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David F. Salisbury, News Service (650) 725-1944

Stanford offering its first complete online degree program

This fall Stanford University will offer its first completely online degree program: a master's in electrical engineering.

The students accepted into the degree program will compete for graduate admission directly with electrical engineering students who intend to complete their graduate work on campus.

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"To the best of our knowledge, we will be the first major research university in the U.S. to offer a master's degree in engineering totally online," says Joseph Goodman, professor of electrical engineering and senior associate dean of the School of Engineering.

For nearly 30 years, Stanford's School of Engineering has offered graduate engineering degree programs, non-credit courses, certificate programs, seminars and short courses to distance learners at some 300 companies using a combination of microwave, videotape, satellite and two-way digital video technology. Since 1994, the Stanford Center for Professional Development (SCPD) has been experimenting with delivery of courses via the Internet. After a research project with the Stanford Center for Telecommunications demonstrated the demand for online access among working professionals, SCPD established Stanford Online to deliver Stanford courses to the desktop of the distance learner. The service already offers Stanford credit for a variety of online courses, but, until now, there have not been enough online offerings to allow a student to obtain an advanced degree in this fashion.

The start-up costs of putting the 30 courses being offered in the new program online are being supported by a $450,000 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The grant will cover incremental costs for the first two years of the program. By the third year, participants expect it to be self-supporting. The new web-based offerings will be priced similarly to existing remotely delivered courses, which are considerably more expensive than normal tuition.

The technologies involved in offering the online program include audio/video streaming with synchronized slide shows. Other technologies allow the electronic distribution of class handouts and notes, synchronous and asynchronous interaction among the students and between the students and their instructors, and in some cases the electronic posting of homework and exams. Stanford has joined with Microsoft and Compaq to provide its online students with state-of-the-art communications technology.

"We are going to give the people in industry the same courses as if they were here on campus," says John Hennessy, dean of the School of Engineering. "They will experience the same intellectual rigor, the same up-to-date treatment of material. This is what makes Stanford's continuing education programs so successful."

Stanford studies have found that there is no difference between distance learners and on-campus students when judged by test scores, according to the program's overseers: Goodman; Dale Harris, executive director of the Center for Telecommunications; and Andy DiPaolo, director of the Stanford Center for Professional Development and senior associate dean. Under certain conditions, distance learners actually score higher.

"In the industrial age we went to school. In the communication age the school comes to us," DiPaolo says. "Through Stanford Online we intend to prove this concept by making a portion of the graduate engineering curriculum available to qualified students anywhere, anytime and on demand."

On the other hand, there is little doubt that "virtual" students miss out on a number of very valuable intellectual experiences available on campus. To compensate at least partially for this lack, the Center for Telecommunications will provide online students with a variety of interactive seminars, regular online discussions of relevant topics, and non-credit short courses on practical telecommunications topics.

"Our primary goal is education," Harris says. "We will consider our online degree to be successful only if it's the highest quality available, and if the education of its graduates compares favorably in all respects with that received by their on-campus counterparts."

The Department of Electrical Engineering is one of 10 academic departments in the School of Engineering at Stanford. Its graduate program was ranked first among those at American universities by the National Research Council in 1995. The department awards approximately 285 master's degrees annually. Participants expect about 50 students to sign up for the online degree. By studying full time, a student can obtain the degree in a single year. But most distance learners are expected to take three to four years to complete the program, producing a graduation rate of 10 to 15 online master's students per year.


By David F. Salisbury

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