Desktop degrees, University of Phoenix takes education on-line
Ah, spring - the time of year when students decide to skip classes en masse and sit outside enjoying the sun and fresh air. For the students of the University of Phoenix Online Campus, however, that ritual loses something in the translation: To duck their professors, all they have to do is turn off their PCs and unhook their modems.
But it's a tradeoff that they're willing to make in order to earn their undergraduate and graduate degrees on a part-time basis from the comfort of their own homes. The University of Phoenix opened its doors to its first 12 on-line students in 1989, and it now boasts 2500 students, 250 faculty members and eight degree programs, including three bachelor of science programs, three masters of business administration degrees, a master of arts degree and a master of science degree.
"About 10 years ago we began looking around for an alternative distance learning medium, and we decided that communications through computers and modems was a nice fit for our existing teaching models," said Terri Hedegaard, vice president of the on-line campus. "These programs offer the most scheduling flexibility for our students, most of whom are working adults.
Before beginning classes, each student is required to take an introductory exam that is monitored by a school-sponsored proctor. The university then sends out its client software for installation on the student's computer and the textbooks for the course and assigns the student to a "learning group" of no more than 13 others. Students initially dial into the university's server at some point on a given day to receive the syllabus and send the professor a bio, then log on at least once a day for the remainder of the five- to six-week course to check their messages and respond on a bulletin board to questions posed by the instructor.
The on-line program originally had an agreement with CompuServe, but now students can use any Internet service provider.
The on-line format gels well with the University of Phoenix's general focus on classroom discussion rather than lectures, Hedegaard said. Like their campus-bound counterparts, the on-line students are evaluated on research papers, group projects and case study analyses, not on written exams.
That approach works well for the on-line student population, which primarily consists of men in their early 40s holding middle- and upper-management positions, with a household income of between $50,000 and $70,000 a year. Most have hit an impasse in their careers and realize they need an extra degree to move on, and they appreciate the convenience and flexibility of earning that degree on-line, Hedegaard says.
Students report strong support from their employers for the on-line program, and 75% to 80% of the student population is receiving tuition reimbursement from their companies, Hedegaard said.
However, one education industry analyst wonders how much credibility an on-line degree really has in the marketplace. "I would imagine there would be a bias against on-line degrees of any kind," said Rick Hesel, principal at Art & Science Group. "Face-to-face contact with the faculty is considered to be a mark of quality, and because this program doesn't have that, I think both employers and prospective students would be wary.
But that could change soon, as the big names in education get into the on-line arena, Hesel said.
"Once you see Harvard or other prestigious MBA programs getting into it, all bets are off," he said.
And Hesel believes that will be sooner rather than later. "We're getting a whole generation of students that grow up with the technology, and they have very different expectation about what they want and what defines education," he said.
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