Sunday, December 21, 2008

Correspondence courses: Worth It?

I remember when the phrase "correspondence course" or "online course" would elicit sneers or snickers. The pejorative phrase "degree mill" often wasn't far away.

I don't think that's the case nearly as much anymore. There are a lot of quality correspondence and Internet education options out there for people strapped for time, don't have the necessary mobility or transportation, or cannot otherwise fit desired or needed classwork into a traditional on-campus regimen. To their credit, learning institutions in the past decade or so recognized they were missing out on a sizable student market and developed ways to structure programs to satisfy that need.

Nevertheless, I had envisioned that trying to hone a skill such as photography would require a lot of one-on-one teacher/student interaction when I started hunting around for a course. While researching options online, I almost always would come back to the New York Institute of Photography and its six-unit Professional Photography course. The reviews were impressive, the program syllabus made the instruction seem valuable and worthwhile, and the description of the logistics of pulling it off without ever stepping into a classroom seemed like it could work for me. So that's the program I chose in late spring of 2005.

NYIP provided lessons in text (large magazine-size booklets, actually) and audiocassette tapes to accompany, complement and amplify the text readings. The voices on the tapes belong to NYIP's very personable Chuck DeLaney, then the school's dean and now its current director, and Don Sheff, who was then its director and now is director emeritus. Each lesson in the first four units also includes a pop quiz at the end. At the end of each unit (which could entail anywhere from three to six lessons), students are required to send two things back to the school -- a 10-question per lesson true-false test and photographic prints representing accomplishment of four to six photo assignments or projects.

Each student is assigned an adjunct faculty mentor, each of whom is a professional photographer with strong credentials. The mentor reviews the photo assignment submissions and returns them to the student accompanied by an an audio critique. I doubt that the mentor handles the tests; I think a school staff member rips through those, grades them and sends them back.

To me, the big appeal of the NYIP course, and the reason I picked it, was that I could work at my own pace; my preference was to get through it as quickly as possible, but if for some reason a student could not work at a fast or steady pace, NYIP allowed students up to three years to finish. If I would have had no distractions or unforeseen obstacles, I probably could have completed it in nine months to a year. But distractions and obstacles did happen, and I ended up pushing the three-year maximum beyond the limit -- I needed 3 years and 5 months, to be exact. Luckily, NYIP gave me no grief about that. Perhaps that's because I took advantage of a $200 tuition discount at the start by paying the full price up front (if you can't afford to cough up $790 at the beginning, you can pay in installments, but then the final cost adds up to almost $1,000).

What did I think of the course? And would I recommend it?

I thought it was very helpful, and for the most part, I did like it, even though, I felt, that at the time I enrolled in mid-2005, the course was still too entrenched in the waning film genre. Sheff and DeLaney acknowledged in a letter to students early in my course work that NYIP was resolved to keeping up with the growing interest in and popularity of digital photography (indeed, the school sent me a special DVD on digital instruction several months after my course work started), but the school didn't launch its full Digital Photography course, also for $1,000, until a few months afterward.

In my next post, I'll talk about what I perceived to be the ups and downs of the course.

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