Serving New Audiences with a Master of Science Degree through Distance Education

Article excerpt

Abstract: This study is an evaluation of graduate-level distance education courses that contribute to a Master of Science degree program in Interdepartmental Human Resources and Family Sciences. Rogers' diffusion-of-innovation theory is the source of the major concepts of the evaluation: relative advantage; ability to be observed and tried; manageable complexity; and compatibility with experience, values, and needs. Evaluation of distance education shows new audiences are served and enrollments increase in the graduate program since students can complete a degree without coming to campus. Students voice high regard for the program and high commitment to program completion even though they express concern for the time required, the costs, and the difficulty in balancing competing demands on them as employees, spouses, parents, and community volunteers.

Traditional learning is still primarily place and time constrained and offered in a one-size-fits-all style characteristic of the industrial era (Heterick, 1994). Prospective graduate students meet barriers when they seek postbaccalaureate studies in Family and Consumer Sciences. Course offerings and complete degree programs are sparse at some campuses, a critical mass of graduate faculty may not be available, and many institutions may have limited library and research facilities to support graduate education. Furthermore, distance may keep persons from pursuing graduate education, especially when prospective students are full-time employees with family obligations. As a result, students may select more generic, close-to-home graduate degrees in vocational education, adult education, or community resources. While this approach meets the immediate needs of students for a graduate degree, it dilutes the professional pool by depriving practicing professionals of advanced education in Family and Consumer Sciences. An immediate consequence is some professional positions that require additional education, such as the masters degrees, have been filled with persons who hold generic degrees rather than degrees focusing on advanced subject matter content.

Distance education offers many advantages for students. Some of these advantages include (1) preventing students from commuting great distances or moving to campus and solving other "logistical" problems (such as child care or elder parent care); (2) allowing students to keep full-time professional employment with continued income and career advancement maintained intact; (3) providing wider access to postbaccalaureate studies while maintaining cost effectiveness; (4) expanding access on campuses with fewer faculty or limited resources through offerings for in-place graduate students through classes developed at institutions where more specialized faculty and facilities may be located; and (5) providing experiences and role models for delivery systems that will be used in professional positions.

In fall 1994, the graduate faculty of the College of Human Resources and Family Sciences, University of Nebraska (UN), initiated the delivery of a complete set of 12 courses for a Master of Science program. An important role in this process was to assist faculty in understanding the characteristics of distance learners, the technology involved, and approaches to redesigning existing curricular offerings for distance education using a total instructional design concept (Keegan, 1990). The faculty established a goal to maintain academic integrity of the curriculum while reducing the impact of distance caused by geography and technology.

The Interdepartmental Graduate Committee developed the plans for the degree program and functioned as the Supervisory Committee for students in the distance education program. The graduate faculty offer one course each fall and spring semester and two courses during the summer sessions so that 12 courses are being offered in a three-year cycle. The first cohort of 46 degree-seeking students will finish the degree program in August 1997; more than 50 additional students are taking courses to meet a multitude of objectives. …