UF: Online courses will be of the same quality as traditional classes


Greg D'Angio gives a countdown to associate professor Robert Wagman to start his lecture about the history of ancient Egypt on Friday, April 26, 2013 in Gainesville, Fla. (Matt Stamey/Staff photographer)

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Saturday, April 27, 2013 at 10:35 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, April 27, 2013 at 10:35 p.m.

Creating an online university won't be easy, but the University of Florida already has a good head start.

The university has been providing online classes since the 1980s, starting with its popular MBA program. It currently offers 600-700 online courses across the curriculum, including several undergraduate degree completion programs for students who start out at community college, and several master's degree programs.

The university has been charged with creating a complete online undergraduate degree program from start to finish. And it must have those first programs ready to launch by Jan. 1.

A sweeping education reform bill signed by Gov. Rick Scott charges UF, as the state's pre-eminent university, with creating an online learning institution that meets the same academic standards as UF's course offerings for residential students, at a fraction of the cost.

“When we got this designation, we were fortunate that we had already begun to work in online education. We weren't starting from scratch,” said Andy McCullough, assistant provost for teaching and technology. “This will push us into knowing how to deliver a meaningful high-quality education online.”

The university will receive $10 million in startup money the first year and $5 million in recurring money each year to sustain the program. McCullough said the money is enough to cover infrastructure, course production, student service support — “all of the things you might imagine you'd want to have in place if starting a new college or new university.”

The legislation says the university must provide a “robust offering of fully online baccalaureate degrees at an affordable cost,” McCullough said. “Those are the first parameters that pop up on the screen, that the degree program should have the same rigorous admissions criteria, same rigor as on-campus.”

The university tentatively has chosen the five programs it already offers in its combined degree or 2+2 program, he said: business, criminal justice and law, sports management, health education, and environmental management. The rationale there is that it will be easier to develop the freshman and sophomore years of programs that already provide a path to degree completion to meet the Jan. 1 rollout date.

“Given the short timeline, it was suggested we start with the most feasible,” he said.

And UF will offer the online baccalaureate programs at a discount. Students will pay 75 percent of the normal matriculation and tuition fees for each class. However, because fees other than tuition will cost on-campus students more, what online students would pay per credit hour is closer to 50 percent of what on-campus students would pay. Based on the 2012-13 rates, an online student would pay $120 per credit hour compared with $204 per credit hour paid by on-campus or residential students, McCullough said.

“We are not going to get rich doing this. The monies being made available will be adequate to cover the additional cost,” said McCollough, adding that UF more importantly will gain a greater depth and expertise in “what appears to be an important part of the future of education.”

A lot of front-end planning must occur between now and Sept. 1, when UF must offer the state advisory board an implementation plan.

Once the board approves the plan, it will notify the Board of Governors to release the money. The university will have to use existing money to develop the online programs, which UF says can cost as much as $50,000 in production dollars.

The task of designing those programs will fall to three departments that produce online learning classes — Distance and Continuing Education, the College of Education, and the Center for Instructional Training and Technology. Between those three departments, UF currently offers 600-700 online courses, said Jennifer K. Smith, manager of instructional design services for the CITT.

Smith is a former theater professor who developed a costume pattern-making course for online before becoming the CITT's manager in 2003. She supervises a group of six instructional designers and technicians who help professors devise online course curriculum, design it on computer programs and shoot the lectures on video.

She and her counterparts at the Distance and Continuing Education and College of Education have met to figure out how to coordinate the effort to create an online university.

“We have to make certain each course meets a particular standard and uses best practices, and coaching the faculty on things research has shown to be successful in delivering online education,” Smith said. “It's already in place. We've been doing this quite awhile.”

Smith learned at a meeting Friday that the university might not have enough time to develop all five programs to the highest quality by January so it might choose one or two of the more popular programs, most likely the business program.

“This is a big challenge, not so much for my team's time, but the time for the faculty,” Smith said. “It can be very time-consuming for them.”

The CITT has an online course for professors to teach them about online students' needs — how to connect with them, how to communicate and teach more effectively and engage a student in a way in which he or she will learn the most from an online class. For example, an art appreciation class could have students curating an exhibit. A course on theater could have them costuming their characters.

“The focus is on learning by doing,” Smith said. “Doing the thing is the exam.”

Designing courses that get students to collaborate on group projects, getting them to communicate, think creatively and critically — those are the four C's that make online courses successful, she said.

“These are the things employers look for when hiring people,” Smith said.

Robert Wagman, an associate professor of classical studies at UF, has been working with the CITT since October on creating an online version of the Ancient Egypt course. Most of that time was spent transforming the course for online, and he began recording his lectures only this spring. He was in the studio Friday to record a segment on mummification.

“It's new,” he said. “I'm talking to a machine instead of to an audience. I try to adjust. I'm not sure how, but after awhile you become accustomed to it.”

As a professor, he was trained to talk to a group of people. Now, he has to imagine the audience is there behind the cameras.

Kristina Von Castel Roberts, who has been teaching online nutrition courses since 2006, said she had to adjust her teaching style when she adapted her course for online.

“It was a transition at first,” she said, “My initial online course was a mirror of a course I taught live. It was exactly the same course, content and slides. I took the entire course and had to convert it online.”

Kara Dawson, an associate professor of educational technology who has worked in online education since 2004 and developed several graduate degree programs for online, said UF has the resources to create a top-notch undergraduate program online.

“What I don't want to see, and lots of faculty see it, is we don't want to see it as a second-class degree,” Dawson said. “It should be the equivalent. The quality should be the same, whether you take the course online or in class.”

McCullough said he has no intention of seeing the online institute be anything but first class and equal to the experience of learning on the UF campus. “I'm a UF graduate, and I am not going to let the exercise of this denigrate my degree,” he said.

UF has a responsibility to graduates and future students to maintain the value of a UF education, McCullough added. “If we can't do that, we shouldn't offer this degree, but I am confident we can do that.”

It's the administration's responsibility to manage the content, maintain academic integrity and show that to all of the agencies that monitor and accredit the university and evaluate its end product.

“We can't let this in any way threaten our journey to the top 10,” McCullough said. “We want it to enhance that.”

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