Governor Rick Scott signed a broad-ranging education bill this session that—among many changes—establishes an entirely online bachelor’s degree program through the University of Florida.
UF already has experience offering online courses and degree programs that allow students to finish the last two years of a bachelor’s degree online. But this is the first time a Florida university—or any state school in the country—will offer an entirely digital degree.
Still, there are models for what this new online institution at UF might look like. Models like Western Governors University—a private, not-for-profit university with more than 40,000 students in 50 states.
WGU president Robert Mendenhall has been with the school since 1999. He spoke with StateImpact Florida about lessons learned and what UF administrators and students can expect of online degree programs.
Q: Florida just passed a bill that would establish a series of online degrees that University of Florida is going to manage. You’ve been doing this for a while. What advice do you wish someone had given you when you had gotten started with this project?
A: (laughter) I think I’m glad they didn’t tell me how hard it would be or how long it would take because I might not have done it.
When we began we had the backing of 19 governors. We had about 20 major corporations behind us. It cost us about $40 million to build the university and put it in place to where today it’s self-sustaining on a tuition of $6,000 a year. It took us four years to get full regional accreditation. It took five or six years to really build a student base that was significant.
It’s a challenging thing to build a new university. Certainly at the time we did online, which was in the late 90s, it was not as widely accepted as it is today. So we had the challenge of really demonstrating that online education was as effective or could be more effective than classroom education. I think most of that today is behind us.
Q: So what are the challenges today of an online university?
A: The big challenge is for us to learn how to use technology to really improve education as opposed to just extend access to the same education we already have. Ninety-five percent of online education today is really just classroom education distributed over a wire.
Frankly, it almost never actually reduces the cost of education.
Many students find difficulty in learning on their own. There’s a real challenge in online education to build learning communities with faculty and with other students so that they have the benefit of the interactions that they enjoy on campus. And really to create online programs that are engaging and interactive, not just taping lectures and putting them online and putting the assignments online for people to submit.
Most of online education isn’t very creative. It’s really just taking the classroom and distributing it.
Q: For the students who are now going to have more choice in the Florida university system—to go to a traditional college or university, or to enroll in one of these degree programs online—what do they need to consider?
A: We don’t know what those online programs really will look like yet, but I think students have to consider first whether this is their only option. Whether they have time to go to campus on a set schedule, attend a class during the day, or whether online is really the best or is the only option which they have.
WGU serves students average age of 36, most of whom are working full time, have families—campus really isn’t an option for them.
Then I think the students have to think about: Am I self motivated? Self directed? Do I have the discipline to do the work and stay current? Am I able to work online?
Turning it around a little, [to] the university working to develop online programs…what kind of support will be provided for the students to help them be successful in that environment?
Over the years at WGU, we’ve refined the model of faculty mentoring. Today, every student who starts with us gets a faculty mentor the day they start who stays with them until the day they graduate. They talk every week. The students are all engaged in learning communities with other students by course and by degree. There’s course faculty who are accessible.
I think the students have to really look at what the faculty support and what the other support structures being offered through an online course really are.