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Earning your master's degree is no easy task; with obligations like a full-time job, you may not have the time to head to a campus and sit in on lectures for a certain number of hours a week.

For many people, however, a master's degree can be a gateway to upgrading not just your skills and knowledge, but your salary as well. For example, according to an article in Forbes, having your master's in business administration (MBA) can help to get you a six-figure salary.

Weighing the benefits of getting your master's degree versus the setbacks of taking time off and possibly leaving your job to pursue it might be a thing of the past because of the growing popularity of distance education to earn your master's. Now it seems like all signs point to go!

John O'Brien, manager of communications and media relations at Athabasca University, says that the flexibility aspect of distance education is a real advantage for people who have full-time jobs because it lets them continue their careers while they're advancing their education. I think that's the key thing.

It may even be more difficult to physically go to classes if the program they want isn't available locally, says Peggy Watts, director of distance learning and continuing education at Mount St. Vincent University. In addition to tuition fees, having to relocate to attend school might not be ideal because of the additional living costs you may incur.

At that level, I think it makes a lot of sense for distance learning to be an option if you want to take a master's program, she says. Sometimes, the particular program [a student is looking for] might only be available at one or two institutions across the country, so it's not always possible for a working person to give up their career for a few months to go to that program.

And although the costs of tuition are roughly the same, says O'Brien, pursuing distance education will allow you to save on additional travel costs, and still give you the freedom to carry on with your day-to-day obligations, whether it be a job, family responsibilities, or keeping small luxuries like going to your favourite brunch spot in the city.

Getting your master's degree through distance education might start to sound appealing right about now. However, in the interest of being thorough, here are some more factors to consider before you log on and sign up.

How has distance learning improved since it was first offered in universities?

Watts says that the presentation of the curriculum is advancing and becoming fine-tuned to adjust to an increasingly online-driven environment. The technology is evolving all the time and becoming sophisticated, says Watts, and people are developing a curriculum that can be delivered on mobile devices. This not only makes online and distance programs more practical, but also more engaging.

Is there a wide range of master's programs to choose from?

Distance education has also improved through its expansion of available programs, particularly master's degree programs. I think the availability, to begin with, is growing, says Watts. Universities are realizing that [distance education] is a way to reach students in a much broader, geographical area ... so from the university's perspective, they would certainly like to be able to recruit from a broader area as well. That's definitely advantageous, and that's definitely why a lot of people are moving their degree programs more into a distance delivery.

The big three, according to O'Brien, are nursing, education, and MBAs. However, a quick search on websites like reveal that there are master's degrees in all fields, from applied child psychology to information systems, so there's likely to be a distance education master's degree program available for people studying in all types of fields.

Is the curriculum consistent between on-campus and distance education classes?

 The short answer is yes. Although the decision about how valuable an education you receive ultimately relies on each individual, Watts says that for the most part, the work your do'in class or on your laptop at a local coffee shop'is the same. When faculty and instructional designers work on courses for distance learning, they're looking to achieve the same results as in face-to-face courses. So there's no diminution to the quality of the material or the course, or the amount of material people are going to be looking at, and so forth, she says. It just has to be presented in a different way. I think it can be very effective, and some people actually prefer it.

I think the biggest misconception is that the quality [of education] is not there, and that certain schools offering distance education, are degree mills'those schools do exist, says O'Brien. However, the vast majority of qualified universities who offer distance education are offering quality education'the same or better than you get in the classroom. Universities who offer distance education go through rigorous review processes to receive accreditation. O'Brien says, They look at our quality of instruction, the quality of our courses, etc., and decide that these are legitimate university courses.

Is it as easy to receive academic assistance from educators and professors through distance education as it is on campus?

Getting assistance from professors is usually as easy as approaching them after a lecture to ask questions. Although you may not have that luxury while taking courses online, there is virtual classroom software that allows people to speak and see one another over the internet and exchange documents.

 A student can set up an appointment the same way that they would for a classroom or an on-campus meeting with a faculty member, and they can talk together and look at the same documents, says Watts. They can share a lot of information online within that particular tool.

If you're seriously considering getting your master's degree through distance education, you have to be somewhat of a self-starter, you have to be able to manage your time well, and you'll also need to be motivated, says Watts. Those are qualities that are so important in the classroom, but certainly, they're especially important for people who will be working with a certain degree of autonomy.

Whether you decide to pursue your master's degree the old-fashioned way or through distance education, be sure that you're ready. Regardless of the method, getting your master's degree will certainly be a challenge, and we all know that academic success requires effort and determination.

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