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ADVENTURES ON THE JOB

Graduate Students Are Surfing the Internet to a Master's Degree

Education: Southwest Missouri's course in computer information systems is among the first offered on the Internet.

June 23, 1997|From Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — This class of graduate students convenes in cyberspace, on the cutting edge of a new trend in Internet education, swapping notes in chat rooms.

But for one week each semester, they actually see each other face to face.

When Southwest Missouri State University officials set out to establish a master's program on the Internet, they didn't want distance to preclude student bonding.

They did, however, want students nationwide to be able to complete their studies at any time of day without disrupting their careers or personal lives.

So the 36-credit-hour course in computer information systems, which is among the first graduate business degrees offered on the Internet by an accredited university, includes one week per semester on campus. Then it's back to cyberspace.

"I think it was important as a class for us to get off to that start," says Michael Goolsby, 34, a systems engineer from Kansas City who occasionally interrupted the on-campus class with an errant pass from a Nerf ball.

After all, even cyberspace needs a class clown.

The 15 students in the pilot program are the first class at Southwest to participate in what promises to be a competitive field of Internet-based academic degrees.

"You can safely say Southwest is in the first wave of providing an MBA program with that particular technology," says Charles Hickman, director of projects and services for the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business in St. Louis, which has accredited business schools since 1916.

For years, universities and colleges have offered ways to earn degrees without setting foot on campus, such as by mail order or satellite television.

And some notable business schools have ventured into offering a few Internet-based programs with only several weeks spent in a classroom. Duke and Purdue universities, for example, offer executive MBA programs that combine residential studies with Internet work. Harvard, Stanford and Massachusetts Institute of Technology are also making strides in online studies.

However, universities have been reluctant to make a full-fledged commitment to what many see as the inevitable, because of the need for a substantial financial investment, Hickman says.

That's starting to change.

"Students want this. Employers want this. It's going to happen," Hickman says. "University-based business schools that don't get ahead of this trend risk losing market share."

That's why Southwest decided to make a break for it, says Doug Durand, head of the department of computer information systems and director of the Internet program.

"Frankly, we wanted to be one of the earlier providers," he says.

A new assignment is posted each week on the class's home page. Just as in a traditional class, the students have been broken into study groups and meet via chat rooms. There are also bulletin boards for comments and questions. Grades are based in part upon participation.

Southwest didn't get final approval for the program from the state until September, so the rush was on to find eligible candidates.

The 15 students were chosen from more than 300 people who expressed interest, Durand says. All had at least three years' relevant work experience, a bachelor's degree or higher and a commitment to completing the course.

Each also has a distinct agenda.

"I intend to use my lunch hour every day at work to dial in and work on the program," says Goolsby.

"I think it's something we're going to dive into and lose track of time," says Brenda Snider, 38, a single mother of two teenagers who works as a systems administrator for Taney County.

One of the attractions of this program is it's asynchronous--meaning students do not need to sign on simultaneously.

"It's like leaving e-mail," Durand says. "They can complete the course at 3 in the morning or 3 in the afternoon."

That appealed to Damon Stewart, 31, an independent contractor of software development in Chicago who received his undergraduate degree from Southwest in 1987. His job keeps him traveling, and he plans to study in hotels.

The students dismissed the most common criticism of distance learning: a lack of personal attention from instructors. In fact, they could think of situations where it's an advantage.

In a traditional classroom, some students may be afraid to ask a so-called stupid question. That's no trouble on the Internet, Stewart says.

"There's a way you can do it where no one will know," he said.

The Southwest program's Web site is http://www.cis.masters.smsu.edu

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