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Florida Colleges are Taking Academics Online

FIU President Mark Rosenberg
Shane Meckler (left) and Adam Brock (right), have taken advantage of the convenience of online classes. Matthew McCann (center) says online learning has benefits, but he prefers in-class learning. [Photo: Gregg Matthews]

Matthew McCann, 22, student government president and a political science and English literature double major from Windermere, has made it to his senior year without ever taking an online-only class at UCF, the e-learning leader among Florida universities. "It's something I'm thankful for. I always enjoyed being able to sit there and ask questions," McCann says. "But I think it's very important to highlight that there are some benefits."

For those benefits, go no further than his vice president, Adam Brock, 21, a political science and advertising and PR senior from Weston. He's had an online course every semester. While "I don't necessarily prefer" online classes, he says, "I always found it to be a very convenient way of learning."

Exactly, say UCF administrators. Online classes serve the busy, the engaged, those on 10 satellite campuses and non-traditional and working students.

Academics Online
> During the 2009-10 academic year, Florida's universities offered 23,356 distance education courses, of which 9,131 were identified as hybrid/blended courses. In 65 baccalaureate programs, 158 graduate programs and 175 certificate programs, the majority of coursework could be completed online.
> 172,000 students -- 54% of the students in the State University
-- enrolled in at least one
e-learning course in 2009-10.
> Among those students, 26,024 took all their courses online.
> Students who enroll only in e-learning courses tend to be older (35) and more likely to be female — 66.6% of students enrolled in online-only courses are women, compared to 56.6% in traditional classroom courses. The higher average age is explained in part by the greater number of graduate programs offered through e-learning for
working adults.
Source: Florida Board of Governors
"All through college I was working two jobs," says Shane Meckler, 22, of Sarasota, who graduated in May with a political science degree and is headed to Mozambique with the Peace Corps. Taking courses online helped him manage his schedule, though he adds the level of learning didn't match his in-class experiences.

Parents may wince at the notion of paying for their kids to take a class by laptop but, depending on the university, much more online is coming. At UCF, which has won national recognition for the quality of its online learning, 30% of student credit hours are being taken fully online, or in a blend of online and class time, or as lectures offered as streaming video for later searching and viewing, says Joel Hartman, UCF's vice provost for IT and a national authority on collegiate e-learning. In five years, students may be getting as much as 50% of their credit hours online.

"No one surpasses us in the system in my opinion," says provost Tony Waldrop, whose university is the nation's second-largest with more than 56,000 students. "Without the online courses, we could not have met the demand we have. We don't have the revenue to build the number of classrooms we need."

E-learning helps schools leverage faculty and expand capacity without the cost of new roads, garages and classrooms. Offering classes online isn't a financial savior for the schools, however, which must account for recurring costs — 24/7 tech support, mentors, faculty, design teams, hardware and software. Universities can charge students an additional fee to cover costs — UCF charges $18 per credit hour — for online courses, but students may save on book purchases and commuting to class.

Even in classes taught in person, the "sage-on-the-stage" model that UCF student McCann enjoyed has been digitally augmented. One of his classes met in the traditional way on Mondays and Wednesdays, but supplemental online reading was discussed online on Fridays. At UCF, some 27% of traditional face-to-face classes use such web enhancements. Brock suggests online discussions suit some students who might be reluctant to offer a point in class but feel comfortable doing so online.

There's another argument for online: It's not as if students generally lose out on face time with a Nobel Prize winner. A well-executed online class might be preferable to a class in a massive lecture hall or instruction from a low-cost professor or adjunct hired in tight budget times.

Hartman says online sections fill up faster than equivalent face-to-face courses. Hybrid classes get the highest marks in student evaluations, followed closely, in order, by online-only, face-to-face and streaming video.

Not everyone is on board. Private schools like the University of Miami typically offer some online courses to give on-campus students flexibility in meeting prerequisites but feel they're in business to provide face-to-face learning. "Our students want to see and meet and know their teachers," says provost Tom LeBlanc.

Adam Brock
"I always found it (e-learning) to be a very convenient way of learning." — Adam Brock
[Photo: Gregg Matthews]
New College, the state's honors college, has no online classes and has no plans to offer any. "We believe that the active exchange of ideas between faculty and students cannot easily be replicated in a strictly online learning environment," says Jake Hartvigsen, New College's director of public affairs.

Florida State University has proceeded slowly in offering online classes for on-campus students. FSU has concerns about retention and graduation rates related to online learning. Also, since it's distant from the state's population centers, FSU sees one of its differentiators as more face-to-face interaction. It has about 1,000 online courses, but interim provost Robert Bradley says that could increase as technology improves and depending on funding issues.

"What do you want the undergraduate education to look like?" he asks. "How much do you value the interaction with the faculty? That's increasingly in play. The dollars may drive the pedagogy."

From All-Online to Face-to-Face: Today's Course Spectrum

Once upon a time, there were big lecture classes and smaller discussion classes. A page from the University of Central Florida's "Pathways to Online Teaching and Learning" brochure shows how things have changed:

  • World Wide Web: Courses are conducted via web-based instruction and collaboration. Some courses may require minimal campus attendance or in-person/proctored examinations.
  • Mixed Mode/Reduced Seat Time: Courses include both required classroom attendance and online instruction. Classes have substantial activity conducted over the web, which substitutes for some classroom meetings.
  • Video Streaming: Courses are delivered over the web via streaming digital video, which may be supplemented by additional web activity, projects or exams.
  • Video Streaming/Reduced Seat Time: Classroom-based content is available over the web via streaming video, and classroom attendance is not required. Other required activities that substitute for video instruction may include any of the following elements: Web activity, in-person or proctored examinations and labs.
  • Face to Face/Video Streaming Origination: Face-to-face class meetings are recorded for subsequent video streaming over the web.
  • Face-to-Face Instruction: Courses have required classroom attendance and meet on a regularly scheduled basis. Students may encounter internet or computer requirements in these classes.