Nagel is one of almost a dozen cultural resources management graduate students participating in the program through a distance learning alternative to attending on campus.
“It’s like Skyping every day with your friends and talking about archaeology and whatnot,” she said.
Nagel works for Tallgrass Historians, a small company that specializes in archeological survey and research, historic research and architectural history.
“I am already pretty established in my career and have a great relationship and potential growth with my current company,” she said. “So it was really not an option on my end to give that up.
Other students are tuning in from California, Colorado, Louisiana, Michigan Montana, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota and Wyoming.
It’s not online learning. These students attend during class through Adobe Connect with on-campus students and are expected to participate in class discussions.
Distance learners look into their computers and see their classmates and professor on the screen. In-class students can look up at a large screen and see their distance classmates projected.
Professors use preset settings on a touch pad to zoom in on different students as they speak or to highlight a distance student.
Filling a need
Professor Mark Muñiz worked to develop the program after seeing the need for trained archeologists at tribal historic preservation offices on Native American reservations.
Many of these organizations are understaffed and have to contract out with companies off the reservation.
“We saw a professional and ethical need to be able to bring the opportunity for education to tribal communities, to reservation-based communities, and we thought this would be the way to do it,” Muñiz said. “We’ve had quite good response from the American Indian community.”
Muñiz worked with IT and the Online and Distance Learning office at St. Cloud State to develop a test program with two students in 2010, and it’s been growing and improving technologically ever since.
“There’s a ton of people working in archaeology right now that need master’s degrees for career advancement or even career stability,” he said. “… These are really hardworking people that could really use this degree.”
Cultural resources management is a field of archaeology where people are working in the field and lab for state, federal, tribal and local governments or the private sector. They assess the impacts of construction projects and excavate sites seeking evidence of cultural significance, said Mike Penrod, director of Online Learning.
Bringing the field into the classroom
Some of the students are logging into classes from the field, office or home. All were required to get their employer’s approval before being admitted.
Student Amy Nelson is a project director at Metcalf Archaeology in Denver, who heard about St. Cloud State from a co-worker and chose the university’s program over Denver-area programs for its focus on applied archaeology.
“One of the more valuable aspects of the distance program is that students with a wider range of experience may take part, which very much enhances the class discussions,” she said.
Both distance and on-campus students appreciate the interactions in ways even faculty couldn’t have predicted, he said.
Distance students sometimes join classes from the field — wearing hard hats and safety-orange vests in their trucks on site.
“They’re bringing frontline experiences into the classroom that some of our campus students haven’t had before,” Muñiz said. “And it really helps to make it very tangible for those students who haven’t gotten a lot of work experience.”
Students are getting an instantaneous update of current policies and practices, which is difficult to get without being constantly in the field.
“The depth of experience that these distance students bring to the classroom in real time, it’s almost like having a junior colleague in the class with you,” Muñiz said.
Ryan Hale, who is attending from New Orleans, said he misses the personal connections of meeting up with classmates over coffee or small talk in the hallways, but he credits the distance option with allowing him to pursue his masters and grow his professional career as a non-traditional student with a family and career.
“The material is challenging, and the relationships I have formed with the other students have been very rewarding,” he said.
Nagel agrees that the lack of interaction outside of class with classmates and professors is a drawback, but distance students do their best to make it work through email, Skype Google hangouts and phone calls.
“I truly enjoy this program,” she said. “It’s a fantastic opportunity for those established in their career or that have family commitments where moving for school is not a viable option.
“St. Cloud State has done a fantastic job of creating this online program. Honestly, I have recommended the program to colleagues who haven’t yet gotten a master’s but desire one.”