High-tech engineers tune in to advanced degrees on 'TV breaks'

It's nearly noon and ME3100 is just starting. At the GTE Corporation's strategic-systems division here, seven young engineers are gathered around a plastic ''oak'' conference table staring at a television tube.

Thirty miles away, their professor stands before a room full of graduate students - and a camera. As the engineers wait for attendance to be taken, one GTE student jokes about adjusting the set to tune in ''MTV'' - a rock video program.

These corporate students are getting a master's degree in engineering through a year-old off-campus program Northeastern University calls ''Network Northeastern.'' Some 225 students working in 12 Boston-area companies are receiving live broadcasts of state-of-the-art engineering and graduate courses.

This televised classroom-to-corporation link is not new. Stanford University originated the concept about 14 years ago. Now, more than 2,000 employees of 127 nearby companies take time off from their jobs to ''sit in on'' Stanford's engineering programs. Today, about three dozen schools offer engineering courses through videotape or live broadcast.

Interest in the concept has recently spread - spurred by high-tech corporate needs and, in the last couple of years, by the colleges themselves.

For years, some schools neglected the television frequencies allocated for such programs. Then, commercial broadcasting companies began asking the Federal Communications Commission for the frequencies if the universities weren't going to use them. A battle ensued, and academia emerged victorious. But now the onus is on educators to employ the channels.

At the same time, regional clones of Silicon Valley are springing up nationwide, and corporate officers are harping on the need for continuing education for their engineers.

The dearth of electrical and computer science engineers means students are wooed from campus as soon as the ink dries on their bachelor's diploma. Less than 30 percent of the engineering grads stay at school long enough to earn a master's. But with the furious pace of high-tech, a baccalaureate degree can be obsolete in three to five years.

''In high tech, our employees cannot afford not to keep growing,'' says Mimi R. Hooper, GTE's manager of organization development. Most companies consider the program a benefit. Tuition is often paid by the company, and time off from work must be granted. The standard graduate programs are live during the day (the professor has a phone link in class), while special ''cutting edge'' courses are generally broadcast in the evening. The program is also used as a recruiting tool.

''We have a new public relations video that features our thrust in education, '' Mrs. Hooper boasts. One-upmanship plays a role as companies court engineering and computer science grads.

Having the program on site eliminates commuting time and reduces resistance to further training. ''I'm not sure how many would do it if they had to drive into Boston to take the courses,'' says Cynthia Pekkala, program administrator at one of the five Digital Equipment Corporation plants in the Northeastern network. Improved morale and lower turnover are also cited as byproducts.

Costs vary. At Stanford, tuition is twice what on-campus students pay, and there's an annual fee based on the company's total employee population. Northeastern charges $3,500 to cover installing a rooftop receiving dish; each student pays $990 per course, 11/2 times normal tution cost. The extra tuition also finances a courier service for delivering homework and assignments.

Getting managers to agree to give subordinates time off could be a problem at some companies. GTE averted this by seeking managers' feedback and approval before starting the program. ''You can't do this without full support of line management organization,'' says Mrs. Hooper. Also, since this GTE facility does mostly Defense Department contract work and has its employees punching a time clock, the three hours a week in class must be made up later.

This program (known as Instructional Television Fixed System) is regional; an engineering department caters to surrounding firms. ''Typically, the driving force is the engineering community. They are so desperate to deal with the obsolescence problem, they'll spend the money to have the program,'' says Raymond R. Williams of Network Northeastern. ''Companies in other fields cry about the need for continuing education, but when it comes down to signing the check....''

Stanford would like to expand further, but professors there have vetoed the idea for now - the off-campus students are already generating too much extra work. But the National Technological University may fill the breech. This ''college,'' in Fort Collins, Colo., is a 15-school consortium that started distributing videotaped engineeering courses this fall. Next fall, with satellite broadcasts ''any company in the country with an uplink can receive the courses,'' an NTU official says.

Back at GTE, receptivity among students appears high. Says Dave R. King, ''There's always a desire to keep up with the state of the art.... There was a bumper crop of new recruits this year. They've got a lot of raw talent.'' And, the junior engineer notes with a chuckle, ''I better not miss any more courses.''

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