MPA online program: convenient education from the comfort of home

Breanne George

Michael Libens’ schedule allows him little time to attend college.

He is a firefighter for the Highland Heights fire department.

He works 24-hour shifts every three days and spends his days off with his wife and two children.

But Libens will be graduating with a master’s degree in public administration in May.

Libens is enrolled in Kent State’s Master of Public Administration online program.

“This type of learning fits my lifestyle,” he said. “I can put the kids to bed and then listen to the class lecture. I can do my class work at three in the morning if I have to.”

The MPA program is the first and only fully online degree program at Kent State. Students can receive their graduate degree without ever stepping foot on the Kent State campus.

Sue Reasoner, who is in her third year in the program, said it is a great opportunity for her because she does not have the option to move to Kent because of her job and family commitments.

“I was a caregiver for my mom for the first two years of the program,” Reasoner said. “I currently work two jobs, so late nights and weekends are the only times I have to work on my schoolwork.”

Joe Drew, political science associate professor who designed and coordinates the program, said he designed it to appeal to the nontraditional student who has limited time to attend college.

Anyone with a bachelor’s degree can enroll in the program, including students from out of state. Students in the program have been from all parts of the United States and even different countries.

“I enjoy providing access to education for people who otherwise would not be able to do so,” Drew said. “Many people want to get their master’s degree, but have other commitments in their lives. Education is vital because it is social mobility.”

Bob Jacola recently graduated from the online program. He said he was hesitant to go back to school prior to enrolling in the program.

“I’ve been out for a while and felt a little uneasy about attending college with students half my age,” Jacola said. “The online program makes it easier to get back in the swing of things.”

All the courses are taught from a Web site and offer interactive discussions once a week via a computer program called LearnLinc.

“The LearnLinc software makes the class interactive,” Libens said. “This program was implemented about a year after I started. It has taken the classroom experience to the next level.”

LearnLinc can be accessed by any computer with an Internet connection. Students use a microphone to communicate with the professor and classmates. The professor uses a “white board” that acts as a chalkboard. What the professor types is automatically viewable to the students and can be saved as a Microsoft Word document.

“What I like best about LearnLinc is the archive section on the Web site,” Reasoner said. “My schedule often doesn’t allow me to attend the weekly discussion, so I can go back and listen to the audio and read the notes.”

This type of education can be more difficult for students who need the face-to-face interaction with the professor.

“Students have to be disciplined and work a lot harder in an online course,” Drew said. “Most students are self-motivated, but some students have dropped out for this reason.”

Communication is vital for a successful online learning environment, said Patricia Book, vice president of regional development, who is an advocate of online education.

“Online education has to be highly interactive to be successful,” she said. “There is much richer participation in an online discussion than a traditional classroom because students tend to feel more comfortable.”

In the MPA program, students communicate via e-mail and phone to the professor and other students.

“I often receive phone calls during the day from my classmates who have a question about an assignment,” Reasoner said. “This makes the learning environment as personal as possible.”

Students work in teams on projects where they meet on LearnLinc to have a discussion or make phone calls.

“The class did a mock labor negotiation online,” Reasoner said. “My team members were from all over the country.”

Technology glitches, which are inevitable in an online environment, have caused minor problems.

“I have a dial-up Internet connection, which sometimes causes problems for me during the LearnLinc discussion,” Reasoner said. “I have to log back in and often miss some of the lecture.”

Many professors are hesitant to teach online courses because it is more time consuming than a traditional course, Drew said. All the class lectures must be made prior to the class and posted on the Web site. It can be difficult for professors to develop an online course, especially if he or she is not familiar with the technology.

“The Faculty Professional Development Center in Moulton Hall works with faculty who are interested in setting up an online course,” Drew said. “In some cases, the professor gives them the information and they will create a Web site.”

Online education is becoming more popular each year. According to Eduventures Inc., almost a million students were taking a fully online degree programs in 2004.

Drew said he believes that the MPA program is only the beginning for online education at Kent State.

“More and more people are desirous of receiving an education,” he said. “And more and more companies are looking at online education as a respectable alternative.”

Contact student politics reporter Breanne George at [email protected].