U.S. News and World Report: What to Know About Earning an Online Degree in a Cohort
Author: Jordan Friedman, Online Education Editor, U.S. News and World Report
Posted: December 4, 2017

Read the original story in U.S. News and World Report.

Despite what some prospective students may believe, many online degree programs still allow for plenty of student interaction.

A few years ago, Karah Frank wanted to pursue her social work master's online at a reputable school so she could also continue working full time. The 30-year-old Washington state resident came across Portland State University's online program.

Once enrolled in the social work program, Frank was part of a cohort, she says, meaning she progressed through the courses alongside about 40 classmates who started and finished at the same time. She was in many core classes with those same students, which enabled her to build close personal and professional relationships.

"You really get to know the people who you're in a cohort with," she says. "These people are not strangers to me."

She also met them in person during the on-campus residency portion of her degree program, says the 2017 grad, who is currently pursuing her licensure to become a sex offender treatment provider.

When looking into different online undergraduate or graduate programs, prospective students should understand whether they will be part of a cohort, although this type of program's exact structure may vary among schools.

Here are three aspects to know about completing an online degree in a cohort.

1. You can build stronger relationships with classmates. This is often the most significant benefit of a cohort in an online degree program, experts say. A cohort usually allows for at least some face-to-face virtual interaction, with many of these programs holding some classes held in real time where students communicate through videoconferencing.

Many cohort-based online programs also require students to attend an on-campus residency together, often at the beginning of the online program.

Judy Beal, dean and professor for the School of Nursing and Health Sciences at Simmons College in Boston, says students in many of the school's online nursing graduate program clinical courses "stay together with the same instructor in the same section. They really get to know each other really well."

While other types of online courses may have multiple sections, students are still interacting with classmates from their cohort, she says.

The constant interaction with the same group of online students can likewise increase the possibility of interpersonal conflicts, says Lisa Hawash, assistant professor of practice in social work at Portland State who oversees the Master of Social Work program. But this can be a further opportunity to learn.

"It's kind of like the working world, when we struggle with a colleague," she says. "It behooves us to work on our relationship with them because they're going to be in the cubicle next to us or on the team with us."

2. You will have a tight-knit group of classmates to keep you motivated. Experts say online learning typically requires more self-discipline than on-campus education because many online students also work full time.

In a cohort, students can develop a bond over shared experiences with their classmates and seek their peers' support or guidance to stay on track, especially if they're struggling with coursework, says John Gresley, assistant dean and director of MBA programs at the University of Florida Hough Graduate School of Business.

"You have that personal accountability to the other people in the cohort," he says. "They're living and breathing the same experience; they're experiencing the same trials and tribulations."

3. You may have less flexibility with course sequencing. Prospective students should weigh the benefits of this type of program with the fact that cohorts are often designed so that students complete a set number of classes each term. This ensures that they move through the coursework alongside their classmates with a specified graduation date in mind, experts say.

But that structure isn't right for everyone – some students may prefer a completely self-paced program.

"If somebody's life is really inflexible, and really erratic, I'm not so sure that the cohort model would be the best," says Beal. "It's really pretty lockstep and rigid in that sense. But we allow for flexibility, obviously, because life happens."

Overall, schools' policies regarding the ability to take time off as needed or switch cohorts will vary, school officials say. That's something for prospective students to research beforehand, since work or family obligations may arise.

Regardless, a cohort structure may be the way to go for prospective students who want the general flexibility of online education combined with opportunities for networking, experts say.

"They use each other for support; they really do build relationships," says Beal. "They see each other on screen, and then they see each other during this immersion weekend and also during graduation."