In today's technologically advanced society dominated by 24/7 information and global connectivity, the world and any of its desires are quite literally at one's fingertips. Take, for instance, a quality education and degree from any number of major universities, including Texas A&M University.

Texas A&M's Department of Statistics, widely respected as one of the premier statistics departments in the United States and across the world, introduced its master of science in statistics online degree in 2007. During the past two years, the department has cultivated the 36-credit-hour curriculum into one of the most successful distance learning programs at Texas A&M under the guidance of program director and statistics professor Dr. F. Michael Speed and his team of colleagues. The program, which celebrated its first graduate in August and currently features students from 40 of the 50 United States as well as Canada and South America, ranks as the second-largest online program in the country behind Penn State University and boasts a growing reputation as a national archetype for distance learning.

"While we understand that not everyone can come and be an on-campus Aggie, we have perfected the ability to make people 'virtual Aggies' and offer them the same first class degree that our on-campus students earn," says Dr. Simon J. Sheather, professor of statistics and head of the Department of Statistics. "Naturally we are very proud of our high-quality degree and our longstanding traditions, in addition to our efforts to ensure that our online students truly feel they are part of the Aggie family."

Although the transition from traditional to virtual classroom is one that has been on the horizon for some time, it's a trend that Speed feels personally motivated to capitalize on now to avoid being rendered obsolete in an increasingly innovative future.

"People used to debate whether or not distance learning was a viable way to teach, but now, it's not a question of if it's viable, but if bricks and mortar will survive," Speed says. "What will it be like in 100 years? Will we still have books and campuses? We have to adapt to a time where our students have become extremely computer literate."

As distance learning takes on a life of its own, dozens of colleges and universities now offer this convenient service to students who, for myriad reasons, are unable to make the commute to an institution of their choice. Often, pre-recorded lectures are uploaded for viewing or packaged as DVDs sent directly to students.

Speed says what sets Texas A&M's online statistics program apart is the great pains he and his team take to ensure that it's an integrated extension of their hugely successful on-campus program, which has produced 725 master's and Ph.D. graduates since 1964. Unlike those at other universities, Texas A&M's statistics distance learning program is based on replicating the classroom experience with the help of the state-of-the-art equipment and techniques, many of which Speed himself has pioneered.

For example, Texas A&M's online master's program features video recordings of actual on-campus lectures for distance students to view via web streaming or by downloading a zip file -- intangibles that give it a major competitive edge, according to program coordinator Penny Jackson. While online statistics students enrolled in other colleges or universities may be listening to outdated lectures or learning older material, Jackson says students in Texas A&M's statistics online master's program are learning material as if they were a part of the actual class.

"We mimic the on-campus program, which has been going strong since 1964," Jackson explains. "We decided to model our program after it because we already had such a great thing going. We record what on-campus students see and hear, and we put it up immediately for the online students."

When it comes to measuring return on investment, nothing spells success like solid data, particularly to a career statistician like Speed. He says nearly 300 master's students and 400 non-degree-seeking students currently are enrolled in the online program, a significant increase from the roughly 40 students who participated in the program's debut year back in 2007. Perhaps even more significant, however, is the positive feedback from both current and former online students, who roundly praise their instructors, the overall atmosphere and the classroom-like element of Texas A&M's program.

"Thanks again for all your kind assistance -- much more than anything I have encountered in dealing with other institutions!" writes one online student from Ohio. Another from Midlothian, Texas, states, "I just uploaded my first homework, and I am loving my first distance class. Dr. [Thomas] Wehrly is great. Thanks for everything."

In the further interest of mirroring the on-campus experience, all online courses feature the same due dates for assignments and exams as those of on-campus options. Each exam is proctored and timed, with the materials limited only to the desires of the professor teaching the course. Exams are available for a 24-hour window and have a time limit once they are begun. They are accessed via password by a designated proctor who must be certified by the Department of Statistics.
Students in the online courses also participate in Q&A web conference sessions once a week. In addition, each course in which they are enrolled has its own website with a discussion board, syllabus and class notes.

Jackson says one of the program's biggest draws is the fact that online students receive the same information as those on campus -- almost in the exact format -- but from the comfort of home.

"The response by students as whole has been that it's awesome," she says. "It's an attractive prospect to be able to learn and work from home."

Alluring factors aside, Speed attributes the success of Texas A&M Statistics' online master's program to the many faculty and staff members who work to make distance learning students feel as if they are sitting right there in the classroom.

"With as many online students as we have, it has become a major operation," Speed notes.

For more information on the Department of Statistics online master's program, please visit http://www.stat.tamu.edu/dist/.


Contact: Chris Jarvis, (979) 845-7246 or cjarvis@science.tamu.edu or Dr. Michael Speed, (979) 845-3182 or mspeed@stat.tamu.edu

Jarvis Chris

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