Why I Chose Online Education: Dalene Erickson

This student juggled ballroom dancing and a houseful of kids to earn an online degree.

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Dalene Erickson earned her online master's in education from University of North Dakota.

College education takes all sorts of shapes these days, as students more often choose nontraditional routes to a degree. Many people of different ages, backgrounds, and career goals are now looking to online education programs. Here's why one person chose an online degree.

Dalene Erickson earned bachelor's degrees in English and psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle, and then wound up in Maryland, running a ballroom dancing studio with her husband. When the economy plummeted, so did the studio's revenue. With three small kids to feed, Erickson knew she had to make some extra money. She began a childcare service in her home to do just that and quickly realized that most other providers in that field had advanced degrees.

Erickson began her search for a master's degree program that fit her booked schedule of wrangling toddlers by day and teaching ballroom by night. She went with an online program and has liked it so much that she's decided to also pursue an online certificate in dual language learning after she earns the degree she's working on now.

Age: 46

Online program: University of North Dakota

Degree pursued and graduation year: M.S. in early childhood education, expected May 2012

Why an online degree: "It was online or nothing," says Erickson, who only had time to take classes late at night, after she tended to children during the day (including three four-year-olds of her own) and then taught at the studio.

Degree impact: "I was able to apply stuff I was learning right away," says Erickson. She was better able to prepare the children for kindergarten and became more aware of what was developmentally appropriate at different ages, Erickson says.

Her childcare business became more successful, too. While many providers in the area are struggling, Erickson says that she's booked with eight children (the maximum in Maryland) and even has a waiting list. By using what she learns in class as opposed to just babysitting, Erickson says, "It's clear I'm not a holding tank."

Biggest challenge of earning an online degree: Besides taking classes very late at night, Erickson says she struggles with sometimes sitting her children in front of the television as she studies. Although the programming they watch is usually educational, Erickson says that television in lieu of engagement goes against much of what she learns in class.

But one of her ballroom students encouraged her to move on. She said the student, who was also an educator, told her, "Our children are learning that school is important, and that mommies and daddies go to school, too, and that you have a good, strong work ethic."

Advice for future online students: "Go for it," she says. "Take a chance." Erickson says that, in addition to valuable academics, online education provided her with a few other surprising perks. "I wasn't expecting a sense of community—totally found that," she says. "I wasn't expecting to make friends in my classes like you do in in-person classes, but I have."

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