U.S. Online Degrees Pose Challenges for International Students

The lure of earning an online degree from a U.S. college was strong for Magdy Reda, a manager with the state-owned company that controls air traffic for Italy in Rome.

Like many international students, he hoped to earn a well-respected degree while avoiding the costs of moving to another country or leaving his job.

"I actually think it is much more effective to work and study at the same time, because as soon as I learn something, the next day I can apply it," says Reda, who ended up enrolling in the online MBA program at the University of North Carolina--Chapel Hill's Kenan-Flagler Business School.

But while Reda loves his program, it hasn't always been easy. Online education can provide great opportunities for international students like Reda, but they can also have their drawbacks, experts say. Below, experts share insights on the unique challenges online learning can pose for students outside of the U.S.

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--Time zones: Online programs offer two kinds of learning: asynchronous, where students can access videos and other material on their own time, and synchronous, where they are required to log in at a specific time and participate in class. For international students, the latter option can be particularly frustrating, especially if they find themselves having to attend live lectures at 1 a.m., as Reda does.

"I have to stay up until 3 a.m. because of course when I finish the lesson I don't want to go to sleep because I am excited about the lessons," he says.

Time zones can also prove challenging for students who need to do group work, a component of many online programs. "Usually if you want to study with Americans you have to stay up until midnight," Reda says.

-- International acceptance of online degrees:

While online education is becoming a more accepted form of study in the U.S., that's not always the case in other countries, says Judith Murray, CEO at EdVantage America, a company which helps prepare students to succeed in the American education system.

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In China, for example, the government will only recognize degrees from certain U.S. institutions, she says. If a student receives a diploma from one of those schools but can't provide passport or visa documentation that they actually studied in the U.S., the government may not recognize the credential.

"China hasn't yet embraced online education to the extent that we have in North America," she says. Before students enroll in an online program from a U.S. institution, they should check to see whether their government sees the program as valid, says Suzan Brinker, who is in charge of global marketing efforts at Pennsylvania State University--World Campus. In a worst-case scenario, international students could enroll in an online program only to have the government terminate their access to the platform, she says. In that case, they would've paid money for no degree.

"Some countries are trying to limit the competition that their own universities face," says Brinker, who has been working to get the Turkish government to recognize her school's online degrees.

-- Cultural barriers: Understanding American cultural references can be tough for any international student, but perhaps more so for online students, who don't have the benefit of living inside the country while they're studying.

Reda says it's sometimes hard to follow the conversation in his classes, particularly when groups of four or five students get together over video and start chatting. "They start taking in a very American way, so it's very hard to follow," he says. "Sometimes they talk about things that they think everyone knows, but I don't know." In one class, for example, Reda says students kept referencing to a class valedictorian -- a foreign concept to him.

Brinker, with Penn State, suggests students try to overcome those challenges by immersing themselves in U.S. culture in any way they can.

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"Watching TV shows or news from that country could be very helpful," she says. "If you can, go to a U.S. alumni group and connect with them. It helps to engage with that culture outside the classroom so you can have a better sense of what is going on."

-- The demands of writing in English: Most online courses from U.S. are taught in English and have a heavy focus on writing, for papers and contributions to discussion boards, says Murray with EdVantage America.

The problem, she says, is that most international students are taught to read and speak English well, but not necessarily to write it well.

"There can be a language preparation gap for students in terms of their writing," she says. "If they are not prepared they will have some challenges."

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Devon Haynie is an education reporter at U.S. News, covering online education. You can follow her on Twitter or email her at dhaynie@usnews.com.