National Lutheran News

New family studies program launched into cyberspace

Dr. Michael Walcheski

Dr. Michael Walcheski

Concordia St. Paul offers program over Internet

A recently-launched master’s degree program in family studies at Concordia University in St. Paul offers working adults some choices that reflect today’s technologies. For example, the learners (practitioners already working in the field) may choose traditional face-to-face classes one evening a week or Internet-based “distance education.” The latter includes virtual class discussions (“chat” sessions), e-mail and Internet bulletin boards.

The “distance education” option allows students from around the country to enroll in the 40-credit program while they continue their family life professions. However, it would be a mistake to assume that only those students scattered across the country would select the Internet-based option. One of those students lives just a block from the Concordia campus, located along Interstate 94 in St. Paul.

Even the continental U.S. borders may be too confining for the new program, says Dr. Jim Ollhoff, Associate Dean of Human Services at Concordia. He foresees the program as having an international student enrollment in the very near future. Use of the Internet truly makes this a classroom without walls.

“Distance education” students do gather for a required week-long residency before the Internet-based portion of their work begins, says Dr. Michael Walcheski, director of the program. (A residency session was scheduled the week of July 31.) These days on campus, and their graduation ceremony, may be the only time these students are together in the same room. However, that residency time is considered crucial to getting students to know each other prior to their electronic education sessions. They do receive a photo of members of their class (a “cohort” or group, usually consisting of 10-15 learners) to post near their computers.

Walcheski notes that the new program is the first and only distance education program in the nation to offer students certification as a family life educator.

The master’s program offering is within the Concordia School of Human Services. It is described as a “prescriptive,” in contrast to an “intervention,” approach to helping families. It provides them with tools to anticipate and navigate potential hurdles that could be stressful or damaging to family relationships. Walcheski says this approach is preferable to trying to “fix” families already in crisis and reduces the need for intervention. For example, family life educators might use their training in offering parenting classes to reduce the strain of new parenthood. Or, they might counsel adults juggling roles in caring for children as well as aging parents.

Graduates of the program typically work in social services, agency administration, government, Cooperative Extension programs such as 4-H, parish ministry, and child and adult care administration. For example, the U.S. Air Force trains people for programs to reduce family-related stress on individuals who need to be able to give full concentration to flying multi-million dollar airplanes.

Graduates are also qualified to teach in community colleges, adult education programs, and, if previously certified, in secondary vocational and non-vocational programs.
A frequent question asked by prospective students is how the “distance learning” option compares with actual classroom attendance. Kersten Falvey, a master’s program student in the “distance learning” option, who is also an academic advisor, says the two approaches compare very favorably. She notes one of the benefits is that students are able to adapt materials from their own environments to the courses they take. Walches-ki says, “This puts the school where the student is.”

Falvey says that shy students tend to communicate more in the electronic classroom than they would in an actual classroom where other students might all turn to look at the person posing the question or making a comment
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Ollhoff says that the five faculty members teaching in the program feel without exception that they know their “distance education” students better than they do students in face-to-face classroom situations. Faculty communication with students includes making assignments and posting discussion topics on an Internet bulletin board.

Another benefit of the “distance education” option was realized by a Twin Cities pastor who accepted a call to the West Coast while enrolled in the program. He was able to continue his educational endeavor without missing a beat.

Although some graduates increase their earning capabilities with the master’s degree, most find their motivation in increasing their competence and effectiveness in dealing with families in their current professions, says Walcheski.

Concordia’s new 19-month program is accredited by the National Council on Family Relations. It is one of fewer than a dozen accredited graduate programs in the nation.
The new master’s Internet-based option is a logical fit for Concordia, which was recently ranked 33rd in the top 100 of America’s Most Wired Colleges by Yahoo Internet Life, a print and online magazine geared toward tech-savvy families.

Additional information about the program is available on Concordia’s web site, www.cshs. csp.edu or by calling Dr. Walcheski at 651-603-6184.