AE’s Online Master’s Degree Has Successful Start
Kyle Smith was one course short of earning his master’s degree in Aerospace Engineering at Illinois when he started working full time in 2011 as a systems software engineer at FRASCA, an Urbana flight simulation company.
Smith, who had earned a bachelor’s in AE at Illinois in 2009, wanted to finish the master’s degree, but “working full time, I really didn’t have the option to come to campus,” he said. Then, a year ago, he learned of AE’s new online master’s degree program being offered starting Fall 2014.
Going online, Smith went on to finish the remaining course – Applied Aerodynamics – and earned his degree in December. “It was super convenient,” he said. “It was the same (as being in the class physically). The only difference was, I watched a recording of the class.”
The new program has gone extremely well, believes AE Prof. John Lambros, who has been instrumental in getting the online master’s up and running. The program attracted 10 students last fall, and an eleventh in January. AE has already received several applications for the Fall 2015 semester ahead of the July 1 deadline.
“The online students all did extremely well; their grades were mostly A’s and A+’s,” Lambros said, noting, “I think most of them enjoyed the experience and thought it was useful.”
AE’s online master’s degree program is identical to the on-campus non-thesis degree because the online courses are streamed recordings of the on-campus courses. The homework is the same, the instructors are the same, and the exams are the same.
“The differences are (online) is more flexible and you can apply what you’re learning to the real world at your job,” believes online student Cassie Meisner, who works for Rolls-Royce. “But of course it's still the same notes, homework, and exams.”
Actually, online students see an advantage in having access to course recordings.
“If I'm feeling tired from a long day of work or from staying up the night before working on an assignment, I can just stop the lecture and come back. Plus, if I didn't catch something, I can always rewind,” said John Alaimo, who earned a bachelor’s in AE in 2012. Alaimo is pursuing the master’s while working full time for Boeing in Everett, Washington.
Luke Firsching, another online student, also likes the flexibility. “Being able to choose when I watch lectures and the ability to re-watch lectures was extremely useful. I no longer need to worry about schedule conflicts or not being able to scribe all of my notes quickly.” Firsching’s employer, UTC Aerospace Systems in Rockford, Illinois, is paying for his degree through its Employee Scholar Program.
Smith said he found the interface to work well; he experienced only one inconvenience when audio was accidentally missing from the recording. When Prof. Michael Selig, who taught the course, became aware of the problem, he corrected it by covering the material again in the next session.
Online students have used discussion boards, Google.docs, and other technology to interact and collaborate with on-campus students taking the identical courses. In fact, Smith said, he and his group partner won a couple of competitions in class assignments using online collaboration tools.
While online students submit homework electronically, the students take their exams in the presence of a pre-approved proctor, who then sends in the test through standard mail. Proctors make sure that online students face the same time limits and other exam standards required of on-campus students.
While pleased with AE’s inaugural effort in offering online education, Lambros said the department wants to improve the program by quickening faculty response to students’ questions. This will happen as faculty gain familiarity with the online concept.
An expansion in online teaching is on the horizon. This summer, AE will offer one online course, AE 420 Finite Elements. “It’s our first attempt to offer a summer course – we hope to include more in future summers – so that online students can graduate earlier,” Lambros said.
Another initiative being considered is offering certificate programs for online students who gain 12 hours of courses in a particular area.