First of all, UMass Lowell is a real school. The degree you get from UML is the real thing, the same degree you would get from the brick and mortar school. There are 11,000 students at UMass Lowell. They have an athletic program with just about every sport except football. UMass Lowell's being a 'real school' was a pretty important factor in my selection. It might not matter, but I did not want a diploma that was from an online-only school.
Most programs you can complete totally online. The one I am in, BSIT (Bachelor of Science Information Technology) can be completed from start to finish without ever setting foot on campus. To see a complete list of degrees available, the place to start is UMassOnline. Some of the degrees are offered at UMass Amherst, UMass Lowell, and some of the other schools in the UMass system.
To apply at UML, you need to fill out at online application, pay $50.00, and have any official college transcripts sent to the school. If you have attended college you do not have to provide a high school diploma or have ACT/SAT scores sent. My previous college work was anything but stellar, so their entrance requirements must not be too high for the online program. Maybe they figure non-traditional students deserve a second chance and a clean slate.
UML is fairly liberal with their transfer credits. Almost all of my credits from LSU transferred in. I also had a lot of credits transfer in from the CCAF (Community College of the Air Force). They substitute when they can, and they really will work with you. UML will also transfer credit in from any CLEP examination. This can save you some major bucks. There is no fee for transferring classes into UML, although the process can take a few months. You can start classes while they are still evaluating your transfer credits, however.
The coolest part about transferring credit into UML is this: when the credits transfer in, they are transferred in on a PASS/FAIL basis. This means that they have no bearing on the calculation of your GPA at UML. This gives students a chance to start with a clean slate. The only stipulation is that you must complete at least 30 credit hours of your degree program at UML to receive a diploma from UML. Sweet.
UML is not cheap, but it's cheaper than University of Phoenix online. Undergrad classes at UML are $300/credit hour - $900 per class. There are no other fees to pay. You can apply for and get financial aid at UML, just like with any other university. I'm taking 5 classes this semester, which costs $4,530. I am receiving around $5,000 in Stafford loans, so I have enough to cover tuition and books.
Classes at UML online are very different from brick and mortar classes obviously. It takes a self-motivated person who is able to read and figure things out on their own for the most part. The teachers are quick to respond to emails if you have trouble, and every class has a discussion board to communicate with you classmates. If you are like me, you will function well in this environment. I enjoy not having to take notes during a lecture. The notes are posted to the class page for you. The discussion boards in most of the classes are very active.
Most of the classes will have a weekly chat session. These will last for an hour and are usually not mandatory. This is a nice chance to get to connect with the teacher and your classmates in real time. The chat application has a whiteboard that everyone can use, similar to the MS Paint application. I have yet to see this used, except when we were all doodling together on it while waiting for the teacher to show.
Most of these classes will require a ton of reading. A lot of the teachers like to give a weekly quiz which basically is testing whether or not you have read the assigned material. This is a fairly general statement, as it depends on what type of class you are taking.
In my C programming class, we typically have to submit one program per week. In my Business Writing class, I have to write a paper, take a quiz and read a few chapters. In my Multimedia class we have to complete a project in whatever application we are using in a given week. One week it was the Gimp, another it was Audacity. This week I had to submit a 3D landscape made in Bryce 3D. The type of assignments is dependent on the type of class you are taking really.
Some of the teachers will also supplement the notes with multimedia material. My Information Systems teacher records a few minutes of audio each week to talk about the last week and what we will do in the new week. My Multimedia teacher prepares a video/audio presentation showing us how to use the application for that week. My C Programming teacher doesn't use multimedia at all. Some classes are more engaging than others. I think a lot of the teachers are having to change the way they think about education, and some are doing it better than other.
Most of the teachers I've had so far are working professionals in their field, that teach at UML on a part time basis. This is cool because they get to give you a different perspective of the IT industry that a pure academic would. One of my teachers works for Raytheon, and two other own their own consulting firms.
Your typical online classmate is also someone that works in the IT field. Most of my classmates are already in IT, but looking to move up or possibly get a new job. This makes the discussions we have much more enlightening and relevant. The downside is that sometimes it takes me a while to catch on, being that I do not currently work in the industry.
I've mentioned the quizzes already. The mid-terms and finals I have taken have been mostly essay question based. When taking tests, you are almost always encouraged to use your book, the notes, and almost any other resource you can lay your hands on. This means the projects you do and the questions that you will be asked will be much more in-depth. I prefer this style of evaluation over rote memorization. I think it is more effective and applicable to what a job in the industry will be like. If there was one thing I got tired of when I was in college it was the "Will this be on the test?" question that was inevitably asked. No effort needs to be spent memorizing useless facts that you will forget soon. The effort is instead directed towards actually comprehending and applying the knowledge.
How much time will you have to spend each week on classes? Not nearly as many as you would at a brick and mortar school, especially when you factor in commute time. On average I spend around 1.5 hours every day on school work. On Monday, one of my days off, I typically spend six hours on school work. This is usually time spent reading, working on papers, or maybe a project. The flexibility of UML online is one of the best features about the school. I am able to work full time and take full time classes and still have a reasonable amount of time to spend with my family. This would not be possible if I went back to school full time in person. Completing my degree in person would be impossible at this stage of my life.
One more nice perk of being enrolled in the IT program - you get access to the MSDN Academic Alliance software collection. I am able to download ISO images directly from the web. Windows Vista Business and XP Pro are the two most important titles that are available. Other titles available for free download: Expression Blend, Expression Web, Expression Studio, Visual Studio Pro, MSDN Library for Visual Studio, Office Groove, Office OneNote, Project Professional, Project Server, Visio Professional, and Virtual PC. The only title I was surprised to not see on the list: Microsoft Office. In any event, this is a very nice bonus to have. My desktop and laptop computers are both running OS's courtesy of this program.
I'll complete my degree in IT in December, and it feels great. I highly recommend UMass Online. If anyone has any specific questions, I'd be happy to answer them for you. Just leave a comment below.