This is another installment of an ELGL original content series titled “An MPA From My Apt.” by University of Southern California MPA distance graduate program student Josh Halladay. Halladay is sharing his experiences with a distance learning program in the hopes of providing perspective and support to other students who are pondering a degree using a distance or online program.
Group projects. One of the more fun parts of online work, because for an hour we actually get to interact with our classmates face to face (via Google Hangouts of course). Aside from coordinating times with persons in different states and sometimes time zones, it is far easier than a traditional program as the meeting takes place inside your home. However, there is a potential downside to the required group work of an online program.
Side track to a military unit in the middle of a war zone. Focus on a squad of soldiers engaged in a firefight. The squad is outnumbered, on the wrong end of a vantage point, and without any backup. All but two members of the squad are pinned down by enemy fire. The other two have identified a potential escape route accessible to them and realize that without using it, they likely face considerable injury as a best case scenario. Yet the two soldiers hardly considered retreating. Why? The easy answer that almost any soldier will give you: camaraderie.
Sidetrack back to my apartment, with poor lighting, a half-finished glass of white wine, and a white boxer sleeping on her dog bed snoring next to me. What do a warzone and a master’s program have in common? Absolutely nothing and it would be disrespectful of me to say otherwise. What do a unit of soldiers and a cohort in a master’s program have in common? Camaraderie. Both groups of people work together to complete a difficult mission. Both groups offer support individual members. Both groups have a reason to need a drink.
But in an online master’s program, when you only meet the other members of your group at the very beginning of the program and again at the very end, what is the level of camaraderie? Compared to a cohort that interacts every day in class, work in study groups until the wee hours of the morning, and go out and get that much needed drink at the end of a final, not very high. Facebook is a fun tool that allows a person to quickly catch up with all of their friends and find out what’s going on in their lives, but it could use some improvement in the area of team building. It also does not develop the same responsibility towards a person as having to face them in class the next day.
So, when I get paired with a girl who was disengaged the entire orientation session at USC and a guy who did not yet have the required textbook by week four, I’m screwed. Without camaraderie, their only motivation for completing a project is their personal GPA. But in a program where the majority of the people already have the security of fulltime jobs, grades are less of a motivating factor. The result: a plan laid out at the beginning of our formation was not followed, one member claiming he double checked the required format obviously did not, members not completing their individual portions until 28ish hours before the final deadline when it’s too late for group to conference on it, and the majority of the work falling on the person who put in the most effort.
The most unfortunate part is that I have to work with this group two more times in the next 10 weeks. At least I will get some practice in team motivation….and a big glass of wine.