Earn Your Master's Virtually

by Vicky Phillips
Source: http://www.geteducated.com

Graduate schools. Ivy espaliered towers of learning. Dark library walls graced with bespectacled portraits of academic deans.

This picture is in danger of becoming a memory. A non-digital photo from yesteryear. Picturesque concepts of the Ivy League are quietly being challenged by a new vision of the university for the 21st century. The Cyber League.

Brick and ivy graduate schools are giving way to electronic universities. Today, videoconferencing allows faculty to be seen and heard across continents. Passionately silent classroom discussions on topics from network security to the poetry of T.S. Eliot transpire via Listservs. Managers from Athabasca to London meet with geographically far flung colleagues in e-conferencing halls to collaboratively tackle the best ways to motivate their work groups. The pioneering faculty and students of the Cyber League are fervently at work, creating the first keyboard accessible graduate schools for advanced learning.

An Old Dog with a New Electronic Bite
Distance learning is not new. University "home study" programs existed long before the first PC rolled off the assembly line. Distance learning enjoys a rich heritage, beginning when the printing press met the Pony Express. The University of Wisconsin, one of the oldest and largest distance delivery programs in the United States, offered its first correspondence course via coach and pony mail in 1891. Today, the university's Department of Continuing and Vocational Education, offers an Internet-assisted professional certificate in distance education at http://www.uwex.edu/disted/certpro.html.

Wisconsin's program introduces adult educators and trainers to the burgeoning world of electronic teaching and learning. Registrants study everything from designing interactive audio seminars to facilitating computer-mediated conferences. The entire program may be completed from one's keyboard, with optional summer attendance on-campus in Madison, Wisconsin for those who crave hands-on learning in the university's teaching technology labs

Cable & VCR Add to the Picture
In the 1980s, cable technology coupled with the proliferation of the home VCR, breathed new life into home study. Cable and video technology allowed colleges to enhance correspondence programs with live lectures broadcast to specially equipped remote class sites. Graduate schools quickly began recording lectures and mailing videocassettes to remote learners for passive viewing at a later date. For the first time, anyone with an honors GPA and a VCR could attend a top-notch business school from their easy chair.

Colorado State University's Graduate School of Business
has offered a campus-free MBA for two decades. In the last two years, the program has moved from being primarily video-based to integrating interactive Web technology and electronic conferencing. According to Jamie Switzer, Colorado's Director of Distance Education and Media, e-conferencing and Listservs actively involve remote learners in classroom discussions and encourage collaborative learning projects. All course materials, such as syllabus and handouts, are available from the program's Web site. Picture Tel technology is used for videoconferencing with remote learners.

Despite its unorthodox delivery, The Colorado MBA offers a traditional and demanding curriculum, which has been modified, according to Switzer, only to give the program a more "real-world practical application slant." Entry into the program is competitive, with independent raters ranking the Colorado MBA program among the top 25% in the country, whether one "attends" in residence or through the Net.



Desktop Universities
Richard Vigilante, Director of the Virtual College at New York University's School of Continuing Education feels that in today's electronically networked society it makes no sense for adults to be bound by time and place when it comes to learning essential new skills.

According to Vigilante, demographics demand a just-in-time approach to higher education. "With adults over 25 now constituting the majority of college students in the United States, and with increasing demands being imposed on them for their professional and personal time, online education will likely be the only instructional alternative open to them."

As corporations search for more responsive ways to train workers, Dr. Vigilante sees organizational hierarchies and bureaucracies giving way to geographically dispersed workers "collaborating in virtual workplaces created by networked computers." NYU's Virtual College allows business executives from Tokyo to Los Angeles to learn about network and database technologies by using them in a richly endowed online environment.

New York University's Virtual College, launched in the Spring of 1992, turns the Desktop University, once a futuristic phrase, into a current reality. The Virtual College's advanced professional certificate in information technology is available via home or office PC (ISDN capability is required) to any qualified learner in the United States.

Unlike many distance programs, which rely on old-fashioned print-based correspondence courses with e-mail lesson options as add-on's, NYU's Virtual College operates from a multi-faceted digital platform. A Lotus Notes database system forms the instructional backbone. Instruction methods include video conferencing, collaborative online laboratories, and hypertext libraries and learning modules. Even the textbooks and final exams are stored and accessed online. Class discussions are held asynchronously, with learners reading and posting class commentary whenever they are online. When learners or faculty want to lean back and relax, the Virtual Cafe database serves as an informal chat station.



Teaching Old Dogs New Electronic Tricks
Among the first to reserve seats in the new electronic lecture halls were school teachers seeking to understand how to harness technology in their classrooms. With technology literacy being added to school curriculums at break-neck speed, teachers and administrators trained in the Dark Ages of a pre-electronic era are struggling to keep current.

The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE)
is a not-for-profit agency working through Portland State University and the University of Oregon to offer residency-free, Internet-assisted graduate courses in topics like "Planning for Technology in Education" for the K-12 teaching professional.

