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Learning by remote: off-campus MBA program a hit. (Off-Campus Program).

At the TechLink Center on the Bozeman campus of Montana State University; Todd Johnson serves as director of technology commercialization. By combining his 14 years of business and technology experience and the MBA he earned in The University of Montana's off-campus program, Johnson has successfully assisted with technology transfers between NASA, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the public sector.

"In the purest sense, it really does a tremendous job in making the U.S. manufacturers more competitive in the world marketplace," Johnson notes.

He also works with Global 500 and other companies in providing support when licensing new technologies. In conjunction with the prospective licensees, he analyzes cost structures, existing production technology strengths and weaknesses, production methodologies, supply-chain constraints, and product development timelines.

He believes his MBA coursework refined his business skills and has been vital to his work with senior executive officers, legal teams, heads of finance, and product-development engineers in the United States and abroad. "It gave me a well rounded background to effectively communicate with those people in a way in which they are comfortable," he says.

"I thought it was an outstanding learning experience," Johnson says. "With the two-way video, you didn't need the professor right in front."

Johnson explains: "You could ask questions right there and get immediate answers. It was just fine. In some ways being away is better.

The same Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree that The University of Montana offers on its Missoula campus is available to meet the needs of working professionals across the Big Sky. By attending courses during evenings and on weekends on college and university campuses in six Montana cities--Billings, Bozeman, Butte, Great Falls, Helena, and Kalispell--most MBA students can complete all degree requirements in two or three years.

Distance education has come a long way since universities first initiated correspondence courses. The latest technology allows instructors to deliver courses as two-way, digital videoconferences to classrooms throughout the state. Students can interact during class with the instructor and with students attending classes in other communities in a user-friendly live video environment.

Since its 1988 beginning, the off-campus MBA program has produced graduates seeking career advancement, higher income potential, and increased mobility in the workplace. Whether combining a technical or specialized undergraduate degree with an MBA, or returning to college to update previous education in business administration, the pursuit of an MBA represents an important and necessary investment in one's future, says Dr. Clyde Neu, director of the off-campus MBA program at UM.

By the end of the 2001-2002 academic year, the off-campus MBA program had graduated 235 students, with 14 of those being off-campus program enrollees who received their diplomas in May.

"That's 235 people who got an MBA who wouldn't have because they were place-bound or unable to travel."

Currently there are upwards of 100 students enrolled in the off-campus courses, says Neu, who is also a professor of business management at UM's Missoula campus.

Like their equals across the state, students living in the Missoula area can attend the program's evening classes in the distance learning classrooms of the Gallagher Business Building. The courses are the same both on and off campus. The same instructor who teaches a daytime section generally teaches the evening section of each required course.

Several short, one-credit weekend classes are worked into the curriculum each year. School of Business instructors present these courses at various Montana sites. Daytime students occasionally attend these as well, because many of the courses are not offered in the full-time program.

Program Extends to Non-Business Undergraduates

Whether on or off campus, to complete the 32-hour professional degree program and receive an MBA at UM, students must show competence in the fundamentals of business management.

For those without undergraduate business degrees, UM offers five Foundation Program courses as part of its graduate curriculum. These are available on the Internet for completion at a student's convenience.

"Today, we are finding that fully 50 percent of the people enrolled are not business grads," Neu says. "They are hoping to move to management in their current jobs."

Following the Foundation courses, students may enroll in MBA 600, their first graduate-level course. "The Foundation Program was extremely important to develop," Neu asserts. "There was no infrastructure across Montana for students to take courses in business that met their needs in the evenings."

That dilemma led to development of five special, 500-level graduate courses delivered over the Internet, covering topics such as accounting, marketing, management, and applied business statistics. The Internet was a logical means to deliver the five courses that combine for 15 required credits, Neu says.

Part, or all, of the Foundation Program may be waived if a student holds a baccalaureate degree in Business Administration. Undergraduates who have completed coursework in the functional areas of business (e.g., accounting, finance, and marketing) may also be exempt from taking some Foundation courses.

Off-campus MBA students typically have worked for several years prior to enrolling in the UM program. They are older, more mature, and have experience to share with their classmates, Neu asserts. Their academic backgrounds span all disciplines, from business to the humanities, from engineering to the sciences.

In addition, the range of professional backgrounds extends from self-employed entrepreneurs to early- and mid-career professionals employed by some of Montana's leading companies, which eagerly support their employees enrolled in the MBA program.

Neu calculates that in roughly 50 percent of cases, the employer is financially supporting a portion of the employee's MBA tuition costs.

Montana Power Co., recently purchased by NorthWestern Energy, is one such employer that reimbursed dozens of employees 100 percent for tuition and books, according to Director of Communications Claudia Rapkoch, who received her MBA in the off-campus program in 1999.

"I would have gotten my MBA, but it made it so much easier to make the decision," she says. Similar sentiments have been heard from the five to seven other MPC employees who took MBA courses each semester in Butte, she adds. Those students' backgrounds ranged from engineering and environmental science to business management and computer systems, she remembers.

"We would all agree that it has given us a much broader appreciation for the ins and outs of the company," she surmises, and it has helped employees move up in their jobs at NorthWestern Energy. A former environmental auditor with an undergraduate degree in forestry is now a vice president for customer relations and billing at Touch America, an offshoot of Montana Power that is now the major remainder of Montana's former power-supply corporation.

Graduate Courses Offer Diversity

In the graduate program, the 32-hour curriculum is split evenly between required courses and electives. MBA 600, "The Contemporary Organization," is a required 4-credithour course that melds the various functional areas of business. Preferably, it is taken early in the student's pursuit of an MBA. Six other required courses, each 2 credit hours, are taught annually in 10-week "mini-semesters."

