As I get ready to start my PhD classes at UofT's iSchool next week, I wanted to wrap up my master’s studies with a post summarizing my experience of Royal Roads masters of Professional Communication program. Also, I thought it might provide useful information for people considering this or similar programs.
Blogging has been a useful way for me to record my academic experience from my search to find a master’s program to study the Internet, how I chose Royal Roads, my experience as an old student, winning my scholarship, and my thesis research.
The main strengths of the program in my experience were the flexibility to manage learning with work and family, solid foundation in communication theory, interaction with classmates, helpful and friendly faculty and staff, and the beautiful campus. The main weaknesses were the lackluster use of e-Learning techniques and over use of team work.
The online master’s programs at Royals Roads combine distance and on-campus learning. The program lasts about two years, with the last few months spent working on a thesis or major project. One can extend the deadline, but there are hefty fees to do so.
There are two three-week residency periods (one a year) at Royal Roads’ incredible Victoria, BC campus. In between these residencies, one takes an online course one at a time. There were no electives for online courses and only a small choice of electives for the final residency component.
The program follows a cohort model with one annual intake. This means one studies for the next two years with the same classmates, which in my case was approximately 40 students.
With distance learning it can be difficult to get to know one’s classmates, but the cohort model allows one to have the time to get to know one’s classmates and build relationships. The program is available to students around the world, but the bulk of students came from Victoria and Vancouver followed by southern Ontario. There were students from most provinces and a couple from abroad.
As this program is targeted to working professionals and as it is a graduate degree, I found that the background of classmates was impressive and diverse. There were a few students in my cohort who were young and beginning their career, but the average student was 30-50, mid-level career, and female. The ratio was about one male for ten females – but this seems typical of the communication field.
The program requires residency of three weeks per year. The residency follows traditional university format, ie. lectures with profs, essays, student presentations, team meetings, occasional guest speakers, and symposia. This period is intensive, covering most of 3-4 courses in that period. One has a few hours of class a day and essays and readings to work on at night. The first residency is lighter, so this is definitely the time to get to know one’s classmates.
Spending time on campus is an absolute treat as it is the most beautiful campus in Canada (if not anywhere). Take a look at my pictures. Vancouver Islands itself is beautiful and the campus is sandwiched between the ocean and primeval forest. Studying post-modernism in a Japanese Zen garden or spending a coffee break amongst giant trees are highlights of my experience. Google Maps has a good satellite image of campus.
Be sure to try the trails that run through or next to the campus. Students get a free guided tour of the national historic site, Hatley Castle and access to the gardens that one would otherwise have to pay for entry. X-Men movies were filmed here – Hatley Castle was used for Xavier’s school for mutants. I loved telling my daughter I went to Xavier’s school. The campus library even has copies of all the X-Men movies which was a lot of fun to watch in the student lounge (the library has a bunch of free movies).
Other than the incredible beauty of the location, the campus is much like any other, except smaller. There is only one place to eat, and while most of the dishes were fairly good, the menu is limited and a bit pricey. I made some meals in the kitchen RRU provides to save some money. There are nearby restaurants (short drive or 20 minute walk) but they are rather mediocre. There is a grocery store and wine and bear store nearby, as well as other amenities like a post office, pharmacy, etc.
Some classmates elected to stay off-campus – and while that does allow one a calming separation, these classmates didn’t get the same degree of interaction with classmates. I’d recommend staying on campus if only for the chance to get to know one’s classmates better.
The only downside is that the campus is rather far from downtown Victoria. Bus service is less than ideal and cabs downtown are expensive. Some nights when we wanted to go downtown we would wait half an hour or more to even get a cab to pick us up. Also, cabs from the airport are expensive, so arrange cab sharing with classmates.
All courses make use of Moodle for their online interaction (forums, chat) and resources (links, readings). I previously criticized Royal Roads non-innovative use of e-Learning techniques. Having finished my degree now, I stand by that post. While some professors used effective e-Learning techniques, most classes were based on extensive discussions with classmates, often in the form of discussions and projects amongst a team of 5-6 students. I also posted on the benefits and challenges of relying on online interaction for learning.
Most classmates felt there was way too much teamwork. This is probably my biggest complaint. Although teamwork does enable one to get to know classmates better, it becomes overwhelming doing the actual work and managing the team (which is just as much, if not more, work). Teams for online courses are randomly assigned, but even out of 45 classmates I ended up with a bunch of the same people repeating on my teams. I lucked out and had teams (except one) where everyone participated and was pleasant. However, I talked to classmates who had bad experiences with teams, mostly in the form of people not participating. Considering that most students at Royal Roads are working professionals and thus encounter/cannot avoid extensive team experience, positioning team work as building skills is dubious (easier for professors to mark – is probably the real reason).
The main reason I chose the program was that I could cater my learning around my schedule. Even living in a city with three universities, I would not have been able to have sufficient flexibility to continue to work and spend time with my family. This program is therefore ideal for those that need flexibility.
But it is not as flexible as some of my classmates thought it would be. Most classes required one to post to discussions frequently and at least every few days. Some classes had tight, rigid deadlines for team work that was quite difficult to orchestrate when combined with busy work schedules and various time zones. I could not participate in some class chats as a result and would also have a one day turnaround on some team work.
Kids - I was the only one in my cohort with a young family and I don't recommend doing this and working too if one has young kids.
I feel this program gave me a solid foundation in communication theory and cultural studies and honed academic skills, such as research, writing, and formatting (APA). I had not studied communication before but had encountered some concepts from my bachelor’s film studies and journalism classes. I think the program did well in not assuming a prior knowledge set, teaching the essentials, and moving quickly enough through concepts to be appropriate for master’s level courses.
There were professional development courses geared to communication professionals, but reviews from classmates were rather mixed on these. The courses on research methodology were extremely useful both for preparing one for future study or performing research in a workplace. Other courses cover the gamut of communication theory from interpersonal to organizational and from computer to culturally meditated.
Studying the Internet
I took communication, but I really wanted to take Internet Studies. As Internet Studies is such a new discipline, there were not a lot of options to study this remotely. I felt, however, that studying communication would give me a good foundation to study this aspect of the Internet. Plus, I hoped to examine specific instances when I could. A lot of the professors and classmates were unwired luddites, so Internet topics did not often come up – or with much depth. I have a multimedia background so I enjoyed discussing and learning about other media.
I told my professors of my career path and research interests and they were all open and encouraging to me applying course concepts to Internet cases. Since I started Royal Roads has added “thematic paths” which is essentially what I did, but Internet Studies is still not an official path or focus. Considering how much of the concepts do apply to the Internet, I’m surprised they don’t offer this.
Over the years, I have studied at six post-secondary institutions. Never have I encountered such helpful, pleasant staff and faculty as my time with Royal Roads. Even the support staff and tenured professors were nice! Whether I was on campus, emailing, or telephone everyone was incredibly friendly and cared about helping me. There was one difficult nutty professor, but that's to be expected. Time and time again, Royal Roads staff and faculty spent extra time and effort to really help and talk to me, whether it was applying for scholarships, getting research approval, ordering food, finding library resources, discussing semiotics, etc. I'm not sure if it is a West Coast vs. Toronto thing, but it sure makes a difference to study at such a welcoming place.
I definitely recommend the program and university. If there is anything else you'd like to know, please feel free to ask below.