Prospective online students may still want some of the face-to-face interaction they would otherwise receive in a traditional classroom.
Take Eileen Anka, a student in the Pepperdine University Graziadio School of Business and Management’s online MBA program. The California-based area manager for Amazon.com Inc. – who chose to complete her degree online mainly because she travels often for work – is required to visit the school’s campus twice throughout the program. Those in-person components, or what some schools refer to as residencies, each last a few days.
“I thought it was a great opportunity to meet the staff and faculty and my classmates,” says the 26-year-old.
During her weekend-long residency in Malibu, California, before courses began, she met her instructors for dinner Friday night. On Saturday, she completed group projects that required students to share personal stories in a classroom-style setting, and on Sunday, she and her classmates gave presentations.
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“We were able to really dive deep with one another,” she says. “There were points where we were laughing; some of us were crying because it was very personal.” She will attend an additional on-campus residency of the same length during her second year.
Online degrees across disciplines may have similar residency requirements, though the length of time and what exactly they entail vary. Residencies are more common at the graduate level, experts say, though they do exist in some undergraduate programs.
“We don’t want to repeat anything on campus that couldn’t be accomplished online,” says Sean Bulger, a professor in the College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences at West Virginia University, where the online master’s programs in sport management and physical education teaching both have residencies.
In the sport management residency, students tour the school’s athletics facilities to better understand how they operate, Bulger says. The physical education teaching online program residency “gives experienced teachers the opportunity to watch other experienced teachers do their thing, which is difficult to replicate online,” he says.
Residencies may also be particularly important in other disciplines such as nursing, where face-to-face interaction is a major part of the profession, according to experts. At the University of Minnesota School of Nursing, for example, students within the primarily online Doctor of Nursing Practice program must come to campus at least once a semester, says Christine Mueller, associate dean for academic programs.
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But in certain specialties within the program – particularly those for nurse midwives, practitioners or anesthetists – the requirement may be even more frequent, she says. That’s because the training they undergo is difficult to replicate in the virtual environment. Overall, roughly half of the program’s students live outside of the Twin Cities metropolitan area or in other states, Mueller says.
As Anka, the Graziadio student, experienced, one of the main benefits of any online degree program residency is the opportunity to network and build stronger relationships with classmates as well as professors. Anka says through team-building exercises, she was able to “figure out who you click with, how people operate.” That was important, she says, because group assignments are common in her online courses.
“They really walk out of here with a sense of connection and community and pride with the university,” says Darin Kapanjie, academic director for the online BBA and MBA programs at the Temple University Fox School of Business. Its online MBA includes a residency.
But online program residencies may come with a cost – literally. Programs vary as to whether they fund students’ stays in hotels or university dormitories. Often, students must pay their own travel expenses, which can be costly for those who live far away.
At the online master’s programs in West Virginia University’s College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences, Bulger says, students pay for transportation and typically on-campus housing, on top of tuition and fees. Experts suggest that prospective students look into whether their financial aid will help cover those expenses.
These additional costs may be less of an issue for students if their employer is funding their education. The same goes for taking time off work, he says, which online students may need to do if they must arrive on a Friday evening, for instance, or spend an entire week at the institution.
[Learn strategies to sell an employer on an online grad school residency.]
Experts also suggest choosing a program with a residency component that doesn’t just duplicate what’s taught virtually.
“They’re adult learners who are investing discretionary income in our academic program,” says Bulger. “They could find a lot of other things to do with that money. So we do try to pay close attention to the feedback that they’re able to provide.”