How Do Online Masters Degrees Work?

When thinking about the typical graduate student you probably have an image of an overworked, sleep-deprived student slaving away on research or a thesis. While a master’s degree doesn’t have as much class time as a regular undergraduate degree you’re probably wondering how an online master’s degree program can give the same experience and knowledge without having students in a physical classroom interacting with each other and a professor. So how exactly do they pull it off?

There are three main technologies used by online programs to deliver the knowledge and interaction needed to truly deserve a master’s degree; forums, email and virtual classrooms. Let’s discuss each in turn.

Student Discussion Forums

The online forum has been around a long time, but the concept has been customized to fit online education. Most programs utilize a Learning Management System (LMS) such as Blackboard or Canvas to provide a secure setting and record the discussion threads. Here is how a typical assignment works:

  • Post a discussion topic (usually the teacher will do this)
  • Students have a set time period to respond
  • Students may be required to comment on a certain number of comments from other students
  • The interaction is monitored and graded by the instructor

Conceptually this is very similar to a classroom discussion of a question, but students are able to participate according to their availability while responses are recorded (with a time stamp). This can actually provide a more concrete way to grade participation because a dominating student is easily spotted and “quieter” students have equal opportunity to participate.


Virtually all degrees, undergraduate and post-graduate, have incorporated group work elements. These projects most closely simulate real work experience where you interact with team members from different departments with different backgrounds and different styles. While an online master’s program won’t have you all meeting in a small study room to hash out your project into the wee hours, email allows group members to stay in touch despite different schedules. This flexibility is vital while team members are still able to work together toward a common goal. It also closely simulates the work environment where email has achieved ubiquity (almost to a frustrating extent).

Virtual Classrooms

Thanks to increased bandwidth and videoconferencing it is possible for instructors to deliver lectures in real-time with audio, video and visual support. Most LMS software solutions offer this type of functionality, but this can be as simple as a GoToMeeting or Webex meeting where students can view the screen of their instructor while listening to the “lecture”, all remotely via the internet. Students are able to ask questions in real time and the teacher can interact immediately during the lecture or respond to questions individually at a later time. Again, this technology allows even the shyest students an opportunity to be heard and can eliminate the fear of asking a dumb question.


At the core, online programs provide the same level of interaction and information as a traditional classroom setting. However, they can actually help instructors provide more highly individualized instruction while allowing the student to participate at their own pace.


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