Fla. House Speaker Designate pitches idea for online university
Published: Thursday, January 19, 2012 at 11:11 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 19, 2012 at 9:30 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE — Florida might be getting a new university, but this one wouldn't have a football team or athletic facilities, or a physical campus for that matter.
Florida House Speaker Designate Will Weatherford on Thursday pitched the idea of creating a completely online university to the Florida Board of Governors. The Wesley Chapel Republican said an online university would address the state's growing demand for college degrees and comes as students are increasingly taking online courses.
"I think we're on the frontier of online learning. I think it's going to change the way that our country works. I think it's going to change the way our world works," he said. "And I think Florida should lead the country in that endeavor."
With state funding drying up for the construction of educational buildings, Weatherford said an online university would not require an investment in facilities.
But state universities also have seen their overall budgets slashed in recent years and already must deal with funding perhaps being split further as the University of South Florida Polytechnic in Lakeland is given a shot at independence, possibly becoming the 12th institution in the state university system.
Weatherford — who notably referred to a new online school as becoming the state's 13th university — said such a university would require an initial investment but could charge market-based tuition to pay for its ongoing costs.
He left open the possibility of the university being a collaboration with an existing institution such as the University of Florida.
UF currently has more than 5,000 students exclusively taking online courses following an expansion of those programs in recent years. UF also has proposed creating a series of online general education courses for the state.
UF President Bernie Machen said Weatherford's proposal is consistent with the university's efforts.
"It's clear that the incoming House leadership sees distance learning as a growth component of higher education in Florida. We would say, ‘Great,' " Machen said.
Weatherford said he didn't want to define exactly what an online university would entail, leaving it to the board to work through details and saying he'd support its decision.
But he said outside the meeting that existing universities have created silos for their online offerings and that having an entity focused solely on online learning would provide benefits.
"If the board determines that they can get to the same place that we're talking about by just expanding online programs at universities, that's OK. That's not the end of the world," he said. "But I think that's thinking of it in a traditional sense, and we need a disruptive innovation to our education system, and I think technology allows us to do that."
More than 160,000 state university system students took at least one distance education course in 2010-11, or about half of all students in the system, according to a board report. Nearly 26,000 students enrolled only in distance learning courses in the same period, with more than 12,000 of those students pursuing bachelor's degrees.
System Chancellor Frank Brogan said that rather than simply create new versions of existing programs, an online university might essentially be a portal to improved online academic and service offerings in the system. Students would be able to identify desired programs and courses, perhaps at more than one university, and access services such as advising.
"When he's talking about the 13th university, I think the idea is to metaphorically create an easy portal access to an electronic educational offering," he said.
Weatherford mentioned one possible template in Western Governors University, an online university created in a Western Governors Association meeting that began accepting students in 1999. The private, nonprofit university has grown now to serving more than 30,000 students from all 50 states, according to its website.
Weatherford, designated by House Republicans to succeed current Speaker Dean Cannon in 2013-14 if they maintain their majority, said he wants to give the board time to develop a proposal and doesn't see anything happening legislatively until next year. He challenged universities to "get out of their comfort zone" and look differently at online learning.
"If we can look at how we're delivering education in a different way, maybe we'll find that there's other methods to do it other than the ones we're doing right now," he said.
Contact Nathan Crabbe at 338-3176 or email@example.com. For more stories on the University of Florida, visit www.thecampussun.com.