Adult students discover their niche

Learning: With a campus in Columbia, the private university that enrolls more than 160,000 across the nation fits workers' schedules.

January 08, 2003|By Laura Shovan | Laura Shovan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

As a human resources supervisor for the Municipal Employees Credit Union of Baltimore, Sonja Crosby promotes higher education for her employees.

But when the she heard about the University of Phoenix's Columbia campus, Crosby had a particular employee in mind: herself. After visiting the school, she thought, "This might be for me."

Crosby graduated in June with a master's degree in organizational management. Calling itself the largest private university in the United States, Phoenix targets working adults.

"You didn't feel like you were ancient because you were sitting in a classroom of 18- and 19-year-olds," Crosby said. Instead, her classmates were adults with experience in a variety of professions.

Joe Snyders of Frederick, a self-employed government contractor, will graduate with a bachelor's degree this spring.

"I like the realistic environment," he said. "You get real-life problems.

"You get so much more out of this type of environment than in any other college" because students and instructors are adults with work experience, he said.

Overall, the University of Phoenix enrolls more than 160,000 students across the country. Founded in 1976, the university has campuses at dozens of sites, primarily throughout the West and South. Maryland is Phoenix's first venture in the Northeast.

In 1999, the school opened its first Maryland campus at Columbia Corporate Park. It confers bachelor's and master's degrees in business and technology-related fields, with 850 students enrolled.

Although the accredited university has a successful program of online coursework, every class at the Columbia campus had been meeting live, until recently.

Hoping to lure those students who need the flexibility of online courses, but prefer to know the face that goes with that username, the university offers Flexnet.

The program, which first was offered to Columbia MBA students in August, meets on campus for the first and last of its six sessions. The rest of the program is spent online. This month, Flexnet will be offered in some undergraduate classes.

"I think the magic of that is that there are a lot of folks who have family obligations or employment travel or such, and they really can't meet a classroom schedule," said Lonn Stine, who was the first Flexnet instructor in Maryland. He soon will train other faculty in the program.

At the initial class meeting, learning teams are formed for group projects, a syllabus is distributed, and the class goes over the mechanics of combining live and online learning.

"You don't have the same type of communication when you're strictly online," Stine said. Meeting first helps students "hear one another's voices, to have a four- or a five-hour period of very intense interaction in the classroom. Then when they go online they have that initial bond."

A maximum of 15 students for Flexnet classes helps control online communication.

After the initial meeting, the class runs for about a month online. Every week, the instructor posts discussion questions based on class reading. Students are required to participate in chat-room and e-mail loop discussions almost daily.

Courses include online assignments -- some of which are posted for peer comment and others that are turned in to the instructor, who gives direct evaluation and feedback.

Instructors are drawn from business and the military. "Our students ... want someone who, in their day job, does exactly what they're talking about" in leading the class, said Tim Moscato, Columbia campus director.

At the final workshop, class members meet to turn in and present their individual and group projects.

Robert Wiedefeld is area chairman for business and strategic management in the MBA and undergraduate business programs. He is Joe Snyders' instructor but also has taught classes online.

"I think the quality is every bit as good online as it is in class," he said. "When you put it online ... I think people are a little more careful and a little more thorough" than they are in a live discussion because posted or e-mailed comments can be printed and saved.

Flexnet is an attempt to combine the strengths of person-to-person and online courses, Wiedefeld said.

Crosby said that flexibility is an important factor for adults who are considering going back to school. "Maybe 10 years ago going to a brick-and-mortar campus was the only option," she said. "It's so much easier now to be able to go to school and be able to pursue that degree. It's almost a no-brainer."

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