Online? UML's on Board

12/26/2009
By From the Lowell Sun

By Jennifer Myers

LOWELL -- Steven Hansen recently completed the required course work to earn a Master of Business Administration degree from UMass Lowell.

He has never stepped foot in Lowell.

Hansen, 37, lives in St. George, Utah. He earned his MBA entirely online, taking two classes each semester since the fall of 2007.

"It was really nice because I was able to select a great school without worrying about finding housing and fitting all of my classes into a set schedule," Hansen said. "In the last class I took, there were students from Italy, Denver and California."

Online education came to UMass Lowell in its infancy nearly 15 years ago. The movement was spearheaded by Executive Vice Chancellor Jacquie Moloney, who was heading the university's Continuing Studies and Corporate Education Division.

Moloney recently received the 2009 award for Most Outstanding Achievement in Online Learning by an individual by the Sloan Consortium, the only American educator to win the award. The organization, an offshoot of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, works to integrate online learning into mainstream higher education, as well as improve the quality of those programs.

"It is very humbling to receive a lifetime achievement award," said Moloney, adding that she originally jumped on board the online-education wave in an effort to meet the needs of adult students in the continuing-education program.

"We knew lives were changing," she said. "We listened to our students and heard the difficulties they were having trying to balance a career and family with their education. They had a lot of obstacles but still wanted to advance their degrees."
Moloney added that many students were having trouble making it to class on campus more than one night a week and were taking eight to 10 years to complete a bachelor's degree.

UML piloted an online education program in 1996, offering four courses. Four hundred students enrolled.

"We weren't really sure how to do it or what to expect," Moloney said. "There was no model, no frameworks to follow."

There are now 12,000 students enrolled in online courses though UML.

"Last year, we had a 25 percent increase in online enrollments and are expecting a similar increase in the next year," she said. "At each commencement, there are 50 to 75 graduates who come to campus for the first time and finally meet their professors after having online relationships with them throughout their college careers. It really is amazing and rewarding."

According to a 2008 report complied by the Sloan Consortium, nearly 4 million students -- that's 20 percent of all U.S. higher-education students -- took at least one online course in the fall of 2007, up from 1.6 million students in 2002.

Hansen spent 15 years as an information-technology professional, but when the economy began to falter and the job market tightened, he realized that without a college degree, his job prospects were slim. He earned a bachelor's degree from Dixie State College in Utah, then found the online MBA program at UML.

"You do lose out a little bit on the social interaction with other students because it is different getting to know everyone through a chat window," he said. "But overall, it was a great experience."

He is currently searching for career-advancement opportunities as well as considering entering into a Ph.D. program.

Four years ago, with the assistance of a $650,000 grant from the Sloan Foundation, UMass Lowell built 10 blended, or hybrid, education programs, primarily in the health-care and engineering fields. The hybrid programs include face-to-face courses in which half of the work is completed online.

Alex Murray, a 21-year-old psychology major from Arlington, took one of those blended courses, a research class, and found it very convenient.

The lectures were available online. There were podcasts and videos that could be downloaded to an iPod, to be taken anywhere.

"The best part was that when it was cold outside, I could just stay in my pajamas and still 'go to class,'" she said.