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GOING THE DISTANCE.

Many schools are offering graduate degrees via the World Wide Web.

Here's what to consider before you decide to log on.

WHILE OTHER NIGHT STUDENTS GULPED DOWN fast food en route to their local universities, Cheryl Rowles-Stokes leisurely finished a home-cooked meal with her family and made her way to the PC in her study. As other students tugged at their suits and fought to stay alert during lectures, Rowles-Stokes, clad in comfy old sweats, conversed with her professor and classmates online while her favorite television program droned in the background.

For those professionals who go the traditional route to get an additional degree, this may read like a scene from a sci-fi-book. But for Rowles-Stokes, who graduated in March with an M.A. in business communications, learning via the Internet was the best way to update her skills while juggling career and family obligations.

She's definitely not alone. Approximately 7 million people get a virtual education every year, says Pam Dixon, author of Virtual College.' A Quick Guide to How You Can Get the Degree You Want With Computer, TV, Video, Audio and Other Distance Learning Tools (Peterson's, $9.95). "People want a high-quality education that can fit into their busy lives," she says.

Distance learning is hardly a new phenomenon. For more than a century, it has allowed busy professionals, whose schedules prevented them from taking regular classes, to continue their education. But mainstream access to the World Wide Web has helped transform this largely mail-order pursuit--once relegated to the degree mills of scam artists--into a bona-fide educational option.

About two-thirds of the 3,200 accredited "brick and mortar" four-year colleges and graduate schools in the U.S. now supplement their campus offerings with classes via the Internet, as well as live satellite feeds, cable television and videoconferencing. Further, the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C., has identified nearly 300 distance learning programs offered through various schools, including Stanford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Purdue University.

An online degree can be a great way to stay competitive in today's rapidly changing workplace--if you have what it takes to thrive outside of the traditional classroom structure. Before you trade in that pencil and notepad for a mouse and a computer, you'll need to do some old-fashioned homework. Here's what you can expect.

THE NET BENEFITS

Rowles-Stokes, 38, director of human resources at Riflen & Associates, a cable television management company in Denver, had plenty of reasons to pursue an online degree. For starters, she didn't want the physical strain of her previous educational experience. "For four years, I attended classes from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, in addition to working a 60-plus hour week," says the former accountant. She obtained her bachelor's in human resources from Colorado Christian University and J.D. from the University of Denver's College of Law.

A single mother at the time, Rowles-Stokes also wanted to spend more time with her family. In 1995, she applied to Jones International University (JIU), one of the nation's first virtual universities, and never looked back. "The format allowed me to set my own hours," says the married mother of two daughters. "It really worked around my unpredictable schedule."

Flexibility is just one advantage Web-based learning has over the traditional classroom. "One of the biggest draws of distance education is the time factor," says James Moshinskie, Ph.D., professor of information systems and chair of the Distance Learning Roundtable at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. "It allows professionals, who don't have time to waste, to actually spend it learning instead of fighting rush-hour traffic," he says.

Not only do you learn when you have the time, but you can go as fast or as slow as you need. "The classroom is at your disposal 24 hours a day, 7 days a week," says Moshinskie. Most online degree programs utilize bulletin board systems (BBSs), chat rooms and e-mail to hold class, do assignments and communicate with classmates and professors. "You have more control over virtually every aspect of your learning experience when the school comes to you."

Gary Mayo's need to exercise this option while continuing his education led him to pursue a virtual executive M.B.A. from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Mayo, 45, graduated last December and counts access to scholars around the world as another plus. "Over the course of the 19-month program, I had classmates from Moscow, Amsterdam, Brazil, Hong Kong and Toronto," says the global customer service director for Visteon Automotive Systems, a division of Ford Motor Co. in Detroit. "It was great to be able to talk about newsworthy events, such as the financial situation in Asia, as they happen with the people who actually live there."

