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Low-residency programs blend online, campus classes

By combining the flexibility of online learning with personal interaction of campus and classroom, these programs help working adults change or advance careers

Joe Lane (right) worked with engineering intern Alexander Rick at UMass Lowell. Lane got an MBA at Babson.

WENDY MAEDA/GLOBE STAFF

Joe Lane (right) worked with engineering intern Alexander Rick at UMass Lowell. Lane got an MBA at Babson.

Joe Lane, juggling a job and family, wanted to get an MBA, but didn’t like the idea of doing a program entirely online.

Then he found a solution: Babson College’s Fast Track MBA, a program combining online learning with face-to-face classes that meet for 2½ days every seven weeks at the Wellesley campus. Lane, who completed his degree in 2010 and launched his own medical device start-up, said having an MBA on top of engineering degrees made it easier to raise money for his company, giving investors confidence in his ability to lead the business.

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“The payback time [for the program] was less than two years,” said Lane, 48, of Methuen. “I liked that the professors at Babson are practitioners, not just academics, and the average student has 14 years of experience in the work world. Sixty percent of my knowledge came from my peers.”

Many working professionals like Lane are turning to flexible, part-time programs to advance, retool, or change careers without having to uproot families or quit jobs. Called “hybrid,” “blended,” or “low-residency,” these programs aim to offer the best of both worlds: the flexibility of Internet learning with the face-to-face interaction of the college campus.

Adults come together from near and far for networking and intensive learning during short-term residencies that range from one weekend a month to twice-a-year visits of two weeks. Students sometimes stay in college dorms, sometimes in hotels.

Many universities in New England and across the country offer such programs, providing working adults with more flexibility than night school and more social interaction than online learning. The approach has its own challenges, often requiring students to leave work and families for a week or more, master the technology of online learning, and carve out time for schoolwork from busy lives.

Goddard College in Plainfield, Vt., pioneered the low-residency model in 1963 as a way to help college dropouts finish their studies, initially targeting women who gave up school to marry and raise children. Low-residency programs in creative writing followed at Goddard and a handful of other schools, such as Bennington College in Vermont. As online learning took off, colleges and universities began offering blended programs in disciplines from fine arts to education to business.

Unlike purely online courses, blended programs offer students the chance to meet with faculty and fellow students and make connections. Michael Cummings, faculty director of Babson’s blended learning MBA program, said that such networking opportunities have helped students find jobs and start businesses together.

Blended programs generally cost about the same as traditional courses. While some education specialists question the quality of programs established quickly to cash in on new trends, a study last year from the University of Central Florida found success rates — meaning a grade of “C” or above — in hybrid courses “equivalent or slightly superior” to traditional classes.

“Increasingly, universities are wanting to meet students where they’re at,” said Catherine Koverola, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences at Lesley University.

Cassie Seinuk, 26, of Somerville, entered Lesley’s low-residency master’s of fine arts program in creative writing in June 2011, two years after graduating from Brandeis University with a double major in fiction and stage management.

She wanted to continue working as a freelance stage manager and part-time marketing professional while honing her skills as a playwright. The Lesley program involves nine-day residencies in January and June, when students attend readings and seminars, participate in workshops, and create a study plan for work to be done from home that semester.

Through a faculty contact, Seinuk got a job stage managing the recent Boston Theater Marathon at the Center for the Arts, which also featured one of her short plays. She said an MFA would also open opportunities for teaching.

“At this point,” she said, “it’s about the craft and networking to develop and make connections.”

At Boston Architectural College in the Back Bay, enrollment is growing in a new graduate program in sustainable design, a field encompassing environmentally friendly construction, design, policy, and advocacy. After offering sustainable design as an online-only certificate program, the college added a low-residency master’s program in 2011.

The program combines online work with eight-day residencies in January and August. Program director Shaun O’Rourke said employers from government to modular home companies are seeking people with training in this specialty. Indeed.com, a job search site, has seen a quadrupling in postings for sustainable design positions, he said.

Keith Burrows, 40, of Charlestown, hopes to get into energy conservation after finishing his master’s in sustainable design at the college while continuing to work at his information technology job.

Burrows started in the online-only certificate program. He said he enjoyed online classes, but has found the hybrid model allows personal interactions that make learning more meaningful and enjoyable.

“It’s a different experience when you’re communicating with someone you’ve met face to face,” he said. “You have a context for the thoughts and ideas they’re sharing online.”

Steve Mosenson, a 56-year-old lawyer, was interested in pursuing a doctorate, but with his wife and four children settled in the Catskills region of New York, he wasn’t willing to uproot them. So he chose Northeastern University’s doctoral program in law and policy, taking courses online and traveling to Boston one weekend a month and staying in a hotel (Northeastern students get discounted rates of $79 to $129 a night at the Hilton Downtown and Club Quarters Boston).

Programs vary in quality, so insiders recommend checking them out carefully. School websites provide overviews of the programs; GradSchools.com lets you search by discipline; and authorities such as Poets & Writers and Bloomberg Businessweek rank programs. Steven James, chairman of Goddard’s psychology and clinical mental health programs, added that students should make sure they can fit schoolwork into their lives.

Lane said he did his “due diligence” before enrolling in Babson’s hybrid program, which also includes a week on campus at the start of the program and a four-day session halfway through. He learned about the student body, spent a day on-campus, and surfed online reviews.

For two years, he worked at his job as research and development director for a company developing heart valve repair therapies, then had dinner with his family, took a nap from 9 to 10 p.m., and tackled schoolwork from 10 p.m until 2 a.m.

He was up at 6 a.m. to do it all over again.

“It’s not for everyone,” he said, “but Babson was right for me on so many levels.”

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