UF distance program creating global Gators


Published: Sunday, January 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.

The University of Florida is extending its reach around the world, without laying a single brick.

There are now 30 degrees, including five doctorates, offered online by UF's Distance Continuing and Executive Education Program. The program, which includes master's degrees in computer engineering and pest management to name a few, are drawing students from a variety of countries.

In many cases professors and students prefer the distance experience, according to Ian Tebbett, associate dean for distance education.

The face-time between instructors and students varies for each program, but in no case is more than 25 percent of the curriculum taught in a traditional classroom setting. E-mail, video conferences and message boards are used in place of chalkboards and podiums. "I think students are more inclined to ask a question by e-mail or on a message board than to raise their hands in the classroom," Tebbett said.

In addition to UF's student body of 48,000, the university instructed 7,000 students online during the 2004-2005 academic year. Tebbett is working to spread distance programs to even more colleges and schools on campus, which officials believe will help alleviate some of the cramped UF's space problems UF is facing. Though UF saves space by offering online instruction, Tebbett says the courses cost just about as much to teach because of the additional equipment requirements. "One of the advantages of distance education is that the students and faculty can be anywhere in the world," Tebbett said.

UF's online masters degree in forensic DNA and serology, for instance, is taught by six UF professors in Gainesville and a forensic pathologist living in Edinburgh, Scotland. UF has forged other partnerships with universities in Latin America, Australia and Brazil. In fall of 2006, UF expects to offer degree programs to students in Beijing, China, who will take UF courses online in English.

Tebbett says he believes any course or program can be offered online, but distance education may not be for everyone. As UF warns on its Web site, distance education requires a lot of self-discipline, and the instructor functions as more of a "guide on the side" than a "sage on the stage."

Donna Wielbo, an associate professor at UF who teaches forensic science exclusively online, said she actually has more interaction with students through distance education than she did in a traditional classroom. Wielbo, who is also Tebbett's wife, says she's constantly replying to e-mails from faraway students or interacting with them on message boards. "One of the successes of our program is to make students feel like they're not in a vacuum," Wielbo said.

But what about cheating?

In the case of the forensic science masters program, Wielbo says students are permitted to use their textbooks during timed tests just as they would be on campus. Timed tests are taken online, and students are locked out of the test after the allotted clock runs out. As for closed-book tests, students take those during a final exam that is administered in Gainesville.

Though Tebbett says cheating is no more common online than on campus, UF's academic honesty policy still applies to students completing course work on the Web.

UF awarded masters degrees in forensic DNA and serology this month to two students living in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Ana Milos and Arijana Selmanovic completed their degrees while working for the International Commission on Missing Persons, an organization that helps identify victims of the Balkan conflicts. As full-time employees, the two women said an online program was the best and perhaps the only option. Reached by phone in Sarajevo Wednesday, both said they felt like they had quality instruction, even though they were thousands of miles away from their professors.

"In a sense, you don't really feel like you're not there," Milos said.

Jack Stripling can be reached at 374-5064 or Jack.Stripling@gvillesun.com

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