Operations Management Master’s Degree Evolves with Distance Education

May 2, 2024   |   by Heidi Wells, Global Campus |   min read

Beginning in 1974, the Master of Science in Operations Management mastered the art of distance education at the University of Arkansas.

In the early days of its 50-year history, the degree program offered by the College of Engineering sent faculty members in U of A aircraft to teach at military bases. Next, it mailed VHS cassette tape-recordings of courses to military personnel for studying anywhere in the world they were deployed.

Rich Ham, associate director of the program, heard stories of missileers taking study materials into their silos. Graduates include not only captains of industry, Ham said, but also two- and three-star generals. A graduate became the first woman commander of the Navy’s USS Constitution in 2022.

As it matured, the program hired local instructors to teach at military bases in three states, with classes still available today at one of the sites, Hurlburt Field, Florida.

Later, the program expanded with faculty members creating online courses that working professionals can take during pockets of time in their work and personal lives. Today, the program can be completed 100% online, but students can also take some in-person classes on the Fayetteville campus if that suits them.

The largest graduate program offered by the university, M.S.O.M. enrolls more than 600 students currently, and about 180 students graduate each year. A reception May 10 celebrates the 50th anniversary.

“We were seeing other programs move online, and we knew that was the future,” said Ed Pohl, former director of the M.S.O.M from 2007 to 2014. “The writing was on the wall. The internet was going to make it so much more accessible to deliver distance education. So, we worked hard to get in at the front end of that for our program.

“During my time there, we transitioned into the actual online space, working to develop online courses, and we worked closely with Global Campus to make that happen,” Pohl continued. “They were a big help in terms of helping us transition to what’s now almost a fully online program.”


Putting Practice to Work

Dakotah Cooper earned his Master of Science in Operations Management in spring 2022 at about the same time he and his wife, Natalie, became parents to baby Piper.
Dakotah Cooper earned his Master of Science in Operations Management in spring 2022 at about the same time he and his wife, Natalie, became parents to baby Piper. The University of Arkansas celebrated Cooper’s accomplishment, which he said was partly responsible for a promotion at work, with a stop on the Razorbug Diploma Tour at Cooper’s home in Magnolia, Arkansas. The degree’s online method of delivery meant he could advance in his career and take advantage of opportunities for the future without disrupting his family or leaving his job.

Pohl, now the dean of the Graduate School and International Education, attributes the program’s success not only to its flexibility of delivery but also to the broad scope of work a graduate can do with it.

“You can work in retail, you can work in health care, you can work in the Department of Defense,” Pohl said. “It’s a broad set of skills that have application in virtually any industry.”

The program’s tagline – Learn it Today. Use it Tomorrow – also illustrates one of its attributes, Pohl said.

“Our program focuses on developing students to be able to practice what they learn right away,” he said. “We focus on giving students a toolkit and equip them to go out and use these tools to make contributions to an organization immediately after they take a class or complete a degree. We’re trying to give them tools that help them make their companies and organizations operate more efficiently. I think it does a great job providing folks with skills they need to be successful in today’s marketplace and the program does an excellent job at updating their curriculum and making sure it stays current.”

Every year, Derek Martin, president of Malone’s Aerospace Holding with facilities in Oklahoma and Texas, recommends some of his employees enroll in the M.S.O.M. program, whether they work in the supply chain, project management or engineering areas of the company that does CNC machining and assembly for military and defense aerospace applications.

“And I’m proud to say several of the folks that I’ve worked with or that worked for me have completed the program,” said Martin, who earned the degree in 2013. “Practicality is one of the program’s strongest selling points. It’s the opposite of a program in which you have to take certain classes and don’t use them in your daily work life, because you can customize this program with the variety of classes that are available. You can really select something that is going to be applicable and beneficial in your daily responsibilities.”


