Cyberspace scholars

08/01/2007
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online.

By SUSAN McMAHON
Sun Staff


LOWELL William Soknich sat in his living room, his laptop on his lap, laughing at something one of his fellow classmates had written in the class' chat room.

His son walked in and asked what he was doing.

"I'm in class," Soknich told him.

The fruits of the information age paid off for the Brockton resident on Sunday, as he and four other online students became the first UMass Lowell graduates to finish their coursework over the Internet.

"There's no real inhibition to getting an education now," Soknich said. "As a working professional, I had the ability to go get the course material, whether it was late at night or early in the morning or during my lunch hour. I thought it was great."

The cyber ed revolution is tearing through UMass Lowell, as more than 6,000 students have enrolled in the program. More than 8,000 have enrolled across the UMass system.

In the first four years of the program at UMass Lowell, enrollment jumped by 100 percent each year. Last year, it grew by 25 percent.

And on Sunday, the first five students who had completed all of their coursework through cyber ed received their diplomas in information systems.

"It's going to be a part of the future," said Jacqueline Moloney, dean of continuing studies and corporate education at UMass Lowell.

And the program is exploding, continuing to offer more degrees and more courses for students. Offerings include a bachelor's in liberal arts, or a master's in educational administration online. An MBA program is also in the works for the Lowell campus.

For students with jobs, families, and lives outside of school, cyber ed is a godsend. Tewksbury resident Jeanine Tamboli, who also graduated on Sunday, would not have been able to get her degree any other way.

As her daughter did her homework on their kitchen table and her son scrambled onto her lap, Tamboli described her professors, her work online, and how good it felt to go to the commencement ceremony this week.

With her job and her family, getting her bachelor's degree online was her only option.

"It made it a lot more flexible," said Tamboli, the first female graduate of the cyber ed program. "I used to do it on the commuter rail or when the kids went to bed. I would be doing homework outside my son's preschool."

There are downsides to such an education. Doing all the work on the computer takes a little getting used to. And never meeting classmates can be disjointing.

It also takes a tremendous amount of self-discipline in order to make sure the work gets done, Soknich said.

But it's the wave of the future. And adult education students are welcoming it with open arms.

Most students, like Tamboli and Soknich, started their degrees earlier and had credits they could use toward their work at UMass Lowell. But they both said the classwork they did through the cyber ed program went so much more quickly than regular classrooms, not because it was easier, but because it could be done on their time.

There was no commuting to class. No set times for lectures. No time lost between parents and children.

And that is one of the biggest advantages, both graduates say.

"I see it as a definite alternative to brick-and-mortar schooling," Soknich said. "In order to pursue this degree, I didn't have to choose being away from my family."

Susan McMahon's e-mail address is smcmahon@lowellsun.com .