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CAREERS: TRAINING MANUAL | TRAINING YOURSELF

'Distance Learning' Opens the Door to Remote Possibilities

Education: Online courses offer convenience and flexibility, but don't expect your home office to become a virtual campus.

May 19, 1997|JENNIFER OLDHAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gentle reader:

While an employee with character will devote himself wholeheartedly to his company's success, it is no longer considered unethical to be prepared to leave the employer at a moment's notice. Today's worker is "eager to stay and ready to go," says one Fortune 500 executive in describing the new social contract. In this section, we explore ways to evaluate your skills and improve them on your own.

Ms. Work Wise

Readers of the Careers section first met Ms. Work Wise last November when the etiquette-savvy fictional character created by our readers joined real-life columnist Judith Martin (a.k.a. "Miss Manners") to address problems related to rudeness in the workplace. Ms. Work Wise returns in this issue to introduce stories on different types of training and will continue to appear as a voice in careers.

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James Sumbi has always wanted to finish college, but his 40-hour-a-week job as a temp and the independent record company he operates at night and on the weekends leave him little time to attend classes.

"I'm the only person in my family who left school early," said the 27-year-old Los Angeles resident. "I guess I'm the creative one."

Sumbi graduated in 1987 from Alexander Hamilton High School in Los Angeles and went on to Santa Monica Community College, where he studied psychology for two years. He decided not to pursue a four-year degree when he couldn't find a subject that piqued his interest.

The Southern California native discovered his passion for recording when he was hired to do marketing for a now-defunct company in the music industry.

Soon after, Sumbi founded Beats & Rhymes Records, which he operates out of his condo with money he earns working temporary jobs. Now he'd like to get more education to help him be competitive in his field.

The Times solicited advice from distance-learning experts to provide Sumbi with steps he can follow to find a program that fits his needs.

Distance learning refers to degree programs and classes that don't rely on a traditional student/campus relationship and, instead, conduct instruction through the mail or over the telephone, the Internet or via video.

Sumbi can overcome his time constraints by signing up for a college degree offered on the Internet, said John G. Flores, executive director of the Massachusetts Corp. for Educational Telecommunications and president of the U.S. Distance Learning Assn.

Sumbi, who was an honor student in high school, plans to pursue a degree in business administration and then obtain a master of business administration.

He would use these degrees to meet his five-year goal of running a profitable independent record company that has sales in the seven-figure range.

Even though he has read books to hone his business skills, Sumbi says he needs additional training to compete in the entertainment field.

"Most of the people in this industry are lawyers or have a business background. You can't really get into the club unless you have an education on par with theirs," Sumbi said.

Sumbi can expect degree programs offered via the Internet to be just as rigorous as a traditional degree--and just as expensive, experts say.

Although correspondence courses are also offered by mail, the breadth of Internet programs is greater because more and more schools are seizing the economic opportunity presented by degrees offered on the Net.

Before deciding an Internet degree program is right for him, Sumbi should take a close look at his personality and study preferences, Flores said.

"Everyone has a different learning style. Once you decide to pursue distance learning because it's convenient, the next question is if this kind of experience will satisfy you as a student," Flores said.

Most important, Sumbi must have the self-discipline to manage the little spare time he has and to train in the solitary confines of his home office, Flores added.

Sumbi should think about whether he prefers interacting with other students and needs the face-to-face communication with professors that he would have access to if he attended classes on a college campus. He should make sure that he's comfortable with online course formats and that he owns the equipment necessary to take the courses.

To see what a course offered through a series of Web pages looks like, Sumbi can visit http://www.utexas.edu/courses/mis311f/index.htm, which features a data analysis course offered by the University of Texas. The course syllabus, a daily lecture log, assignments and tests are posted on this site.

Students interested in Internet degrees must have access to a computer, a modem and an e-mail address. They also need an account with an Internet service provider. They may need access to a VCR so they can use videotapes that support some online courses.

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