Tuesday, September 23, 2008

CSU introducing online degrees

When classes start at Cal State East Bay this week, they'll include dozens of students who will never need to set foot on campus.

For the first time, students in a handful of programs will be able to complete master's degrees or the final two years of their bachelor's degrees online. No commuting, no dining halls, no searching for parking spaces.

Although online courses are nothing new at institutions nationwide, it is unusual for a traditional university to offer completely online degrees. Organizers say the Cal State East Bay program comes from a growing recognition that working and disabled students simply don't have time to sit in classrooms.

"At Cal State East Bay, we have the Hayward campus, the Concord campus, the Oakland center," said Nan Chico, who directs the school's online programs. "The Online Campus is like its own (physical) campus. Students won't ever need to come to campus, because all their student services are online."

The new Web-based system includes everything from financial-aid help to career advice, services available to both online and traditional students. The university will start with three bachelor's and two master's degree programs.

With most community colleges and universities offering lower-division courses online, it's more possible than ever for students to attend college from home. For older and working students — who make up a majority of Cal State East Bay's enrollment — online Advertisementcourses bring college degrees within reach.

"They're great for raising a family and working," said Martin Bell, a Pleasanton resident who plans to work toward an online master's degree in recreation and tourism. He also took several online courses while completing his bachelor's degree at Cal State East Bay.

A Cal State spokeswoman was unable to say whether other campuses offer completely online degrees, but Chico said she believes East Bay is the first in the 23-campus system. Besides the master's degree in recreation and tourism, the university also offers one in education and bachelor's degrees in hospitality and tourism, human development and recreation.

Among the idea's most enthusiastic supporters is Melany Spielman, chairwoman of the leadership in hospitality and leisure services department. More than half the students in her department are taking online courses this quarter, including some from as far away as Kenya and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Spielman herself returned to college after having children and said she understands the difficulty faced by older students.

Online courses "provide access to people who are working full-time," she said. "There's all kinds of reasons why people can't attend (traditional) classes."

The online classrooms use a combination of discussion boards, blogs and wikis. Just like in traditional classrooms, online teaching methods can either be captivating or a complete disaster.

Bell, who took online courses taught by Spielman, said the computerized classrooms can be much more engaging than actual classrooms for some students. Online discussions were often lively, he said.

"A lot of people don't like to talk in class," he said. "It actually brought out the best in some people."

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