

Though he has a great deal of experience, many of his online IT courses still have the ability to challenge him. On one occasion an assignment piqued his interest to the degree that it led to more in-depth study. He utilized that term paper on the use of open content in developing curricula as the basis for a presentation at an academic conference.

Another prudent move was his decision to take advantage of CLEP tests whenever it was feasible to stretch his college budget. This providence was particularly sound as his eldest child, already 10 years old, is headed to college in just another eight years.

Steve, who mostly covers his own education expenses with student loans, earned a year's worth of credits by examination. He estimates that it was a $5,400 savings. He finished his degree through Charter Oak in 2005 at a cost of only about $3,000.

Because his educational odyssey began over a decade ago, he had a slew of credits from various colleges. He had initially begun college right after high school at Shepherd University. He left after a year, got interested in politics, worked for a campaign, then an advocacy group, traveled, and got married.

He became interested in technology and worked in that sector picking up a Microsoft certification along the way. Throughout that time he kept his eye on the ball and worked toward finishing his education.

“I was raised to think I was supposed to [finish college]” he says. “I would do what I could whenever I had the opportunity and whenever the time constraint was low enough.”

Charter Oak was willing to accept his credits from other schools, and in addition granted him 12 units for his MS certification.

With such a positive start to distance education, Steve doesn't see a return to a traditional classroom in his future.

Like many e-learners, he appreciates the flexibility of an online program. “If I had to spend that much time in a classroom, it would be a real challenge to schedule that.”

If distance education hadn't been available, he would have persevered. “I suppose I would have tried to find the fastest degree completion program, and then the Master's program most conducive to working adults. It certainly wouldn't have been as easy or fast, though.”

One of the few drawbacks of his online education experience has been the group meetings. “I intensely dislike group work.”

“I find there are too many issues when it comes to fairly and accurately grading different students in a group who may have contributed unevenly,” he asserts. “Some people pull their weight and others do not.”

“I say that as one who has pulled the weight, and once or twice, the one who did not,” he says candidly.

“I can see why instructors like group work. I don't think that it's the best thing to do from a pedagogical standpoint,” Steve says.

Though he realizes that in the so-called “real world” it is unavoidable, he still deems it “inherently unfair.”

“Most people in the real world do work in teams,” he admits. “But they are not as geographically distributed. They do so at a conference table.”

Even when communication by e-mail is necessary, he presents a logical argument that it is still not the same. “Classmates are otherwise strangers. Co-workers are known to you. It's easier to establish peer accountability.”

His strategy is to just do his part. He opts not to struggle for a leadership role. “Usually there is someone who likes to tell other people what to do. I find it's good to just let them.”

Though there have been some ups and downs, he definitely feels completing his degrees has been worth the effort. He sees his formal education as a “third party validation.”

“Other people can look to it and feel confident. A prospective employer doesn't have to take my word for it.”


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