11/27/2011 | JENNIFER BOUCHARD
Selecting the Right Graduate Program
Many experts have begun to reexamine the concepts of “digital native” and “digital immigrant,” coined by Marc Prensky, a writer and educational futurist. One unfortunate side-effect of seeing today’s students as “digital natives” is that teachers often feel that students automatically know more about technology than they do, simply because they were born into a digital generation. This is often untrue. Students do not necessarily possess the digital literacy skills to effectively use technology in a learning environment. Educators are just the people to develop true digital natives by teaching digital literacy skills through integrating technology into their curriculum.
The real question becomes: How? How do educators develop the skills they need to ensure that today’s students develop the skills they need? Choosing the right graduate program can be the first step in the process.
A quick search of the National Center for Education Statistic’s (NCES) College Navigator — http://ed.gov/collegenavigator/ — brings up more than 500 higher education institutions offering graduate level degrees in education. With so many graduate programs in education out there, it can be a daunting task to narrow down the choices and find the right teaching and learning program. And the search now needs to factor in which program will help you keep pace with the increasingly pervasive impact that technology is having within teaching and learning. So where do you start? Before doing a general Internet search or sifting through all 500+ institutions on the NCES site, think about what you want from a program.
Program Philosophy and Structure
As a working teacher or administrator, you might prefer a program that emphasizes praxis rather than a program heavy in educational research. Today, many programs balance research and practice in order to produce graduates who can use research to shape their everyday teaching. This balance is often accomplished through a mix of academic papers and applied projects. Applied projects are particularly important when learning to integrate technology into teaching and learning. Educators can experience what works — or doesn’t — first hand, and feel confident about what they include in their own lessons.
Today, you can earn a graduate degree in a variety of ways: on-campus, online or a combination of both in a hybrid program. Before choosing your program, think about: first, how you learn best; second, how far away you are from campus and how much time can you invest in a face-to-face classroom environment given your other commitments; and third, how flexible you need your studies to be. If you need maximum flexibility and no travel, online learning can be a great option. In addition, students who are interested in learning how to effectively integrate technology into their own education contexts, may find that an online program offers more opportunity to use the very technology you’re learning about on a daily basis.
Proper accreditation is essential to ensure that you get the quality education you need, the degree you earn will be valuable to current and future employers, and you can obtain federal financial aid, if needed. There are six regional accreditation bodies for graduate schools across the country. Visit the Council for Higher Education Accreditation site for more information, http://chea.org. Any college or university you investigate, whether campus-based, online or hybrid, must be accredited by one of these regional accrediting bodies.
Active Search and Review of Programs
Now that you have covered the more general, pre-search knowledge and considerations, it’s time to look at that long list of potential schools. During this process, particularly if you are considering online programs, you will probably spend many hours reading program Web sites.
On your checklist, include the following:
- Is the program research focused or praxis focused?
- Are classes offered in the format I want?
- Is the school appropriately accredited?
- What are the admissions requirements and can I meet them?
If you find the answers you are looking for, it is time to dig deeper into specific teaching and learning programs that interest you.
Programs generally have a set of core courses that all students in the graduate program must take and a set of courses that make up the concentration. Carefully examine the course descriptions and program outcomes to see if they will help you meet your end goal. How much do you want to learn about how to effectively integrate technology into the classroom? How much practice do you want using those technologies and developing your ability to evaluate their potential within your learning environment? To wrap up your program, there may be a comprehensive exam, a thesis, or a capstone project — or a combination of these. Programs that emphasize practical application often utilize the capstone project format, which allows you to work on a real-life project.
If a program emphasizes instructional design in the core, then the program might not be the right one for you. Look for courses on curriculum development, managing diversity, classroom management, cognitive development and learning, improving achievement, teaching practices, and using technology in the classroom. When it comes to integrating technology into any program, there must be a hands-on component. Do you see phrases like students will “create their own blog/website/LMS” or “use Google Apps to foster collaboration” or “integrate Web 2.0 tools into your lessons”?
Regardless of what the course descriptions say, you can always talk directly to faculty or current students, or gain insight into student feedback by visiting the school’s Web site or social media pages. Find out exactly how much hands-on experience you’ll get with technology, what those technologies are, and how they will be used throughout the program.
Faculty Qualifications and Accessibility
Spend some time learning about the faculty members who will teach your courses. Do they have advanced degrees and relevant teaching and learning experience? How well versed are they in the effective integration of technology in teaching and learning? How accessible are they?
Support services are often overlooked, but a critical consideration. Find out who your advisor will be and whether that person is available during non-business hours. Writing center services, tutors, and career services should also be available to graduate students. And don’t forget to investigate the library. Even traditional brick and mortar institutions are moving to online libraries. Online access to journals and books makes life as a working graduate student much easier. Make sure it is available to you.
Time to Apply
You have now fully explored the program materials online, spoken with faculty and students, and know the support services you need are in place. You have now completed your checklist and are ready to apply to graduate school. Good luck on your journey!