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Graduate Matters

One student’s experience completing a graduate degree online

School experience, cost and lifestyle were Sam Luong’s top priorities when deciding to do his master’s degree online.

BY SAM LUONG | JUL 08 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced big changes, suffering, and loss in our society. We have seen these disruptions give birth to new ways of being and doing things. Postsecondary education is no exception. In the final weeks of the spring semester, students had a taste of online learning. So, with at least the fall semester being fully remote at almost all universities, what might virtual graduate studies look like?

Before the pandemic hit, Sam Luong intentionally chose a graduate program that was conducted primarily online. He talks frankly about his experiences and reasons for this choice.

What graduate program did you enroll in and at what institution?

I enrolled in the master of architecture online graduate program offered at Lawrence Technological University. Although LTU is located in Michigan state, I registered for the online program designed for students who have earned a bachelor of science in architecture. After two years of a full-time commitment for a part-time program, I recently finished.

Sam Luong.

How does an online graduate degree work?

The platform used is called CANVAS, a “Facebook”-like website and app but for academia. We also used Google Drive and Zoom for meetings in order to make virtual classrooms possible. Almost all the courses were online, with the exception of one on-site course that was taken during a summer semester (for that class the 40 students met in-person in Detroit for a week-long design-build charrette.)

At first I wasn’t sure about the format, but it worked out when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March and classes continued without skipping a beat.

Classes varied tremendously. Some classes were held once a week while others were held twice a week for six hours total. For other courses that were asynchronous (recorded lectures), we didn’t see anyone else until the very final presentation. Most of the classes were offered during the weekdays after 5:30 p.m. This schedule made it easy to for me to coordinate between school and career schedules.

Something else worth mentioning is that out of all the 14+ courses I took, only one course had an exam. I really enjoyed this setup because it was extremely exhausting to study and work full-time, not to mention the pressure that a final exam can have one someone. I like the fact that the program heavily utilizes final projects, which I can add to my academic portfolio, a plus when I am searching for jobs.

What computer equipment and accessories would you recommend students invest in for a comfortable learning experience?

Getting a powerful gaming laptop is always the safest bet, especially in architecture programs where one needs to do a lot of computer modeling, renderings, etc. LTU has student software available for rent on loaner laptops. In addition, professors at LTU were extremely helpful and willing to guide us whenever we reached out to them.

Given the choices of in-person and online graduate programs in architecture, in Canada and abroad, what led you to choose the online format?

I chose the LTU online graduate program for two main reasons. First, I chose this program over other physical degrees because it was an accredited degree that I could complete within two years. In particular, this program is recognized by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, which enables me to start accruing internship hours.

When compared to an in-person master’s degree in Canada, it is two times more expensive because I was considered an international student. However, this program fit into my professional and personal life routines.

What kind of interactions are built into this online graduate program?

Zoom meetings are the fundamental way in which we, the students, engaged with professors. I like this format because it offers me tremendous flexibility to hop on a class meeting whether I’m at work or at home. I know some architecture students prefer to be on-site so that they can experience the architecture studio culture, but it didn’t bother me at all.

In fact, the online learning format fit my personality. I don’t miss group work in school settings. I have had poor experiences working with group members not doing their part.

What are the challenges and fulfillments of learning remotely?

I was challenged by:

  • Time management
  • Prioritization between work and school, and
  • Learning how to shift gears between a full-time job (37.5 hours) and part-time study (another 30 hours +/-). It was extremely difficult to balance these elements. I really felt exhausted after two and a half months into the term every semester.

Nevertheless, I was motivated by gratitude and fulfillments. I completed the program without having to sacrifice much of my routines for the majority of my studies.

How do you motivate yourself or energize yourself given this remote nature of learning?

The secret is staying organized at the very beginning of each semester. For example, I looked at the syllabus, set all the important calendar dates for each course, then planned my other life events around it. I also heavily relied on the use of Google Drive to organize the folders and file structures ahead of time. This gave me an overview of the assignments coming ahead on all devices because of cloud sharing.

I sometimes found myself reading on a stationary bike or the Stairmaster at the gym! In all seriousness, when the semester is rolling, you just want to be able to get your assignments and projects done as expeditiously as possible.

Having now completed an in-person undergraduate and online graduate university degree, what is your reflection about their differences and similarities?

These were some questions I pondered:

  • Are you looking to get the full studio experience with other classmates around?
  • Are you looking for a more affordable degree and potentially receive funding?
  • Do you mind changing up your lifestyle routine?

School experience, cost and lifestyle preferences were my top parameters of considerations. If I had the chance to pick my option again, I would still choose the online format.

What advice do you have for students who will have their graduate fall semester online?

Stay organized, work hard, focus on the future, and enjoy the process. It goes by faster than you think. But most importantly, do take time for yourself and recharge after every semester. At the time, I didn’t think I needed the time to rest, but I really did.

Sam Luong
Sam is an architectural intern from Toronto who has worked on a variety of large-scale architectural projects for international firms. Sam is also passionate about physical health and well-being and hopes to one day design a smart-technology home. He also runs his own consulting firm, Studio cloud nine.
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