He did more than just widen his professional network. "I really learned about other cultures and the differences that sometimes separate us," says Mayo, who manages a global staff of 100. "There was a group project in which one of my classmates was struggling. I didn't understand why he wouldn't ask for help," he recalls. Mayo later came to find out that the classmate's culture frowned upon that behavior. "It taught me some valuable lessons about interpersonal communication and overcoming differences to work well with others."

Speaking of the workplace, it used to be that a distance degree was seen as a low-quality substitute for "the real thing." But the advent of new technologies is helping to change the perception of distance learning in the office. "Many companies realize that the only difference between a traditional degree and one earned online is the way in which it's earned," states Vicky Phillips, CEO of Lifelong Learning, an adult education consulting firm in Waterbury, Vermont.

But the truth is, you don't even have to allude to how you earned your degree. "Employers want to know whether you have the degree, not how you earned it," says Dixon. "Think about it. When was the last time you were asked during an interview, `Did you take your courses online?'" On the other hand, if you want to play up your technical savvy, it wouldn't hurt to mention it.

LOOK BEFORE YOU LOG ON

Despite the warm reception online learning is receiving at some companies, there's more to it than initially meets the eye. "I could have earned my degree entirely online," says Ana Diaz, who took only a handful of online courses

toward a bachelor's in liberal arts from the New School in New York City. "But there are some things about the traditional classroom that a computer just couldn't replace," maintains Diaz, who continued her studies in the traditional manner and graduated in January 1998.

The biggest of these is the loss of physical interaction with your professor and classmates. "A face-to-face connection can be an important part of a learning experience," asserts Diaz 32, deputy director of external affairs for the New York City Department of Health Family Day Care Registration Office. "Furthermore, certain classes just don't translate well onto the Net," she says of the music and art courses that comprised her additional certificate in creative arts therapies.

On the surface, a distance degree may seem ideal. Besides books, it may seem that all you need is access to a computer and a working knowledge of the Internet. "You also need to possess the traits suited to this method of learning, such as self-motivation and the ability to study independently," asserts Phillips.

Rowles-Stokes agrees. "There's no professor to make you feel guilty if you don't show up," she smiles. It takes a great deal of discipline to "go to class" on your own and keep up with assignments, "even if you're tired," she says. Time management is another important factor. This means setting a realistic schedule and sticking to it. Diaz made it a point to do her schoolwork with her daughter. "I got the quiet time I needed, and she got a study partner," laughs Diaz, who was required to log on at least three times a week.

Earning a degree from home may also require loads of support from others in the household and some sacrifice. "It was hard to sometimes tell my daughters that I couldn't play with them because I had to study, even though it was the weekend," says Mayo, a husband and father of two. "Fortunately, they understood what I was trying to accomplish, and my wife knew how important this was to me. I wouldn't have completed this program were it not for their support."

Phillips also warns against thinking that a distance degree will be easier to earn than a traditional one, noting that distance program drop-out rates, sometimes as much as 30%-50%, are higher than those of traditional programs. "It actually takes more work, because you have to actively contribute in order to learn," she says. From responding to professor's notice boards to working with classmates on group assignments, participation is a staple of most online programs.

But the most important issue you'll need to investigate is whether the school you choose is accredited by a recognized regional accreditor. This stamp of approval shows "it meets certain minimum standards of educational quality," says Dixon. "It indicates that the curriculum is appropriate, faculty members are well-trained and competent and that appropriate student services--such as career counseling, tutoring and technical support--are in place."

Unfortunately, just about anyone can open a "university" and claim that it's fully accredited. Similarly, many accrediting bodies exist. "But not all of them are legitimate," points out Dixon. The U.S. Department of Education (202-708-7417) will supply you with a list of approved accrediting agencies. If you absolutely want to be sure your school is accredited, follow Diaz's lead. "Select a distance degree program through a traditional four-year university or professional school," suggests Dixon.

