Online Education | Feature

Florida: The Online State

Florida is leading the nation with its online education initiatives. A new online-only public university program now promises to shake up higher education beyond the state's borders.

The Online State
Illustration by Graye Smith

While MOOCs have been hogging all the attention, a much bigger story is unfolding in higher education: Online education is gaining traction--and credibility--at incredible speed. Nowhere is this more evident than in Florida. The state's recent decision to launch the country's first stand-alone online-only baccalaureate program from a public research institution may represent a genuine tipping point in bringing online education into the mainstream.

In April, Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation to establish the program through the state-run University of Florida, with $15 million in startup funds for 2014. The goal: nothing less than to "transform education" in the state. The man widely considered a driving force behind the initiative is Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford.

This story appears in the October 2013 digital edition of Campus Technology. Click here for a free subscription to the magazine.

During the run-up to the vote, Weatherford talked about "bold higher education reforms" that would "increase Florida's global competitiveness and ensure our students have meaningful opportunities after high school."

"This change is happening," Weatherford tells Campus Technology. "There are MOOCs out there, flipped classes, different institutions trying out different online models. If the states are the laboratories of democracy, these universities are serving as laboratories of online learning. We could have sat on the sidelines and let other people figure it all out, but we decided instead to get ahead of the curve."

The Sunshine State hasn't spent much time on the sidelines when it comes to online learning. Indeed, it should probably be renamed the Online State. In 1997, the state launched the Florida Virtual School, an online high school/middle school that gives students free access to more than 120 courses. Forty percent of students in the State University System and Florida College System took an online course during the 2010-2011 academic year, compared with a national average of 31 percent. And UF itself currently offers some 65 online graduate degree programs.

"One of the reasons we think Florida is primed and ready for this concept is because we have so many students involved with online learning in our high schools--more than any other state," Weatherford says. "That puts us in a place to take advantage of higher education in online learning."

With this new legislation, Florida has taken the concept of an online college degree to another level, Weatherford says. While many other schools offer online programs, his state is establishing a separate, stand-alone online institution under the auspices of a public research university. UF will be the first Association of American Universities tier-one research school to deliver a four-year online baccalaureate degree intended for "first time in college" students. Although the new institution will accept transfer students and those seeking to finish their degrees, the four-year design has first timers in mind.

And Florida is on deadline. The legislation was signed in April, and the university must be ready to accept students for enrollment in its initial six degree programs by January. The university is then required to increase the number of programs in increments of five or so over the next five years.

The Program's Beginnings
The process began with a study commissioned in 2012 by the board of governors of the State University System. The board hired The Parthenon Group, a Boston-based consultancy, to study the state's existing programs and offer strategies for expansion. 

"The board thought that there should be a way to increase access to higher education in the state, given the developments in technology and online learning," explains Andrew McCollough, associate provost and professor of finance at UF. "Parthenon came back with some data and options, and that started the ball rolling."

In their report, the consultants noted four primary objectives for post-secondary online learning for Florida's stakeholders:

  • Expanding access
  • Reducing systems and student costs
  • Enhancing student experience

Strengthening the link between the labor market and post-secondary education

"This is about providing access and making education affordable," adds Weatherford, "but it's also very much about making our students competitive in the marketplace and providing employers with a qualified workforce."

Importance of Branding
The Parthenon Group gave the board of governors four options for meeting the state's online objectives (see "Charting Florida's Online Strategy," on this page). Ultimately, the importance of branding played a critical role in the board's decision to place the new degree program under the aegis of UF, a leading research institution and the state's oldest university. In fact, the university was singled out in the legislation.

"We decided to partner with a research-based institution that has a great brand globally," explains Weatherford. "We're providing students with a brand associated with their degree that is marketable in the workforce."

Charting Florida's Online Strategy

The Parthenon Group, a consultancy, was tasked in 2012 with identifying ways for Florida to expand access to online higher education. In their recommendations to the board of governors of the State University System (SUS), the consultants offered four potential strategies to achieve this goal:

  1. Institution by Institution, a strategy in which individual schools "continue to independently drive online innovation through new course and program development and/or adjustments to existing offerings."
  2. Institutional Collaboration, which would involve systemwide development of online degree programs under the direction of a single coordinating organization, such as the SUS or Florida College System.
  3. Lead Institutions, where one or a small group of schools would drive the development of new online programs.
  4. New Online Institution, in which a new online program would be launched to drive expansion of lower-cost models.

