The Online Universe of Human Resource Studies

Weigh the benefits—and demands—of virtual education.

By Kathryn Tyler May 1, 2010

0510cover.gifIn 1999, when Heather M. Hammitt, SPHR, began studying for a master’s degree in organizational management at the University of Phoenix, she got some unusual reactions. Back then, pursuing a graduate degree online was less common than it is today. There was suspicion "that these weren’t real degrees," she says. "I saw that perception slowly fade, and today I get mostly positive feedback on the online choice. People frequently comment that it shows a great deal of self-discipline."

Hammitt, marketing and communications chair for the Illinois State Council for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), is executive vice president and head of HR and corporate communications for Centrue Bank, a regional institution in St. Louis.

Hammitt chose an online graduate degree program for the flexibility it offers. "I didn’t want to sacrifice the time I was dedicating to my position to become a full-time student," she says. "A major driving force behind pursuing more education was to advance in my job. I needed something flexible and accredited." She graduated in 2002.

Dawn Haag-Hatterer, SPHR, chief executive officer of Consulting Authority LLC, an expert-witness consulting firm in Frederick, Md., cites similar motives: "Having a hectic work schedule, it is important for me to be the master of my own learning, and I cannot always work regular interactive sessions into my schedule," she says. She is completing her second year of an online law degree program at Taft Law School in Santa Ana, Calif. "The freedom to learn at my pace suits my work and lifestyle."

The convenience of online courses is no more apparent than at Capella University, an accredited online-learning institution based in Minneapolis: The busiest time in its course rooms is at 11 p.m. Seventy-two percent of Capella’s students are female, with an average age of 39. They are primarily working women with families.

Some skepticism remains regarding online degrees. According to a July 2009 SHRM poll with about 570 respondents, only 47 percent of HR professionals agreed that online degree programs rate equally with classroom degree programs. But the poll also found that skepticism seems to be fading: 76 percent of HR professionals said online degrees are viewed more favorably now than they were five years ago.

Moreover, as increasing numbers of HR professionals earn online degrees, they become more accepting and aware of the commitment required, Hammitt says.

Online degrees are indeed becoming more common. A 2008 study from the Babson Survey Research Group and the Sloan Consortium Enrollment found that enrollment in online courses grew 12 times faster than in higher education overall.

According to, an online education search engine, there are almost 100 accredited online master’s degree programs in human resources. Nearly 20 fully online or "blended" mainly online bachelor’s and master’s degree programs align with SHRM’s curriculum guidelines.

Weighing Pros and Cons

How can HR professionals decide if online courses or degrees would be a good choice? Those who have gone the online route recommend considering course structure, school, amount of self-discipline required, time needed to complete the program and cost. Online degree programs generally are less expensive than those at brick-and-mortar schools. Haag-Hatterer says cost was the primary reason she chose Taft Law School: "Given that the curriculum was the same as other distance-learning law schools, Taft’s cost was approximately $3,000 a year less" than that of other schools.

There are two main types of online courses: fully online and blended online. Blended courses are taught primarily online but have some in-person components, such as an introductory meeting or an in-classroom final exam. If you live far from the university, you may not want blended courses.

Sid A. Benraouane, a professor in the department of HR management and labor studies in the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, takes a blended approach. "I meet with [students] during the first week of the class and explain how to download lectures and do the reading. I have had some out-of-state students who have come only once to the campus," he says.

Degree programs can consist of either entirely online courses or a combination of online and classroom courses. Strayer University in Washington, D.C., offers online, in-person and blended graduate HR programs. "Some students like to take a traditional course to get acclimated back into the academic environment," says Wendy Howard, acting dean of the business school. "Once they adjust and build it into their routine, they feel more confident to move to online."

Colleen C. Caldwell, PHR, an HR specialist for Ovations Food Services LP, a Lutz, Fla., caterer, is an ideal example. She decided on Saint Leo University, near her home, because it offered on-campus and online courses. "At that point, I wasn’t comfortable with a completely online program. I thought I would miss that human component," she says. Caldwell received a bachelor’s degree in HR management and went on to pursue her MBA with a concentration in HR management in a completely online program.

"I didn’t feel like I was missing out," Caldwell says of the online learning experience. "I preferred it. I didn’t have to get up on weekends to be at school. I could work at my own pace. I never know what is going to come up. One of my kids could get sick. I might have to work overtime or go out of town. I can take my schoolwork with me anywhere. I can do my class work in a hotel in Las Vegas."

Formats of Online Courses

Sid A. Benraouane, a professor of HR management and labor studies in the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, explains how he builds an online class:

  1. Create a web site using either WebCT—known as Blackboard—or Moodle.
  2. Upload the syllabus, lecture notes, audio lectures and a collection of articles.
  3. Create one module per week. Each module has a theme, such as how to deal with conflict, along with specific readings, usually two chapters from the textbook and one article.
  4. Ask two or three questions to be answered on a message bulletin board for each module.
  5. Create the “feeling” of a virtual community through online discussion.

