The Masters’ of Criminal Justice at South University: A review of the online program
I graduated from South University in September of 2015 with a Master's of Science in Criminal Justice. This review of that program will be conducted in five areas; experience overall, quality of education, interaction with facilitators, bias in material, and academic career suitability. It must be noted that I do not have experience in a brick and mortar academic graduate program, nor have I any training in pedagogy. My previous academic background consists of a bachelor's in government (political science) on campus at the University of Texas at Austin, with some criminology courses taken as electives. I was NOT a good undergrad, by any means!
My overall experience was good (4/5). I initially chose South University for its brick and mortar facility in Austin, but the advisor had to leave just prior to my starting of the program, necessitating my use of the online program. The program requires the completion of 48 credit hours. Classes are based on the quarter system. The online classes were conducted over a 5.5 week period per course. Two online courses were available per quarter, overlapping or consecutively, depending on schedule. The structuring of the material allowed for a flexible schedule. The final course, the applied professional project, is a 3 month course. I will add a caveat in that I busted my behind in the program. Online courses require that you stay on top of yourself to get the work done My goals in the program went beyond getting the work done, but also to understand the material in application to real world scenarios and to be able to contribute to other students' understanding of the course. One result of the experience is that I have developed a research interest in the comparison of the online graduate experience versus the traditional method in the criminal justice field. Considering my situation, I would choose South University again with little hesitation.
Quality of education matters (4/5) Although South University is an accredited institution, I encountered a great deal of criticism towards schools that are both online and for profit. I found this criticism at conferences and in online forums such as thegradcafe.com and the Reddit GradSchool subreddit. As far as South University goes, I found the education to be within the realm of what I expected graduate level studies to encompass. Willis (2012) notes that a graduate level criminal justice program should both expose the student to the theories of justice and to encourage the student to personally challenge the theory. I feel that South University's program did this for me. The material was certainly more in depth than my undergraduate coursework, and required a great deal of analysis and writing. On average, I wrote about 12 pages per week per course. I spent an average of 30 hours of a week in total in study per course. Discussion accounted for 40% to 50% of the grade, depending on course. This may have been advantageous, as Stack (2013) contends that the nature of web based discussion holds several advantages to classroom discussion. For the most part, I felt that I earned the grades I made. Rarely, I received a lower grade than I thought I deserved, although the majority of grading disparities involved a higher grade than I felt warranted. I would say that the ratio was 75% “accurate” grading to 20% “maybe more than I deserved” grading to the rare 5% “c'mon I did better than that” grade. I never complained about lower grades in that I felt I was receiving the benefit of the more optimistic grading. However, I did feel that the instructors were open to discussion regarding grading had I chosen to contest such a grade. In comparison with what I have read on the above forums regarding grading in the social sciences graduate field, this seems to be the norm for both workload and grading standards.. Without having undertaken traditional graduate coursework for a direct comparison, I would say that the South University program meets the standards.
The instructors (facilitators) were excellent overall (5/5). There was an issue in instruction in one course, but that was due to an outside factor, and I think that South University, and the instructors involved, handled the situation as best as could be. It did cause an issue due to the intense time requirements of the course. However, at no time did I feel that any of the instructors were just putting time in. On the contrary, the majority of instructors provided additional study material and practical experience to the course work. At no point did an instructor blow me off regarding course questions. As noted above, I felt that the instructors were approachable in every course I took.
There was not an overwhelming sense of bias (3/5).There is going to be bias in any human endeavor. Academia has traditionally been known to have a liberal bias (Yancey, 2012),(Friedman, 2005). Yet I did not see an overwhelming bias in either the coursework or in the instruction. Some courses used biased material as source references (such as www.talkleft.com), but I found that other courses used material from the right (such as the Heritage Foundation) to balance out the bias level As an interesting aside, I was cautioned against using a potentially biased source, in the form of a Congressional committee investigating the Fast and Furious gunrunning scandal, in one of the courses that used talkleft.com as a source, but I just amused myself at the incongruity and moved on. I did find that the textbooks trended more to the left, but since graduate level studies require some analysis of the material by the student, I did not find this to be a problem. I found other material to study in the cases that I found the bias level to be unsuitable.
The weakest part of the South University program is its suitability for preparation in an academic career (3/5). Partially, this is due to the dim view of online and for profit schools that I discussed above. This assessment is also based upon the use of an applied project to complete the program, as opposed to a thesis requirement. However, it can be said that South is directed primarily at people that are currently working in the criminal justice field and seeking a master's degree to enhance their professional knowledge. This assumption is based primarily on the flexible online program and the short course periods. South University may consider adding a thesis option for those students seeking to move on to doctoral work. Finally, I was never sure just what it was that I was supposed to be doing as a graduate student beyond cranking out the work. I did attend the ACJS meeting, and there met with the program director for the school as a whole. I did use the material I prepared for a thesis to create a paper that will be presented at the ACS meeting. I will admit that I did not avail myself completely of the expertise that was available to me; I could have been more assertive in asking questions about what I needed to do to advance myself as a student. When I did ask questions they were answered promptly with encouragement and the availability of further support. I would also say that this an area where an on-campus experience has a built in advantage over the online experience; building personal relations is much easier on location. Crawford (2011) stresses the importance of mentoring in the criminal justice field, but also admits that there is not a great deal of discussion within the academic community regarding the process itself. From my own experience, it is also a responsibility of the student to pursue mentoring support.
Crawford, C. (2011). Dilemmas in supervising and mentoring criminology graduate students. Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 22(2), 226–246. http://doi.org/10.1080/10511253.2010.517770
Friedman, J. (2005). The bias issue. Critical Review, 17(3/4), 221–236. Retrieved February 23, 2015 from http://search.proquest.com.southuniversity.libproxy.edmc.edu/docview/217272310/citation?accountid=87314
Stack, S. (2013). Does discussion promote learning outcomes? Analysis of an online criminology class: Research note. Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 24(3), 374–385. http://doi.org/10.1080/10511253.2012.758752
Willis, J. J. (2012). Bridging the normative gap in graduate criminal justice curricula: teaching theories of justice. Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 23(1), 81–102. http://doi.org/10.1080/10511253.2011.630675
Yancey, G. (2012). Recalibrating academic bias. Academic Questions, 25(2), 267–278. http://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org.southuniversity.libproxy.edmc.edu/10.1007/s12129-012-9282-y
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