It would have been an easy walk to class for Derek Stewart, who lives just two blocks from the University of South Florida main campus.
But Stewart never entered a classroom when he decided to go to grad school. Instead, in 2011, he received a master’s degree in gifted education from USF by working entirely online.
“It gave me the flexibility to continue to work and to continue to be what’s most important for me – to be there for my kids, to be a dad and a husband,” he said.
Stewart, who now teaches high school in the Florida Virtual School, is one of about 150 students a year from as far away as Canada, South Korea and Peru who complete entire degree programs at USF without having to set foot on campus. They are joined by nearly 60 percent of USF students who are taking at least one class exclusively online.
Distance learning has come a long way since snail-mail correspondence courses or Educational Television, the precursor to the Public Broadcasting System.
This year, the Florida Legislature is taking a major step to establish high-quality online degree programs within the state university system. Senate Bill 1720, which is set for a final vote in the Senate this week and expected to be warmly received in the House, will designate one university, most likely the University of Florida, to create a separate arm to provide online degree programs.
The legislation requires the new program to establish an innovation center, conduct research to strengthen online programs and support student success, and “ensure the State is a leader in the development of cutting-edge technology and instructional design for the online programs,” according to a legislative analysis.
It sets resident tuition at 75 percent of the going rate and cuts many fees that on-campus students pay.
Legislative leaders are enthused over the prospects.
“Imagine having a pre-eminent university in the state of Florida where a student can take all of their classes online in a very highly technical, tremendous-platform, great-content format, and get a degree for a fraction of the cost of what we’re charging today,” House Speaker Will Weatherford said at a recent meeting of the state Board of Governors, which oversees the university system.
“It’s an amazing opportunity for us to leverage technology to do things that we’ve never done before,” said Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican.
The Legislature’s push to increase online programs is welcomed with open arms at USF, which considers itself ahead of the game. USF is No. 1 in distance learning enrollment among Florida’s public universities. It has 26 fully online undergraduate and graduate degree programs, and another 46 graduate certification programs.
“We continue to drive that agenda and meet the growing needs of students, both traditional and those that aren’t able to avail themselves of a traditional on-campus, face-to-face education,” said Provost Ralph Wilcox.
“We’re not going to stand still. We’re not going to slow down. As long as student demand is out there, our core mission is to meet that demand and we’re going to work hard to do so.”
Timothy Burke, a history professor at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, notes that seemingly every new mass media development has led forward thinkers to consider it as a method to deliver education to those who would not physically or financially be able to attend school.
The expansion of the postal service, radio, and television all have been touted as potential field-levelers.
“They always fall short of the high expectations,” Burke said. “The reason, time and time again, is that people expect those models of delivery to be approximately the same as face-to-face instruction. And so far, they never have been.”
As a professor of computer science, Norman Matloff said he places all of his class materials, from homework to exams to textbooks, online.
“I’m hardly a Luddite,” the University of California-Davis professor said. “I’m using all that stuff. But I’m teaching live, I’m not just asking someone to watch something or read something, and I’m working with them. And I’m giving exams that are meaningful, not some shallow multiple-choice thing.”
Online courses typically begin with a syllabus that spells out what work is expected, when assignments become “open” and when work is due.
There are typically links to videos, virtual tours and homework problems. Students can use textbooks or online text. The professor may appear via video, but there is far less interaction between teacher and student. Classmates may or may not correspond in chat rooms.
Assessment is largely in multiple-choice form, which is easier to grade en masse.
“You have to be intensely well-motivated, you have to have advanced habits for learning, you have to be able to self-teach,” Burke said.
That’s not for everyone.
Laura Hanley, a USF senior from Valrico, is taking an environmental wetlands course online because it fit nicely into her schedule. But she prefers classroom learning.
“I like the pressure of school,” Hanley said. “I like the environment. It’s nice when you’re around your peers and being around educated people and people who want to better themselves. There’s nothing like that online.”
Those schools, some of which have faced lawsuits over student debt and post-graduation placement, have contributed to the perception that an online degree might be easier to obtain or of less value than a traditional brick and mortar degree.
“I recognize that the perception exists,” said Patel, of USF’s University College. “But all of our distance education programs are accredited.
“We adhere to, and if you look at our rankings, often exceed expectations in the area of quality, which are driven by accrediting institutions. We ensure that our district learning courses have the same outcomes as face-to-face courses.”
Nationwide, 31 percent of college students have taken online courses. That figure is 40 percent across the Florida university system, and 58 percent at USF.
Stewart, who earned his master’s online, earned his bachelor’s from USF through the traditional classroom process.
“I’m not all for one or the other,” he said. “In my opinion, no matter the media or the method, good teachers figure out ways to reach their students and get them to learn what they need to learn.”
Many major universities are now experimenting with “Massive Open Online Courses,” or MOOCs, which are self-directed courses originated at major universities that may eventually provide college credit.
One Stanford University offering, a MOOC on artificial intelligence, attracted 160,000 students from 190 countries, although only a fraction completed the course.
“I believe that 20 years from now, we’re going to see a university system that is more vibrant, that is bringing education to more people, that it doesn’t matter who you are, how much money you make, what household you come from, what color you are, you’re going to have access to the highest education money can buy,” Weatherford said.
“That’s amazing. And it’s going to change the way that we live.”