Florida Ponders Opening an Online-Only Public University

September 14, 2012

Florida is considering creating a new state university, just months after Gov. Rick Scott defied the university system's board by signing legislation to turn a satellite campus into the state's 12th public university. Under the new proposal, the board itself would oversee the planned 13th university, which would have neither a campus quad nor a football team. The potential campus would be entirely online.

This past July, the system's Board of Governors hired a consulting firm to determine the feasibility of creating "OnlineU."

An online university is not the only option being explored, says Frank T. Brogan, the system's chancellor. The consulting group, Parthenon, will also consider the possibility of building a systemwide "portal" for universities to offer existing online courses to students on other campuses in the system. Such offerings are now available only to students enrolled at the university where the course originates.

Regardless of which option the board follows, its decision will be influential, says Bruce N. Chaloux, executive director of the Sloan Consortium, an online-education organization. Mr. Chaloux worked with Florida's leaders in his former role at the Southern Regional Education Board, a group that supports education in 16 states.

"Florida is a huge state with a significant population of students wanting and needing higher-education programming services, and a very large number of public, private, and even out-of-state institutions looking to serve that market," Mr. Chaloux says. "The Florida angle is intriguing in significant measure because of the size and scope of the state."

Ann W. Duncan, who now acts as an informal adviser to the board after serving on it for seven years, says Florida higher education is in a "critical state" because of high demand and low support from the state.

Online education has become a hot topic in the state Legislature, and it is being presented as a possible solution to the challenge of fostering a more-educated work force, says the Florida House's incoming speaker, Will W. Weatherford.

Mr. Weatherford, who was chair of the Legislature's Education Policy Council, has been a key supporter of online education. He helped the board secure nearly $300,000 in state funds for the consulting group, and he recently wrote to Dean Colson, the board's chairman, to seek his support for an online university.

"There are a lot of states that are going to wait" to open online universities, he says, "so the states that are going to make online learning a priority will be the states that deliver the degrees."

No New Buildings

Florida is well positioned to lead the online-learning push, Mr. Weatherford argues. The state already runs a virtual high school that serves 150,000 students, and, as of 2011, half of the university system's 300,000 students were already taking at least one distance-education course.

Building a physical campus just isn't feasible, and money for new construction on existing campuses has dried up, says Mr. Weatherford. A project like OnlineU could serve students without the need to pay for new buildings.

"We just can't build another building, and not everybody wants to sit in a building with 600 people," Mr. Weatherford says. "This will help meet the capacity in a more creative, 21st-century way."

Mr. Chaloux, of the Sloan Consortium, says that building a portal for existing online courses may be better than creating OnlineU. That's what several other states have done, in many cases to reach out to adult students. Kentucky, for instance, has a portal that collects online courses from participating campuses. Louisiana runs a Center for Adult Learning, and Oklahoma has a Reach Higher project, both of which encourage adults to complete their degrees through online portals. Mr. Chaloux adds that those projects—and the efforts of Georgia's Adult Learning Consortium, which collects online courses from 13 universities—have been very effective.

The problem with OnlineU, says Mr. Chaloux, is that the board would be putting money into creating a new institution instead of focusing on expanding existing resources that serve a similar purpose—an argument for limiting the proposal to an online portal.

"If you have existing degree-granting capabilities in your various campuses, which Florida does, the approach to bring all of this into some structure is probably more cost-effective," he says.

'Cautious Enthusiasm'

The faculty response to the proposed focus on online education has been one of "cautious enthusiasm," says Mr. Brogan, the chancellor.

"If you ask three different people what online education should look like, you will get three completely different answers," Mr. Brogan says. "But generally, all three would agree that online education is important. It is no longer a wave of the future. It is now, and the real potential has yet to be felt."

Reid Oetjen, interim chair of the department of health management and informatics at the University of Central Florida, has taught health-administration courses online, face to face, and in a hybrid environment. He's a big proponent of online education and hybrid classes, but he says that "an online-only university would lack a heart and soul."

"It's convenient for students to be online learners, convenient for faculty that teach online, but I think we have to look at what's best for the students, and I truly believe that we need face-to-face instructor interaction and student-to-student interaction," he says. An online-only university may be a good option for adults seeking to complete a degree, he says, but it's crucial for undergraduates to engage with one another in person and in real time. "The role of technology is to enhance education, not replace a traditional campus experience," he says.

Matthew Hintze, an adjunct professor of finance at Central Florida, was part of an advisory group that helped the board commission the exploration of an online university. He says that there can be "tremendous resistance" from people who are worried that online classrooms are not as effective as traditional ones.

Mr. Hintze acknowledges the limits of online learning, but he insists that professors should be happy that Florida is moving toward something he sees as exciting and inevitable.

"Online removes the natural demarcation that occurs in traditional universities," he says, "so it's important that we think big."

The consulting group is expected to deliver its report on November 16, and the board hopes to have a preliminary outline of the system's plan ready by the legislative session that begins in March 2013.