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Sci-fi literature university seeks degree granting authority

By HOLLY RAMERMarch 12, 2019

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — A nonprofit online university that focuses on fantasy and science fiction literature is seeking approval from the New Hampshire Legislature to grant master’s degrees.

Corey Olsen left a college teaching job to create Signum University in Delaware in 2011, inspired by a successful podcast he produced about “Lord of the Rings” author J.R.R. Tolkien. He later moved back to his home state of New Hampshire and is working to re-incorporate school here. It recently got permission from the state’s Higher Education Commission to offer classes, but it can’t offer degrees without approval from the Legislature.

Olsen told a Senate committee on Tuesday that while there are plenty of online learning opportunities for self-starters, Signum is about connecting teachers with students and students with each other.

“There are fewer resources for who are people who are not independent learners, for people who thrive in a more traditional classroom environment where you have peers you’re working with, where you have teachers who are there speaking with you and interacting with you. If that is the environment in which you thrive, the Internet has fewer options for you, and that is at the void we really want to fill with Signum,” he said. “To use the Internet, not just as a mechanism for distributing content to people but as a way to connect people.”

The school currently has about 20 part-time faculty members and 85 students, taking courses that explore everything from Shakespeare in the Middle Ages to why “Star Wars” is a global cultural phenomenon. A 10-course master’s degree in language and literature costs $6,750.

“They’re just getting going, but I think they’re actually doing educational stuff rather than just being a diploma mill,” said Sen. David Starr, R-Franconia, the bill’s sponsor.

More enthusiastic comments came from Sparrow Alden, of Plainfield, who is a Signum graduate and now works for the school as discussion leader. She began taking classes in 2012, when her mother was in the last year of her life, her children were in middle school, her wife worked as a police officer and she held a part-time job.

“Boy, did I need stimulation and personal growth that I didn’t have to drive to,” she said. “Everyone whose imagination and minds are lit on fire by these subjects can find their way to Signum University. If you are a rural resident of Coos County, if you are mobility-impaired elder or veteran in our state, or even a tired ‘sandwich generation’ mom from Plainfield, you can reach Signum.”

Alden said the experience led her to her lifelong dream of being an adjunct professor at her local community college.

“With Signum University as the next online institution in the state, we are going to be known by our global neighbors as a place where the standard is held as high as any master’s degree in the United States,” she said

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