Digital Degrees

Arizona universities offer one-stop class shopping on Web

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It's not something you'll find on her tests, but geography is definitely an interesting part of Sally Jackson's communication class this summer.

One student is taking the course from Hawaii. Another is studying from Brazil. A third is kind of hard to pin down because the student is traveling. All the while Jackson remains at the University of Arizona, teaching through the Internet.

"We're very encouraged by what has happened," Jackson said.

In and of itself, the class is not remarkable Web classes are becoming more common every day.

But the class is a good example of what may be in store for more students at Arizona's three public universities in the very near future.

The Arizona Board of Regents, which oversees Arizona, Arizona State and Northern Arizona University, recently unveiled a new Web portal that serves as a one-stop shopping site where students can enroll in classes from any of the three universities and pursue one of 17 degrees or certifications by taking classes on the Internet or using other technology, including television.

University officials say one of the main advantages of the site, www.azdistancelearning.org, is that it allows students to pick from among classes offered at the three universities. Students going completely online can pick which school they actually earn their degree from.

Each school benefits from not having to duplicate Web-based classes that another already offers.

The board of regents plans to eventually look at the possibility of expanding the project into a full, separately accredited online university the Arizona Regents University capable of granting degrees independently of the three brick-and-mortar schools.

Education officials said the online university concept, and Internet classes, can provide flexibility for students on campus and others for whom taking traditional classes is difficult, such as students who are combining school with full-time careers.

"The days of expecting students to leave the communities where they live and have families, often to come to campus to complete a degree program, are over for older students," said Fred Hurst, one of the coordinators of the project at NAU. "I think providing access to students through electronic means is a way of allowing them to increase their quality of life without sacrificing their current lifestyle."

Jackson, who also helped coordinate the new Web site, said students have shown great enthusiasm for online classes and that summer classes offered this year had vigorous enrollment.

"I have really been excited by the students' response," she said.

Brian Reyburn, 20, a senior UA accounting major who is taking an anthropology class this summer, said he likes the convenience.

"That's the main positive thing," he said. "I don't have to go to a classroom or anything like that. It's also kind of nice that you can move at your own pace. You don't have to wait for the teacher to explain things to other people."

Reyburn did seem to miss the interaction of a regular class.

"It's not something I would like to do as my whole college experience," he said. "It just kind of takes away from the other important aspects of college."

Jackson said the ultimate aim is not to replace the traditional college experience.

"As a parent, I have some pretty grave doubts about that," she said. "I want my son to have a more immersive experience than that, to live in a setting where people are studying full-time.

"Most of the online education has in mind a student who wants to complete a college education over a period of time. We're expecting that most traditional college-age students will seek this immersive college experience."

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