Degree Customization

Greg Parnell spent 10 years directing the M.S.O.M. program until this month, with David Paulus taking the reins. People with undergraduate degrees in any field can enroll, and graduates have included those who majored in English, business, Spanish, fine arts, political science, and the list goes on. The program also attracts international students with STEM backgrounds, with many of them opting for on-campus courses because of student visa requirements.

M.S.O.M. focus areas include project management, decision-making, leadership, supply chain management and quality management.

Instructor Phil Jones pointed out that prospective students understand they can customize the M.S.O.M. once they complete required core courses, a feature he believes makes the program one of the best of its kind.

“Students certainly can have a focus area ranging from human resource management and leadership to very technical, quantitative-type courses and interests to having a project management focus,” Jones said. “I’ve had students make a complete career change as they finished this program. That’s always fun to see.”

Response to graduate certificates and micro certificates the M.S.O.M. began offering online in 2017 has been phenomenal, in Parnell’s words, with 954 awarded to date.


Instructor Expertise

The program takes special care to select faculty with significant industry and government experience to teach courses, Parnell said.

Kerry Melton is one of several now full-time faculty members who started as adjuncts while continuing to work in the private sector. A strong desire to teach and work with students to help them grow academically and to help them start or advance their careers motivated him, he said, and winning the 2020 instructor of the year award in the program validated for Melton that he was meeting his goal of being a positive contributor to students and the program.

Parnell said instructors such as Melton, who worked in the private sector for more than 25 years, are dedicated to sharing their insights from projects in the real world.

Jones, who previously taught part time for 11 years during a 40-year career in the private sector, agreed.

“You have to focus on profit and loss or business strategy or leading projects outside of academia,” Jones said. “Based on the feedback that I received from some of my students, they really appreciate the fact that we can provide real-world examples, not just third party, but something that we have actually done individually, how we did it, how we learn from it, mistakes that we made, successes that we saw and how to apply that to what students will be doing down the road someday.”

The program has redesigned and updated every course, incorporating the latest body of knowledge, during the past decade, Parnell said. And, according to Pohl, bringing all adjunct instructors to campus once during each summer also sets the M.S.O.M. apart.

“We wanted to develop a linkage between the folks who are teaching the same course at different places or online so we can share best practices and have some consistency,” Pohl said. “You want a course to be tailored to the instructor, but we all have the same core syllabus and learning objectives. I feel like that really helped the program as well in terms of making it a better program for our students, making what the students get out of it more meaningful.”

The program’s makeup of eight-week courses also makes it special, Paulus said. It allows students to focus on a course, finish it quickly and move on. There’s no coasting in an eight-week course, Jones said, so students tend to remain engaged throughout the length of the shorter course so that they don’t fall behind without time to catch up as they might have in a traditional 16-week course.


Student Interactions

Adam Morris, a part-time instructor who also worked for four years as associate director of the M.S.O.M. program, has taught leadership and management courses for the past 12 years.

“One of my favorite jobs is teaching and, while I do this part time, it’s probably my favorite thing to do because you truly get to interact with students,” Morris said about the experience, despite the online delivery. “My class was often the last course a student had to take to graduate, and it was great to get that feedback from a student who may have been struggling in a management role and the degree helped them clarify things. They tell me about promotions or getting new jobs. For me, it’s the intrinsic value of seeing somebody progress in their career.”


Reasons to Learn

Brandon DeVito of Benton, Arkansas, has had a new role with Entergy, which supplies electrical power to 3 million customers in four states, every few years and is dedicated to the company, which he joined 14 years ago. DeVito, senior manager of environmental health and safety management and audits, graduates with his M.S.O.M. later this month, and he interviewed for a different position within Entergy recently. He believes the degree is ideal for aspiring leaders.

“I pulled what I learned from strategic management courses into that interview,” said DeVito, who often studied from hotel rooms while traveling for work. “My vice president said you are already putting (the knowledge) into use.”

Gwendolyn Miller had a successful career in procurement for the federal government for more than 20 years after earning a bachelor’s degree in political science, but she always wanted to go further in higher education.