George Washington University, which houses one of the oldest graduate schools of education in the country, offers a residency-free Master of Arts in Education and Human Development with a Concentration in Educational Technology and Leadership through combined electronic and video platforms. The program, now in its fifth year, specializes in educating school media and technology consultants.

The Graduate Instructional Performance Technology (IPT) department at Boise State University teaches professionals how to design and implement computer-based curriculum for adult learners. A Master's in Instructional and Performance Technology is available via e-conferencing to any properly configured learner worldwide. Unless a thesis is opted for, Boise State faculty and learners "meet" only in their electronic forms -- through slow-scan video, the telephone, and the viewing of videotaped workplace projects.



Pioneering New Curriculums
The Internet is changing not only how instruction occurs, but what is being taught. Connected Education's Master of Arts in Media Studies and Technology, offered through the New School for Social Research in New York City, immerses learners in the tangled question of what electronic media will mean in an increasingly knowledge based society. Developed in 1985, by Dr. Paul Levinson of Connected Education, who has taught New School courses in-person at the Greenwich Village campus for many years, the degree may be the first of its kind to explore the uncertain juncture where technology meets society to produce a new electronic media and method of communicating.

At the New School, what one studies is as unique as the way it is learned. Now in its twelfth year, Internet delivered courses include topics like "Online Journalism" and "Ethics in the Technological World." In the "McLuhan Seminar," learners revisit Marshall McLuhan's seminal work on the role of media in light of the personal computer and Internet revolution.

The New School's curriculum and electronic campus were developed by the not-for-profit company, Connected Education. Founded by Dr. Levinson, Connected Education specializes in electronic media and educational delivery. To give geographically disperse learners a feeling of collegiate belonging -- students have come from Africa, Russian, and Japan -- Connected Education's campus includes the Connected Ed Cafe, an online conferencing system with real-time exchange, and a virtual library. Program information as well as announcements of new degree offerings for the upcoming year may be retrieved from Connected Education.



For Adults Only
Many virtual curriculums are being re-visioned to accommodate a new breed of learner -- the professionally accomplished adult. While campus programs have focused on teaching theory to the 18-to-24 year-old learner, the online market is more likely to be older, more affluent, and considerably less amenable to being spoon-fed textbook material. In place of theory, many electronic graduate schools are using online technologies such as e-conferencing to pair up learners to work on practical projects which rely on the team troubleshooting model that is prevalent in today's work world.

George Washington University's Graduate School of Education and Human Development has taken their Doctorate of Education in Executive Leadership, one of the oldest such academic leadership programs in the United States, into cyberspace. Entering human resource professionals study in teams or cohorts. One weekend each month, learners converge on the "real" campus in Northern Virginia for "in person" instruction and mentoring. Between campus visits, cohorts use e-mail and electronic conferencing to strategize on group projects and problems.

Pepperdine University uses a combined face-to-face and Internet-assisted distance learning option to educate adult learners in their Doctoral Program in Educational Technology. MOOs, newsgroups, and e-mail are used by remote learning teams to address issues raised in mandatory face-to-face seminars. The face-to-face seminars are held on weekends three times each trimester at Pepperdine's Culver City, California campus.



The Future of the Cyber League
If busy professionals crave Desktop Universities, and the Internet continues to proove a rich and convenient interactive campus, what's to keep most graduate schools from leaping into the Cyber League in the coming century?

Jamie Switzer, of Colorado State University's distance MBA program, cites one key problem in delivering education via the Net: less than ubiquitous access to advanced technologies. "We are moving toward video delivery of courses over the Web. We have the technology to do so; the problem lies with the students. Most do not have the hardware/software capability to receive video via the Web. Just because we as educators can do all sorts of really groovy things using the Web doesn't necessarily mean everyone can access it."

With a 175 year history of building and filling Ivy espaliered halls, and only a handful of years delivering programs electronically, George Washington University, headquartered in the nation's capitol, is sold on the Cyber League movement. According to GWU Television's Assistant Vice President, Ted Christensen, electronically assisted distance learning is not a fad or an educational add-on. It is "key to the future of GWU." Several new electronically assisted graduate programs, one in Public Health, and one in Engineering Management, will be launched through GWU TV this fall.

GWU President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, in an international distance learning conference address earlier this year, lamented the demise of the medieval model of education where esteemed faculty in robes talked about the Classics from a podium while eager-eared, innocents took notes at their feet.

Simultaneously, Dr. Trachtenberg celebrated what the electronic university movement means for GWU in particular and for a knowledge-based society as a whole. "What the ancients knew as well as we do -- that's what's inside our heads is completely portable, and can be carried anywhere -- is suddenly being facilitated by our state-of-the-art technology."

Richard Vigilante, of New York University's Virtual College, has one word for the future of online adult education and training. That word is "golden." Aside from an increasing demand from adults themselves and the corporate world, Vigilante's pioneering directorship has convinced him that in today's technology-rich, time-crunched world, "this is simply a better way to teach and learn."

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