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SMSU offers distance- learning CIS master's

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by Karen E. Culp

SBJ Staff

Most master's students walk across campus or drive across town to get to the classes that will help them finish their degrees. But master's students in SMSU's computer information systems program get to their coursework through a laptop or personal computer, sometimes from as far away as Tokyo, Japan.

The master of science in computer information systems at SMSU is an innovative program, said interim department head Dr. Jerry Chin, because students spend only two weeks per year on campus and complete the rest of their coursework for the semester through the Internet. Students were on campus for a one-week session Jan. 5-10.

While they are on campus, students spend a full day every day in class. Most students can manage getting to Springfield for that one week, but could not spend several weeks here, or at any other campus, because of their job demands, Chin said. Many of the students in the program travel extensively as part of their jobs, and the nature of this master's program makes them able to take their classes along with them.

One student in the program, Scott Marley, lives in North Carolina. He chose to get his master's through SMSU because the college offered a program that would let him get his degree despite the number of hours per week he spends traveling.

"This is the only way I could get a master's degree. I travel between 20 and 25 weeks out of every year for my company. Even if I had only one course a week in a conventional university setting, it would be almost impossible for me to get to it each week, and it would take me a much longer time to complete my degree," Marley said.

Marley installs network computer systems for Eaton Manufacturing, including custom logistics software. His company is giving him a full reimbursement for his college tuition. He has even been able to use some of his course work for professional development, he said.

"Some of the projects we do for class, I can do on company topics. The company has no problem with my using its Internet connection or equipment for my courses," Marley said.

Most students in the program are working in the information systems area, or have experience in that area, which is preferred when heads of the program are reviewing applications, Chin said.

Students are admitted in January and July to the program, which currently has about 29 students enrolled. Students in the program are often from large companies, and often hold high-ranking positions within those companies, Chin said.

"Our students are very well-versed in their subject matter. Often, the professor in the class finds he only has to put an idea on the table and they get a tremendous response from the students. Many of them bring different ideas to the program from their own workplace so there is this cross-pollination of ideas in the cyber classroom," Chin said.

That same cross-pollination occurs in the actual classroom when students are here for the week-long, on-campus sessions, according to Koichi Onikubo, a native of Tokyo, Japan, who works for Microsoft and is completing his degree while living in Tokyo.

"Our courses are small classes, so it is easy to talk with the professor and the other students. We also eat together and chat together when we're not in class, and find we're learning a great deal from each other," Onikubo said.

The cyber master's is a very good concept, Onikubo said, and allows him to keep up his busy work schedule while getting a master's degree. Onikubo completed both a bachelor's degree and a bachelor of law (similar to the juris doctorate in the United States) in Japan, and one master's degree in Great Britain.

He is married to an American who happens to have family in the Springfield area. He was able to research the master's degree program at SMSU while here visiting her family, he said.

In addition to students often coming from great distances, the professors are often guests from other universities, such as the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and the University of South Carolina, Chin said. No other program in the country is like SMSU's, although many universities are now offering degrees through the Internet, Chin said.

Computer information systems graduates on the master's and undergraduate level are in great demand, Chin said. David Meinert, associate professor of computer information systems, estimates that there are between four and five jobs available for each CIS graduate.

The students are selected from a large group of interested people, Chin said. Last year, he fielded requests for more than 500 packets of information.

Admission to the program is extremely competitive, he said, and the students enter the program with high scores on entrance exams and extensive professional experience.

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