For online learners, juggling coursework, holding down a full-time job, and having a life is just that … a juggling act. There are so many demands on your time that make it incredibly challenging to keep your priorities straight.
Good thing Britton Powell, an online degree-seeking student at American Sentinel University in Birmingham, Alabama loves a challenge. He is trying to wrap up an undergraduate degree before the birth of his first child in March 2007. This 26-year-old Valdosta, Georgia resident has been hard at work taking online courses leading up to a B.S. in Computer Science. And getting it all done hasn't been easy.
Britton originally enrolled at Valdosta State University in 1998 to pursue a bachelor's degree. He was not far from graduation when he was made a very attractive job offer with his current company as a programmer/analyst.
He decided to enter the work force instead of finishing his degree at the time, rationalizing that he could always get a degree—but that job opportunity may not be available again.
"This was an opportunity I couldn't pass up, and as VSU is a 'traditional' school, the classes I needed to graduate weren't offered at night. I chose my career over the degree, knowing that I could finish later, as I am doing now, and getting my employer to pay for it," says Britton, with a crafty smile.
He expects to finish the 120 credit degree this spring, and take a short break before starting an online MBA program. In the meantime, Britton and his wife are eagerly awaiting the arrival of their baby, and he is determined to do whatever it takes to make ends meet after the little one makes it a party three.
Says Britton matter-of-factly, "When it comes to managing time with a newborn, work and school, to me, you do what you have to do."
Tell us about your current job.
I work for Packaging Corporation of America, a manufacturer of containerboard and corrugated packaging products.
Fifty percent of my job is spent on software development, enhancing our current accounting and production reporting software. My other responsibilities include supervising our help desk employees, and providing second level desktop software/hardware support, as well as support for our Netware, Windows, and OS/400 server platforms.
What aspect of distance learning do you like the best?
The greatest thing about completing my degree online is the flexibility of the schedule. I have been able to finish some classes in just three to four weeks, but then I can also take longer with some of the more difficult classes.
The convenience of getting to the coursework when I get the time is a huge plus. I get to choose what times of the day that are best for me to do my assignments.
Spending half an hour here and there on assignments not only gives me about five to ten hours a week doing coursework, but leaves plenty of time in between sittings to think about the next question or problem I have to solve.
What is the hardest thing about distance learning?
The hardest thing for me is finding the time and then forcing myself to focus and just get the work done. It usually gets done on my lunch hour.
Have you had any trouble making deadlines?
No. I tend to push myself, maybe more than I should, by trying to cut imposed deadlines in half. If I have a month to do a project, I only give myself two weeks to leave some much-needed breathing room.
Computer Science is highly theoretical. Do you ever struggle to grasp programming or algorithmic concepts because of the online learning format?
Yes. Some concepts are difficult to understand by just reading the text and not being in the classroom. I often look to Google or Wikipedia for additional clarification to understand some ideas.
Sometimes it just takes a sentence to be worded differently for it to click. Mostly, I can understand all of the material; sometimes it just takes some extra work and patience.
Have you had to contact a professor for help? How helpful was he/she?
I had to email a professor once. I got a prompt response, but it wasn't the answer I was looking for (in his defense, he couldn't answer my question without giving away the answer to the problem, though). But I've found that the professors are very responsive.
What has been your favorite course and why?
I have a love/hate relationship with Computational Theory. It is not easy material to learn on your own. But, on the other hand, I do like a challenge. Luckily, my professor also provides great feedback on my assignments.
Approximately how much will your degree cost? How are you financing your education?
I enrolled at American Sentinel University with only 12 classes left to finish, so I am paying somewhere in the neighborhood of $10,000.
My employer reimburses my tuition costs, as long as I earn B's or better. Most employers that provide tuition reimbursement advertise it in some way, especially to entice potential new hires.
Students who want to find out about tuition reimbursement should contact their Human Resources department. It's the best place to start looking. Many companies offer some sort of help, so it's a good step to investigate what your company provides if you're thinking about enrolling in a course or finishing up a degree, like me!