The 16 remaining credits are electives in the professional program, six of which are "restricted choice" credits that focus on areas of interpersonal contact, technology, and strategic management.

Another 10 credits of electives are "unrestricted," and may represent a combination of any number of courses available in the program. Transfer credits may apply, Neu points out.

Once all coursework is successfully completed, and the student passes an exit exam, UM presents an MBA degree without distinction whether it was earned in the full-time MBA program or in the off-campus program. The degree is the same.

Students should be able to complete all 600-level professional program requirements in two years since a sufficient number of curriculum courses are available each semester. Those who must complete the 15-credit Foundation Program should count on one additional year.

With a journalism degree from Colorado State University, Rapkoch was required to take several prerequisite business courses before enrolling for graduate-level MBA courses. She completed the Web-based courses in roughly one year.

"It was different than a traditional class setting," Rapkoch says of the Internet classroom. "But, I rather liked it because it allowed me to set my own pace and my own schedule."

Personal Contact Not Necessarily Required

Interactive television and threaded discussions on the Internet provide the classrooms for off-campus learning, and though it seems less personal, students learn just as well as those who sit in front of an instructor at the Missoula campus, according to Shawn Clouse, Ed.D., MBA.

Clouse completed his doctoral dissertation on how traditional learning compared with synchronous (real-time face-to-face interaction via interactive television or live Internet chats) and asynchronous learning (online threaded discussions and e-mail).

What he found was that even when using technology, "learning does take place."

Rapkoch, a former CBS news anchor in Billings says: "You are programmed to having a real live human being standing in front of you. It's a bit surprising at first. After a while you begin not noticing the technology so much. It becomes normal."

Neu adds: "Students learn more from the different methods of delivery. ...The biggest advantage to the traditional student on campus is that they have face-toface contact with their instructors."

He notes that faculty assigned to teach on TV are required to travel to each off-campus site at least once during their course in order to meet their students personally.

Through the school's MetNet System, courses are delivered by closed-circuit, two-way television links in which instructors and students can see and speak to each other although they are hundreds of miles away. Classes range in size between 25 and 45 students with evening sections at three cities simultaneously linked with class in Missoula. Afterward, asynchronous discussion can be added.

Even with the inconvenience of missed phone calls, e-mailing, and faxing that on-campus students don't have to deal with, Neu says, "I really do think that graduates of the Off-Campus MBA Program get as good of a degree.

"They have to work harder at it, but they get virtually the same education."

RELATED ARTICLE: Off-Campus MIBA Student Statistics

AVERAGE AGE 36

MEN 46%

WOMEN 54%

AVERAGE FULL-TIME WORK EXPERIENCE 11 YRS

AVERAGE GMAT SCORE 540

MEDIAN UNDERGRADUATE GPA 3.2

ACADEMIC BACKGROUND [as a percent of total]

BUSINESS/COMMERCE 58%

ECONOMICS 4%

SOCIAL SCIENCE 6%

ENGINEERING 12%

MATH/COMPUTER SCIENCE 5%

PHYSICAL SCIENCES 5%

LIFE SCIENCES 9%

HUMANITIES 1%

GRADUATE OR MULTIPLE DEGREE HOLDERS 13%

MBA Essentials Certificate Program

A relatively new program developed by UM's School of Business Administration (SOBA) drew great interest in Missoula last fall and is now traveling statewide to give managers, executives, and entrepreneurs a graduate-level, highly focused overview of current business practices and theories.

The MBA Essentials Certificate Program features fine-tuned critical business issues that SOBA faculty have developed into three-hour sessions highlighting their campus coursework. The program began by offering classes one night a week for 14 weeks last fall in the Gallagher Business Building.

"It exposes people who most likely cannot find time to pursue an MBA at night. They can improve their skills by exposing themselves to current MBA curriculum and the faculty who teach our MBA courses," says Dr. Clyde Neu, director of the Off-Campus MBA Program and professor of management at UM.

Because it drew so much response during enrollment last fall, a second session rapidly formed. The interest came from an array of people in all areas of business looking to obtain a competitive advantage in the workplace by updating and expanding their skills, or those thinking about pursuing a graduate degree.

"We actually had to scramble," Neu says. Last fall, 70 Missoula-area professionals filled the two sections, which made Neu realize that the MBA Essentials Program would also be of benefit to other Montana communities.

Alliances with two other business schools quickly formed. For the spring offering at the University of Great Falls, 27 students enrolled, while 21 attended a course held in Billings at Rocky Mountain College.

Each institution provided faculty members from their campus to teach some courses. "The curriculum is substantially the same. Seven UM School of Business Administration faculty members were sent during the 14 sessions at each location. Those instructors provided courses that are unique to UM," Neu explains.

The Certificate Program may also be going on the road to Helena this fall to give professionals there a look at the emerging global business environment of the 21st century. Neu is working on the details of the probable Helena program with Barbara Martin, chief of the Organizational Development Bureau of the Department of Transportation.

Martin says, "We're really hoping this is a go because it's available to all state government workers and the public at large." Neu is equally excited at the potential for a program in Helena.

"There are a lot of people here (in state government and the private sector) who are in management," Martin says. "If you look at the curriculum, it's a great way to expand their horizons and give them a better view of the broad scope of management."

Neu says, "It fits into the training programs that employers have planned for their employees because [the MBA Essentials Program] is relative to professional business practices." Those same business principles also apply to government managers, he adds.

Amy Joyner is a freelance writer and a publications assistant at the Bureau.
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Copyright 2002 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Joyner, Amy
Publication:Montana Business Quarterly
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1U8MT
Date:Jun 22, 2002
Words:2209
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