MIND OVER MONEY

Maybe you already know you have what it takes to earn a distance degree, and want to find out the cost. This price will largely depend on two factors: the type of degree you want and the school you choose to attend. For example, Mayo's Duke degree, at $82,500, is the most expensive virtual M.B.A. in the country. In contrast, that degree from Andrew Jackson University in Birmingham, Alabama is the cheapest at only $5,000.

If you think any additional degree is beyond your budget, consider that more than 90% of American companies offer tuition reimbursement. A few employers, such as Mayo's, foot the entire bill. "Never assume your company won't pay for at least some of your tuition," says Phillips. "Even if it doesn't pay for degrees, ask it to pay for the specific courses directly related to your role at work," she recommends.

Both Rowles-Stokes and Diaz looked to outside sources to fund their schooling. "I was awarded a full scholarship from the National Association of Minorities in Cable that took care of my tuition and books, which amounted to about $10,000," says Rowles-Stokes. Diaz paid for her own education through loans.

However, tuition may not be the only cost you'll have to bear. For example, your computer will need to have the specifications laid out by the individual program or school. This may result in you having to purchase more RAM or memory, as well as additional hardware, such as cameras, if videoconferencing will also be utilized.

If you're wondering whether the costs--financial and emotional--of earning a Web-based degree are really worth it, consider its potential value in the real world, says Mayo. "The company liked the distance format because they didn't have to wait to see a return on their investment," says Mayo, who believes the distance program was more intense than its daytime counterpart. "Because I was still working, I could put what I was learning into practical use right away."

At press time, Rowles-Stokes' degree hadn't resulted in more responsibility. However, she feels it will give her an edge in her pursuit of a vice presidency of human resources--either at Rifkin or elsewhere. "I learned the skills I needed to keep in step with the workplace," says Rowles-Stokes, who used her newly honed technical ability to design her company's Web page. Her experience has influenced her husband, Guy, to pursue an online master's in business administration through JIU and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

Dixon echoes their sentiments. "You can be proud of any degree you earn through virtual means," she says. Indeed, a virtual degree can make a real difference in your career.

Should you go the distance?

These resources offer the information you need to decide if distance learning is the way you should go.

BOOKS

Here's the lowdown on virtual learning and schools offering it.

The Best Distance Learning Graduate Schools: Earning Your Degree Without Leaving Home by Vicky Phillips and Cindy Yager (Princeton Review Publishing, $20) www.review.com

Peterson's 1999 MBA Distance Learning Programs: The Hottest New Way to Earn a Graduate Business Degree (Peterson's, $18.95)

Virtual College: A Quick Guide to How You Can Get the Degree You Want With Computer, TV, Video, Audio and Other Distance Learning Tools by Pam Dixon (Peterson's, $9.95) www.petersons.com

ORGANIZATIONS

These will help you locate legitimate distance schools and programs.
American Council on Education Center for
Adult Learning and Educational Credentials
1 Dupont Circle
Washington, DC 20036 * 202-939-9475
www.acenet.edu

PBS Adult Learning Service
1320 Braddock Pl.
Alexandria, VA 22314 * 800-257-2578
www.pbs.org/als

U.S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Ave. SW
Washington, DC 20202 * 800-USA-LEARN
www.ed.gov

U.S. Distance Learning Association
2995 Taylor Lane, Suite A
Byron, CA 94514 * 925-516-7377
www.usdla.org

WEBSITES

Browse these sites for more
on virtual education.

Adult Education and
Distance Learner's
Resource Center
www.geteducted.com

Accredited Distance
Learning Degrees
www.accrediteddldegrees.com

disted.com: your online guide
to distance education
www.disted.com

Peterson's: The Distance
Learning Channel
www.petersons.com/dlearn
COPYRIGHT 1999 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:school courses on the Internet
Author:Clarke, Robyn D.
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Apr 1, 1999
Words:2324
Previous Article:COOKING UP DEALS.
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