The Parthenon consultants also advised that "any strategy adopted should exhibit outstanding offerings and best practices for post-secondary online learning, such as best-in-class course and program design, top faculty, highly efficient course scheduling, analytically advanced marketing efforts, and data-driven student supports." In addition, the consultants recommended that "any adopted strategy must include comprehensive tracking of online outcomes. Online learning is an evolving method of delivery--constant evaluation is critical to drive further innovations and improvements; daily, weekly, and monthly monitoring of online students is critical."

The need for a strong brand was also perceived to be necessary to help offset any lingering bias against online education. "That's one of the reasons the state chose the University of Florida," adds McCollough. "If you start with the perception that it's online so it's not as good, but then you add that it's from MIT or Stanford--or in this region, the University of Florida--that perception begins to change."

But protecting the value of the UF brand means that the online programs must be as rigorous as their on-campus equivalents. On that question, there is no debate. According to McCollough, there is an absolute requirement that the new online programs match the academic rigor of their residential equivalents and provide equivalent credentials.

"Our mandate is to provide an affordable education," he notes, "not a watered-down affordable education. We are acutely aware of the potential of a program like this to become a vehicle for reducing quality and rigor. We cannot dilute the value of [the UF degree] in any way. We have thousands of alumni. If they thought that we were going to make their degrees any less valuable because of this venture, we'd have an alumni riot on this campus."

Before they make the cut, all courses proposed for UF Online, as the initiative is tentatively called, will go through the same evaluation by faculty curriculum committees as the school's resident courses, McCollough explains. In most cases, the online courses will have a resident "twin," he says, and the individual faculty and faculty committees will play a critical role in quality assurance. Student learning outcomes will be the same as those for the resident courses, and in most cases assessment vehicles will be the same.

Although the admissions standards for UF Online will be the same as for on-campus admission, the degree programs themselves will be significantly less expensive. Online classes will cost no more than 75 percent of in-state tuition for regular classes at the university--in a state where tuition costs are already among the lowest in the country. Other online courses in the state are typically offered at the same tuition rates as on-campus courses.

To start, the university is going to offer degrees in six fields: biology; business administration; criminology and law; environmental management; health education and behavior; and sport management. "The drivers in terms of programs are the state's workforce needs and student demand," says McCollough. "We must have 150 different on-campus majors, but we are not going to replicate all of those majors online."

Given the incredibly tight launch deadline and the ambitiousness of the program, it's not surprising that the development of UF Online has presented UF with some unexpected challenges. In fact, the school is partnering with third parties to fill some gaps.

"We have been talking to a private partner who can bring to the table expertise and knowledge in various areas where we are neophytes," McCollough says. "Marketing, for example, is not something we've ever really had to do. We have about 30,000 freshman applications every year for about 6,400 spots. We just open the gates and they come. Enrollment-management processes associated with recruiting are another thing we have not had to do. These are things we can learn, certainly, but we need to be able to do them with high quality immediately."

Wider Ramifications
If UF Online succeeds, a ripple effect will likely be felt across higher education. McCollough predicts a proliferation of similar programs in other states, driven mainly by a need to increase accessibility and maintain affordability.

"We may look back on this as a paradigmatic shift," he says, "from what has become almost an elitist model in my opinion--you have to be able to afford it to get it--to one in which we are approaching [Coursera cofounder] Daphne Koller's idea that education should be a right. This is an important social question, and one that we are just now trying to address. What we've done in the past was to fill in the gaps by providing financial aid."

If other states do attempt to replicate the UF Online initiative, it will be interesting to see whether faculty accept the new concept as easily as they appear to have done in Florida. "We have been pushing down the road of online education for a while, so we've already hit many of the faculty speed bumps that everyone does when they go online," says McCollough. "We still don't have all the answers, but faculty has moved in a positive direction."

In Weatherford's view, states have few other options anyway. "I'm sure there are a lot of people who don't like this idea or worry about it, and I understand that," he says. "But there's just not enough money for more brick-and-mortar institutions. The revenue has dried up, but student need hasn't. This is a challenge every state is facing. We're leveraging technology to create opportunities for students in our state, and potentially a market for students from all over the world."

It may be too early, though, to hypothesize about the wider impact of an initiative that is, after all, in its infancy: The program is still in the planning stages, and its website is something of a placeholder. A board of directors has been appointed, however, and in September UF announced that Elizabeth Phillips, strategic architect of Arizona State University's online degree program, will serve as executive director.
"No one knows exactly what this is going to look like," Weatherford concludes. "No one really knows what online learning is going to do to higher education, positively or negatively. But what we do know is that it's going to change everything."

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