SIS’ Online Master’s Program Graduates Its First Class

  This article originally ran in the Pitt Chronicle, April 28, 2003 Issue, by Ron Cichowicz  

When the first 35 students signed on two years ago for FastTrack (FT), Pitt’s pioneering online master’s degree in library and information science program, it’s likely no one was quite sure what to expect.

Would the quality of education delivered online uphold the high standards of the University and its School of Information Sciences (SIS)? Could the program offer both sufficient flexibility and interaction between faculty and students from around the country to provide a well-rounded learning experience?

“The school’s master’s program in library and information science (MLIS) has long been recognized nationally for excellence,” said SIS Dean Ronald Larsen. “Two years ago, we launched FastTrack to extend the reach of this outstanding program beyond the bounds of the Oakland campus. As the first online degree program at the University of Pittsburgh, this became an experiment in a number of ways, from transforming our instructional delivery to building a community among students distributed across the country.”
Today, those 35 individuals—some of whom are attending Pitt’s commencement ceremony—collectively represent FastTrack’s first graduating class. By all indications, the experiment is a grand success.

Based upon Pitt’s 36-credit MLIS program, which is accredited by the Committee on Accreditation of the American Library Association, FastTrack was designed for adult students who cannot attend the on-campus program in Pittsburgh and is tailored to the needs of the individuals with work or family responsibilities.
A key concept to the program is that the class, or cohort, does not become individual students with computers but an online community of learners. This allows students to draw upon their peers as well as their instructors for support.

A FT student can earn the degree in two years. During the first summer term, the students come to Pittsburgh for five days to complete course requirements, get hands-on computer training, and become acquainted with faculty, staff, and each other. In each of the subsequent five terms, they return to campus for a weekend.

“What attracted me to the program was the fact it was the University of Pittsburgh,” said Marycatherine McGarvey of Norristown, Pa., who directs the Conshohocken Free Library. “I work with many graduates of the MLIS program, and the library school’s reputation is excellent.

“I also work full time and did not want to sit in traffic trying to get to the program that is offered in my area. The fact that I can do the work at my convenience was a real plus. I have three children and need to be home for them when I am not working.”

The first FastTrack cohort consists of 30 women and five men from Delaware, Florida, Maryland, Nevada, New York, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia. Since they enrolled in the program, three students have relocated—one to Delaware (click here for accompany article), one to Utah, one to Montana. Their average age is 39. Many have undergraduate degrees in various disciplines, five students also hold advanced degrees, and the average library work experience is five years.

“I was looking for a program that I could start and finish while staying home to raise our three young children,” said Moira Tyrell, who now resides at Hill Air Force Base in Utah. “At the time we were living in Pittsburgh, so I called Pitt and discovered they were going to offer this program. The instructors were very professional and were very knowledgeable about the various subjects they taught. I think this comes from the fact that most of them actually worked in the field and had firsthand knowledge.”

Another FT student, Bill Yurvati of Kutztown, Pa., who works in Kutzown University’s Rohrbach Library, added, “Since I work full time as a library technician, the distance education program gave me an opportunity to earn the professional credentials needed to get a job as a professional librarian in an academic library while keeping my present job. I also enjoyed the on-campus weekends with my fellow FastTrack students and developed several good relationships.”

  A FastTrack Benefit Not Listed in the Promotional Literature  
  From its inception, the School of Information Sciences’ (SIS) FastTrack degree program was designed to encourage the building of relationships among cohort members so that individual students could support each other in the learning process. Student after student from that first class, which graduates today, attests that the effort was successful and that numerous friendships were formed.

But it’s doubtful any can rival the one forged between FastTrack students Vinny Alascia of Delaware and Jamie Weisenstein, a Pennsylvania native.

“To all those who say ‘love at first sight is a myth,’ I say, ‘ha,’” said Alascia. “Jamie and I started FastTrack hoping for a professional degree, and we wound up married to each other. At first it was difficult because we were relegated to online chat or net meeting sessions and seeing each other every three or five weeks on extended weekends.”

Alascia and Weisenstein were married in August and now live together in Delaware.

“Now we look forward to our lives together,” added Alascia. “Jamie has begun a job as librarian at William Henry Middle School, and I will begin my new position as technical services librarian at Wesley College shortly.

“I don’t know if they (SIS) can market FastTrack as a way to meet really attractive librarians and live happily ever after, but that is what happened to us.”