Professor Patrick Jackson of American University says some online platforms are offering a near-classroom experience. (Jason Hornick/For Express)

When Emily Ham decided to get a master’s degree in international relations, she knew she would have to choose an online program.

As a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, Ham travels all over the world for her job, which currently has her stationed at NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in Belgium. A traditional on-campus master’s program wasn’t an option.

But Ham still wanted that sense of community and engagement students get when gathered in a classroom, surrounded by their peers.

“I’m a person who really learns through conversation,” says Ham, 27. “If I just had to read all day I would fall asleep.”

That might be a concern shared by a lot of students considering an online master’s program: Will it be engaging, or will it be dry and dull, so it’s easy to lose focus?

That’s why many online graduate programs are taking full advantage of today’s technology to deliver content in ways that are interesting, innovative and help you feel like you’re sitting in the classroom.

“The educational experience now available is considerably more dynamic and interactive than people’s first impressions of what online learning would be,” says Patrick Jackson, a professor in American University’s School of International Service who teaches classes for its online international relations master’s degree program.

Ham wound up choosing that program for its interactive platform. Students do some work on their own, which might include watching a video lecture from a professor or doing a training exercise, aka a case scenario. Then, using their camera-enabled computer, they meet up a couple of times a week in a virtual classroom that’s similar to a group video teleconference. Everyone can see and hear each other to discuss coursework in real time. Professors can also use chat boxes to start other discussions, create polls to see what students are thinking, and even break up the virtual class into smaller groups.

“That platform is one of the main reasons the program is as engaging as it is,” Ham says. “It’s almost like you’re in a classroom — you’re just looking at your computer in the comfort of your own home.”

Sometimes that can take the discussion to levels not even possible in a traditional campus setting.

“You can have a live discussion and simultaneous chat windows going on, because some people are more comfortable interjecting something in text versus speech,” Jackson says. “So people can participate in both ways and go back and forth.”

Of course, when students come from all over the world, the timing of these virtual meet-ups isn’t ideal for everyone. During Ham’s first semester, she was logging on at 1 a.m. from her home in Belgium.

“I told my advisers that I really loved the program, but I couldn’t keep waking up at 1 in the morning,” she says.

Now, the program offers two different timeframes, and Ham can participate in the online sessions at a time of day that’s more reasonable for her.

Georgetown University uses a similar platform in its online master’s in nursing program through its School of Nursing and Health Studies. It allows students and faculty to meet virtually in real time to discuss a course’s reading and other assignments.

“There are some totally asynchronous programs where students do all of the work on their own,” says Jeanne Matthews, chair of Georgetown’s department of nursing. “But we feel those asynchronous programs fall a little flat and generally don’t reflect the ongoing dialogue we want to promote among students and faculty.”

Justin Gill was originally wary of online programs. But Georgetown’s master’s of nursing program, with its combination of individual and group learning, has changed his mind.

“By communicating with my classmates and professors in real time, I can understand the concepts and course content more thoroughly and strengthen the knowledge that I’ve gained before each [group] session,” says Gill, 23, who lives in Blaine, Wash., and works part time in a family-practice clinic as a registered nurse.

Of course, fancy virtual classrooms don’t mean much if the quality of the content doesn’t match the quality of the technology. So there are other things prospective students should look for when searching for an online master’s program that will keep their attention and be worth the investment of their time and money.

American’s online international relations master’s degree program, for example, charges $1,678 per credit hour, and the program takes between 36 and 39 credit hours to complete. That’s roughly $65,000 total, or about the same as an on-campus international relations master’s program.

“Check the graduation rates of the programs and how successful students have been after graduation,” says Francesca Reed, associate vice president for enrollment management at Marymount University in Arlington.

“That’s a good indicator of the type of program you’re getting into.”

Do some research on the faculty who will be teaching the online classes. Are they active in their field? What have they published lately? And are they enthusiastic about bringing their knowledge to the digital world?

“Teaching in an online environment often requires faculty to adjust their teaching and assessment methods,” says Julia Kent, a spokeswoman for the D.C.-based Council of Graduate Schools (1 Dupont Circle NW, Suite 230; 202-223-3791), a national organization that advocates for and conducts research on graduate education. “See if the faculty in the program has received professional development that prepares them to teach in an online environment.”

And choose a school and master’s program you’d be proud to attend either on campus or online. Ham used sources like and university rankings when weighing her options.

“I looked at the universities just like I would if I was going to attend them in person,” she says. “Just because a school might use an interesting platform for an online master’s program doesn’t mean it’s the best choice for you.”

After all, it’s the school’s name that will be on your diploma, not the techy tools you used to obtain your degree.

“I chose Georgetown because I wanted to go to a reputable university that would expand job opportunities for me,” Gill says. “Employers will know what university I went to and the level of education I got.”

Get Plugged In

Not sure if an online master’s program is right for you? Here are some ways you can educate yourself before paying your first tuition bill.

Create a list of questions — and then ask them. Contact the programs you’re considering and ask to get connected with current students, alumni and professors.

“Some people are hesitant to do that,” says the Council of Graduate Schools’ Julia Kent. “But it’s a very common and perfectly acceptable thing to do.”

Attend on-campus information sessions if you can, or look for other ways to meet and observe your prospective professors in action. If you’re a member of a professional association in your field, see if any faculty members will be speaking at any upcoming events.

If an online program offers a trial class, take it, even if that program isn’t at the top of your list. “You can see if this is a type of environment where you feel you can learn,” says Marymount University’s Francesca Reed. “A lot of students who have taken online programs say they can be challenging because you have to be a lot more disciplined.”