At Capella University, a Minneapolis-based online institution, each course’s home page uses a similar format. The sites show the learning objectives for the course and each module. Participants have passwords and can click on the requirements for every assignment, view the assignment’s relative weight in their grades and review scoring rubrics for the assignments. Also viewable are the instructor’s announcements, resources within the school’s library and discussion postings from classmates.

Live? Or Not?

An additional distinction within online courses is whether they are live (synchronous) or recorded (asynchronous). Live courses rely on teachers’ lectures, with students and teachers meeting in chat rooms at set times. Recorded courses are accessible at any time. Students rely on readings, PowerPoint presentations, recordings and message board postings.

The vast majority of HR graduate courses are recorded. "We run a few synchronous courses, but not in HR. We would run them if we had a demand," says Deb Snyder, senior vice provost of academic programs for Strayer in Port Huron, Mich.

Howard explains that live courses come with the constraint of students having to be in the course at a certain time. Recorded courses feature maximum flexibility.

Benraouane, however, recommends courses with an instructor as opposed to pre-recorded modules and no interaction. "E-learning courses where you are on your own with a recording telling you ‘Congratulations, you passed this step’ are not good academic courses," he says. "It is not a course that will develop certain cognitive capabilities."

Work/Life and School Balance

Balancing the obligations of home, career and online studies requires the following:

Commitment. "Online learning is all about self-discipline," Hammitt says. "I don’t want to say it wasn’t a sacrifice of my free time—it was. But it was manageable."

Adds Haag-Hatterer: "You only get out as much as you put in."

Both women did the minimum course work during the week so that they could concentrate on their jobs, and then they studied for online classes all weekend.

Mary Athanassopoulos-Block, senior service professional with Manpower Inc. in Mundelein, Ill., took an online course at the University of Phoenix to complete a missing requirement for a master’s degree in human resources from another school. "Consider the workload carefully," she says. "Some of my classmates took too much on. Since there isn’t a set schedule of classroom hours to work around, they underestimated how much time was involved.

"Other classmates couldn’t avoid the pitfalls of procrastination; they couldn’t manage their own time."

She points to some of her classmates’ postings on message boards, which were part of the course work and intended to serve as class discussion. "Many of their required postings were right before the midnight deadline, and were clearly not well-thought-out."

Time management is critical. Sabrina Gren in Aiea, Hawaii, a former hotel employment manager, is now a full-time student in a blended master’s program in HR management at Hawaii Pacific University. She interns at a resort hotel two days a week.

"You have to be able to set your own deadlines—and meet them," Gren says. "You don’t have anybody reminding you."

A quiet place to study. Caldwell half-kiddingly says that when she’s in her home office, her children "get it: ‘Mommy is taking a test. Don’t bother her unless you’re bleeding.’ "

A supportive employer. You will need to study for exams, Haag-Hatterer says. "If your company doesn’t support continuing education or your workgroup is understaffed, it’s going to be a long, tough journey. If you have a job where you put in more than 45 hours per week and take work home on a regular basis, you might want to reconsider. … Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can ‘make time’ to study."

Supportive family and friends. "I have three kids," Caldwell says. Being able to attend class online at home helps. "It’s more conducive to someone who has a family. If I have to stop and break up a fistfight, I can do that. I may have three hours to take a test. That’s usually more than enough time if, during the middle, I need to stop and start dinner." She prefers, however, to take tests when her husband is home, in case, as happened once, the power goes out and she has to drive to the library to get online. "It would be hard if your spouse were not on board," she says. "It becomes a huge part of your life."

Haag-Hatterer finds support from family and friends "who will keep you focused and not tempt you not to study."

What to Look for In An Online Program

Once you have decided to leap into virtual graduate school, how do you sift through the dozens of universities offering online degree programs?

Don’t necessarily sign up for the first online program you find, advises Colleen C. Caldwell, PHR, an HR specialist for Ovations Food Services in Lutz, Fla., who is finishing an online MBA program with a human resource management concentration at Saint Leo University in St. Leo, Fla. “Investigate your options. Take your time. Talk to people who have done the program. It’s a big step, and it’s not cheap.”

Consider your goals, types of degree programs, and program alignment with curriculum guidelines of the Society for Human Resource Management or the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology.

Examine each school’s accreditation, geographic location, course structure, reputation and cost. Request a sample syllabus.

The Online Edge

"Since 1999, a lot of studies have looked at the effectiveness of online education," says Benraouane. "Every study has come out with the conclusion that if online education is well-managed and well-structured, it creates better, more effective learning than traditional learning.

"The explanation is not the technology itself; it resides in the fact that online education forces students to spend more time on tasks and exposes them to more intellectual discussions. They are asked to do more."

In 2009, for example, authors of a U.S. Department of Education review of literature from 1996 to 2008 determined that "students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction.

"Learning outcomes for students who engaged in online learning exceeded those of students receiving face-to-face instruction."

Some professionals wonder if recruiters question the value of online graduate degrees, but that doesn’t appear to be happening.

As a hiring professional, Hammitt says, "I don’t look down on the online format. Particularly when looking for a managerial or professional position, it is critical [that] candidates be able to demonstrate strong writing skills and the ability to manage projects independently and meet deadlines. The online environment is a great test."


The author, a former HR generalist and trainer, is a freelance writer in Wixom, Mich.

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