Pushed by Lawmakers, U. of Florida Dives Into Online Education

May 23, 2014

A little more than a year after Florida lawmakers committed $35-million to the University of Florida to create a reduced-cost, online-only baccalaureate program, university officials say they are taking stock of the inaugural semester while preparing for the second.

UF Online began in January with 20 classes. About 565 students completed the first semester—95 percent of those enrolled, says W. Andrew McCollough, associate provost for teaching and technology, who oversees the program. All of them were transfer students because operations were not up and running until after the application deadline for first-time students had passed.

"The persistence acid test will come when we get a larger number of first-time-in-college kids," Mr. McCollough says. "These transfer students, or degree-completer students, often are a little older. They are less interested in the college experience and more interested in college degrees."

UF Online has received about 1,500 applications for the fall, says Mr. McCollough, who expects fall enrollment to be about 1,000. The application deadline is June 1.

If the online effort is to succeed, it will have to be an upward march from there—the university’s business plan for UF Online calls for an enrollment of 24,152 students in 35 different degrees by 2024. It also projects $76.6-million in revenue and $14.5-million in profit by then.

The first semester has not been without stumbles. The university hired Elizabeth D. Phillips, a veteran administrator who had helped build Arizona State University’s online program, as executive director. But in March she voluntarily left to return to teaching at Arizona State, after less than three months on the job.

In addition, The Gainesville Sun, a local newspaper, criticized the university for failing to making public all of the details of its contract with Embanet, a company that provides online-education services to colleges. Of particular interest was a revenue-sharing agreement. Embanet, owned by Pearson, the publishing giant, helps UF Online create digital content, provides marketing and recruiting services, and helps manage enrollment and retention.

According to the business plan, the company could receive up to $186-million over 10 years, although the amount is contingent upon how many students it brings in.

In an editorial, the newspaper cited the departure of Ms. Phillips and the initial lack of transparency, saying UF Online was "off to a rough start."

Mr. McCollough calls that characterization "inaccurate and unfair." The university needed a private partner to get the program under way and to drive enrollment, he says. And Ms. Phillips’s departure, while unfortunate, did not cause serious disruption.

"This is a train that is already going down the tracks, and if we have to change the conductor along the way, the tracks don’t vary," he says. "We know where we are going and what we have to do to get there."

Growing pains are inevitable, says Wendell Porter, a lecturer and adviser in the university’s department of agricultural and biological engineering, who has taught online classes since 2008. And, he says, it is gratifying for educators who worked for years to expand online education at Florida to see UF Online emerge.

"We are working all these things out, but at the very least it enables you to go after a wider audience and grab more people," Mr. Porter says. "Who knows, the next Einstein or the next Bill Gates or the next Steve Jobs might be a person who can’t afford to come to school, but we can afford to reach them."

At first there was concern among faculty members that UF Online would strip the undergraduate degree down to its classes, abandoning other valuable parts of the student experience, says Marc Heft, chair of the Faculty Senate. Still, they have chosen to embrace it and will be able to design, install, and evaluate UF Online courses.

"We are strangers in a strange land, but we have the opportunity to assess what is going on," Mr. Heft says. "The president has made it clear that he will be supporting these activities. There will be an infrastructure in place."

Online Wellspring

UF Online stands to bolster the State of Florida’s stature as a wellspring of online education. In 1997 the Florida Department of Education established what it says was the nation’s first virtual high school, and today thousands of elementary- and secondary-school students take classes online.

Some colleges have been keeping pace. The state ranked first in the number of students at four-year institutions who take classes only online, according to an analysis conducted by Phil Hill, a higher-education consultant. There were 196,454 students in Florida taking at least one online course.

"The University of Central Florida is clearly one of the top 10 institutions doing online work in the country right now, maybe even higher than that," says David A. Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

"The University of Florida was virtually absent" from that activity, he notes. But in 2012 the Legislature funded a comprehensive study of online education in Florida. Recommendations led to legislation, and in April 2013 Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill that included the $35-million over five years to start UF Online.

The mandate is to deliver an online degree at 75 percent of the cost of an on-campus education, under the University of Florida brand.

"We wanted to charter new ground," says State Rep. Will Weatherford, a Republican, speaker of the State House of Representatives, and author of the legislation. "This is an experiment in higher education."

The legislation fits a national trend in which lawmakers are taking up the minutiae of higher-education policy, pushing for increased performance and cost containment, says Matt Gianneschi, vice president for policy and programs at the Education Commission of the States, which tracks state education policy.

"The legislative role in higher-education financing is alive and well, and it may be even more active today than during the years when funding was more predictable and better in many states," he says.

The long-term strategy at UF Online includes attracting thousands of out-of-state and international students, who will be charged rates about four times as high as the $112 per credit hour paid by in-state students.

UF Online thrusts the University of Florida into the borderless online-education fray, where it faces major players including the University of Maryland University College, Western Governors University, and Colorado State University-Global Campus.

"There is a lot of market there, particularly internationally," Mr. Longanecker says. "But, to be honest, latecomers to this game are going to have a harder time being prominent members of the community than the early adopters."

Mr. McCollough plays down any potential competition within the state or beyond. UF Online is being developed to serve first-time college students, not just transfer students or degree-completers who are so often the focus of other online programs, he says. And it is a purely distance-education undergraduate program, not one that provides online learning for a mix of campus-based and off-campus students, as is the case at Central Florida.

"By legislation we charge a reduced price, and so that makes it more difficult if they see themselves as competitors, but I don’t think they really do," Mr. McCollough says. "We are all trying to carve out our own piece of this very large pie."

A search is under way for a new executive director, Mr. McCollough says. He and his colleagues are exploring how to provide labs for science classes. And they are working to make the UF Online application process and other operations more "nimble," in order to accommodate students who need something beyond traditional admissions timelines.

What he finds most exciting, he says, is that UF Online provides access to college courses where it may not have existed before, while also emphasizing teaching in new ways. "The combination of those," he says, "is good news for our society, which is dedicated to the notion that education is consistent with progress."