“Many of my subordinates had master’s degrees,” she said from her home office in Kansas City, Missouri. “I often worked with project managers and program managers, sat in a lot of briefings hearing terms I didn’t understand. To be an effective leader of a contracting organization that runs on project management principles, I needed to figure out project management and program management. I also needed to earn a degree in a way that made sense for me and fit into my schedule.”

A mother of three, Miller took her iPad to tennis lessons and other activities so she could work on the degree and her children didn’t miss out on what they wanted to do.

Not every graduate was looking for career advancement. Ed Amass, a retired senior project manager for companies such as John Deere and Baldor Electric, wanted a challenge when he enrolled in the M.S.O.M. in his mid-50s, finishing in 2013. Amass had never taken an online class and it was an adjustment for him, but he believes that flexibility is a big part of why the program is so popular.

“I think the success has a lot to do with how the program has evolved over time to serve remote students,” Amass said. “How do we provide a service for those who can’t get here? It’s probably a great model for other universities and institutions to follow trying to serve those remote students, keep them engaged.”


Active Alumni

Graduates often remain involved in the program, either teaching, making financial contributions or networking through the alumni association. The Amass family established a scholarship in the family name, and the College of Engineering created a faculty award named for alumnus Randy Roy.

Roy, a 1996 graduate, took classes at the Millington, Tennessee, military site while working as a FedEx executive at nearby Memphis. He was involved in one of the first tapings of a class, Introduction to Operations Management in 2002, after he began teaching in the program. He liked the contrast with his corporate role where the emphasis was on financial gain for stockholders.

“Teaching was a way for me to invest in people,” Roy said. “The highlight for me as a student was seeing instructors oriented toward education, not financial goals. The highlight for me as an instructor was seeing the world open up to students in new ways. Having students contact me long after they had graduated from the program and tell me how they advanced in their life and what the University of Arkansas means to them. That was a big deal for a guy like me with my nose in the corporate world.”

1974 Originally called Master of Science in Engineering with a major in operations management,based in the Graduateraduate School; 18 courses and 68 graduates completing in the first year Sites: Blytheville AFB, Little Rock AFB, Naval Air Station (Millington, Teennesse) Early 1980’s Sites added: Camden, Russellville 2002 Blytheville and Camden sites reopen at community colleges with live classes until 2012; Higher Learning Commission Central Association of Colleges and Schools approves distance formats 2003 First WebCT course offered 2004 Five courses offered by video Early 1990’s Program moved to Department of Industrial Engineering; first courses offered by video Blytheville, Camden and Russellville sites close (1992); classes start at Hurlburt Field, Florida (1994) 2014 MSOM Alumni Society is chartered by the Arkansas Alumni Association 2008 First MSOM faculty meeting on the U of A campus 2006 Degree name changes to Master of Science in Operations Management; Blackboard purchases WebCT 2013 Program review in conjunction with INEG Began upgrading 9 courses per year to keep the courses current and use best practices 2022 Microcertficates became available 2017-2022 Graduate certificates developed and offered onlined 2011 Proctor U added to improves academic integrity 2012 U of A announces greater emphasis on distance education, adds a faculty development position; Global Campus provides instructional design support as courses move online; Quality Matters is introduced 2017 The Master of Science in Engineering Management (M.S.E.M.) began based on a similar foundation as the M.S.O.M. and is now the U of A’s fourth-largest graduate program. 2024 MSOM largest graduate program at the U of A, 95% online, with more than 600 current students, about 180 graduates a year, more than 6,000 graduates to date, and 50 adjunct faculty. 954 graduate certificates and micro certificates have been awarded to date.

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Heidi Wells

Content Strategist

Heidi Wells is the content strategist for the Global Campus at the University of Arkansas and editor of The Online Learner. Her writing spans more than 30 years as a communicator at the U of A and a reporter and editor at Arkansas newspapers. Wells earned two degrees from the U of A: a master's in 2013 and a bachelor's in 1988.

Wells can be reached at heidiw@uark.edu or 479-575-7239.

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