Several weeks ago the University of Florida Online program opened for the Spring 2014 semester, accepting 600 transfer students, and the new program will accept Freshmen starting August 2014. This announcement comes just 2 years after the Florida legislature commissioned a study from the Parthenon Group on how to best leverage online programs in the state, and this program is probably one of the highest profile new online programs in the US within the past few years (along with California’s online initiative, Open SUNY, SJSU / Udacity and GaTech / Udacity).
I had the opportunity to interview the executive director of UF Online, Dr. Betty Phillips, for additional background information. I'll describe that interview along with my observations in a future post.
In the e-Literate TV episode on online learning, Michael described the importance of focusing on the problem to be solved (at the 9:44 mark).
The key, really, is to look at the problem you're solving in the context of the particular college or university—what they have in terms of their strengths and resources, and what they're missing—and then figure out what's the best match between the problem and the solution.
With that view in mind, let's explore what UF Online is and what it isn't.
Two years ago the Florida state legislature funded the state university system's Board of Governors to study online education in Florida, and by extension, to recommend how to expand online programs in a centralized fashion. The Parthenon Group's report was delivered in November 2012, and the state Strategic Planning Committee made the following recommendations in February 2013.
At its February 13 meeting, the Committee recommended that the full Board:
1. Use the Strategic Plan preeminence metrics to designate the university which would create a separate arm to provide online degree programs of the highest quality, and that funds be requested of the Legislature to support such an effort. The preeminence metrics would be those passed by the 2012 Legislature and approved by the Board for use in the 2012-2013 university workplans. Further, the selected university would create an innovation and research center to (1) ensure the State is a leader in the development of cutting-edge technology and instructional design for the online programs and (2) conduct research that would help strengthen online degree programs and the success of online students.
These recommendations led to legislation that was signed into law in April 2013 creating UF Online, as described by a Reuters report [emphasis added].
Public university students in Florida next year will be able to start working toward college degrees without actually going to college, under a law Governor Rick Scott signed on Monday in front of educators and business lobbyists.
The state-run University of Florida plans to start a series of online bachelor's degree programs next year, with $15 million start-up funds for 2014.
Until now full-time online education has just been available to elementary and high schools in the state.
"This bill transforms education in Florida," said House Speaker Will Weatherford, a Republican who has long been a proponent of "virtual learning" in public schools.
"Now, we will be home to the first fully accredited, online public research university institute in the nation," said Weatherford. "These bold higher-education reforms will help increase Florida's global competitiveness and ensure our students have meaningful opportunities after high school."
What It Isn't
Before moving on, I want to correct the record on a few items here.
No, this is not the first time Florida public higher education will offer exclusively online programs. In fact, Florida leads the nation in the number of exclusively online students in higher education and is 12th based on percentages. Just a detail there, Reuters, but nice fact checking. For reference see this data from IPEDS on US public 4-year institutions for undergraduate students (more tables at the link). You can sort the table by selecting the appropriate cell in the header row - 'exclusively online' in this case.Summary of US public 4-year institutions and online education enrollment by state for Fall 2012, from IPEDS
|State||# exclusive online courses||# some but not all online courses||# at least one online course||# no online courses||Total Enrollment|
Within the State University System (the body which is leading the study), University of Central Florida, Florida International University and University of South Florida all have significant presence in exclusively online programs at the bachelor's level.
In addition, the UF Online will not have the "first fully accredited, online public research university institute in the nation" as stated by the House Speaker. At the very least Penn State's World Campus and Arizona State's ASU Online have beat them to the punch by over a decade.
Even the official UF Online site repeats this fallacy:
UF Online is the first fully online four-year bachelor's degree offered by a leading national research university.
Update (2/19): Well that was quick. UF Online has corrected its website by removing this statement.
Penn State in particular, which ranks higher than the University of Florida, might have an argument with this statement.
What It Is
What UF Online is, however, is an exclusively-online baccalaureate program leading to a UF degree for lower costs than the traditional on-campus experience. This is about expanding capacity and access to a research university, and the program aims to meet the same academic standards as the traditional UF experience, as described in its web site's FAQ page:
There will be no difference in content and rigor between UF Online courses and other courses offered by UF. In many cases courses will be the exact same with a special online section designated for UF Online students.
Regarding the lower cost (from the Reuters article):
The online courses will cost no more than 75 percent of in-state tuition for regular classes at the University of Florida.
The online university degree programs are part of an education package pushed by Scott and the state's Republican party leadership that they say will more closely link curriculums with the needs of employers.
This positioning is significant, as online programs should ultimately save money. Furthermore, UF Online has grand ambitions as described in the Gainesville Sun last fall.
The University of Florida's online bachelor's degree program will start off with a small number of students and it will operate in the red for the first few years but ramp up to 24,100 students and millions in profits within 10 years, administrators told the board of trustees this week.
UF was given a legislative mandate to create an online baccalaureate program, with $10 million in startup money and $5 million a year for the next five years.
The 10 year forecast based on an enrollment of approximately 24,100 in the 10th year, with a 57 / 43 mix of in-state / out-of-state students will produce a $14.5 million net margin in the last year. The forecast would indicate a negative net margin in 4 of the early years. However, the cumulative fund balance at the end of 10 years is expected to exceed $43.5 million. Major recurring costs include marketing, recruitment and retention and, [sic] delivery expenses. The forecast indicates current-year self-supporting [sic] reached by year 7.
The overall initiative includes a significant research component. This future effort is described in the UF Online Comprehensive Business Plan (see page 15 of PDF from the September 2013 meeting):
The opportunity to work on the leading edge of educational development demands research commitment. UF Online will respond with a Research Center and research programs dedicated both to discovery and application. The current nascent notion of adaptive learning, modular terms, and personalized learning pathways will be placed in the implementation "bucket" for pilot and application even as we push further in the use of technology and the knowledge of neuroscience. Research is never complete without dissemination and application. The resident programs will be th early recipients of well-developed research; research advances which will be subsequently shared nationally. However, our online students will not be "guinea pigs"; the advances we incorporate will have passed the tests of experimentation and value added.
How It Works
Based on my interview with Dr. Phillips, UF Online provides its own student marketing and recruitment, but once a student applies, they go into the traditional admissions process for the University of Florida. Once admitted, students take courses taught be UF faculty with the same academic standards as the on-campus experience. This gets to the claim of UF Online to be a fully-online program using the same quality standards (particularly admission and academic rigor) as a selective university.
EmbanetCompass (owned by Pearson) has a contract as an online service provider to support UF Online. This agreement extends EmbanetCompass’ current support of UF through approximately eight masters-level online programs run by individual colleges. The role of the company as described in the Campus Technology article:
Meanwhile, Pearson will provide UF Online with technology, recruitment marketing, enrollment management and student support and retention services. Pearson will also provide e-textbooks if instructors request them, as well as support for research in UF's Online Research Institute.
Keep in mind that this program is just starting (and in fact the basic plan is less than a year old), so many of the details still need to be worked out.
Full disclosure: Pearson is a client of MindWires Consulting.