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10 Questions for Evangeline Tsibris Cummings, Assistant Provost and Director of UF Online

A long read interview on widening participation via hybrid digital pathways at the University of Florida

September 12, 2019
 
 

Evangeline (Evie) Tsibris Cummings is the Assistant Provost and Director of UF Online at the University of Florida. Evie graciously agreed to answer my questions about how hybrid degree pathways widen participation, on-campus orientation for online students, and how these degree programs overcome their skeptics.

Q1: One of my favorite aspects about LinkedIn are the myriad opportunities for learning new things. Earlier this summer, you posted about the “welcome orientation” sessions for the University of Florida’s Pathway to Campus Enrollment (PaCE) students. How/why is UF expanding its options for undergraduate students, and specifically, what’s PaCE and how is it unique?

When the University of Florida embraced that charge from the State of Florida to widen participation in its undergraduate experience, it was fully aware that it would only be able to do so if it was to address, head on, some of the fundamental obstacles that exist with regard to access. First, there is immense demand and competition for the spaces that exist in our residential programs and, in particular, for first time in college students that hail from across the country but most acutely from across Florida’s growing high school population. In fact, in 2018 UF received over 42,000 applications for fall 2019. This challenge isn’t unique to UF, but expanding participation for its first time in college applicants is a key part of UF’s work to expand access to UF with the launch of UF Online.

Second, UF also was fully aware that its access mission extended far beyond the first time in college residential space constraints – UF Online also expanded options for learners that were eager to earn a bachelor’s degree at any age, life stage, or geographic location. And, most progressively, I’m proud to report that UF recognizes that a new high school graduate and home-schooled learner is emerging that seeks to enroll at a familiar University with a long tradition to earn a bachelor’s degree of value – consulting rankings and seeking a quality program – but these learners don’t want to live in the dorms, attend face-to-face lectures, or move far from home.

Therefore, UF Online is also designed to welcome a traditional aged, or younger, high school graduate who is also seeking a mobile, fully online degree program for the freedom of movement, the customization of pathways (working with their advisor to design their academic sequence), the option to accelerate their bachelor’s completion (many coming to us with significant credits earned via dual enrollment), and the ability to plug in and connect with a social and academic network of other learners as part of a large University community and 400,000+ strong, global alumni network.

Q2: So, how does this undergraduate access program work?

In the end, to address all of the aforementioned types of learners, UF more than doubled the entry points available for future Gators who could apply and enroll via UF Online at the undergraduate level. For comparison, if you wanted to attend UF’s residential campus to earn your bachelor’s degree, you might apply for admissions as a first-time-in-college (FTIC) or as an upper division transfer with an AA degree, with many of our residential transfer programs having limited access due to space constraints. With the launch of UF Online, you now have the option to also apply at those two stages (FTIC or with your AA), plus UF added options so that students may also apply as a lower division transfer applicant, an upper division transfer with more credits beyond their AA, or even as a post-baccalaureate applicant seeking to earn a UF bachelor’s in addition to the bachelor’s they already had in a different field. Beyond these expanded options, UF also launched a hybrid option, the Pathway to Campus Enrollment, or PaCE, that extends an offer to highly qualified applicants to UF for which there simply isn’t capacity on the residential campus at the lower division. As a result, UF now has additional and important entry points for students into the UF undergraduate experience via the UF Online pathway. More students may earn a UF bachelor’s degree (note their transcript says UF, not UF Online) taught by the very same faculty who teach on campus each semester.

Q3: Why do students choose the PaCE program over other traditional 4-year on-campus undergraduate programs…or even, why not do all 4 years online?

As part of UF’s strategy to widen participation, starting in fall 2015, UF was able to extend an option for the very first time for highly-qualified applicants who were invited to start their studies first online and then transition to campus after 60 credits. This pathway, PaCE, enables UF to widen access to the undergraduate experience through a hybrid undergraduate path for students who would have been previously denied due to space constraints. It is important to reemphasize that PaCE grew out of this strategic mindset: how can we maximize the options for students who wish to earn a UF bachelor’s while doing so within the physical limitations of the UF residential campus? Only students deemed qualified are extended this option and only for majors with which UF can guarantee a slot for these students on campus at the upper division. As a result, this is a highly-selective program that provides yet another option for students, widens participation in the UF undergraduate experience, and maintains the rigor and high expectations of the UF application process and academic programs.

With the inaugural PaCE class welcomed in fall 2015, UF has now admitted four more cohorts since then, with deliberate attention on keeping this class small and highly engaged and also ensuring a guaranteed transfer slot for each admitted PaCE student. These students start first in UF Online, earn a total of 60 credits, and then have a guaranteed spot in their PaCE major on the residential campus to complete their degree as a full-time residential student. This hybrid undergraduate pathway is an example of UF innovating to expand participation while also ensuring each and every student has the opportunity and support to achieve their own academic outcomes. Our PaCE students are very active in on-campus activities and clubs, and are a big reason why we launched an entirely optional fee package for online students who plan to live or frequent Gainesville. Many PaCE students only move to Gainesville for their residential upper division coursework, but many other PaCE students opt to move to Gainesville for the start of their UF Online classes. Our local online students who want to enjoy the same campus amenities as residential students are now able to opt into a fee package that brings them full access to the UF recreational facilities, local free bus system, health and wellness services, and student athletic tickets. Interestingly we see a very small but growing number of these PaCE students actually opting to remain with us in UF Online for their entire degree program after they experience the UF online learning environment and the convenience the freedom of movement offers them and their studies.

That said, most of the PaCE students are eager to enjoy their hybrid degree and transition to campus. Remember the PaCE offers are extended to applicants who applied to UF to enroll as a residential student. So, we understand and appreciate that these students may embrace the hybrid option but they did apply to be full time, residential undergraduates. We spend a lot of time talking with admitted PaCE students and their families about this hybrid option and the fact that it is a great option for those who want to earn their UF degree that wouldn’t otherwise have been admitted due to limited space. But, at the same time, PaCE isn’t for everyone and we simply want students to find the best fit for their academic goals.

Interestingly, in UF Online, we are also seeing a growing number of applicants into our 4-year fully online bachelor’s who are first time in college students and, in particular, out of state FTICs. So we are seeing the full time, fully online undergrad emerge. There is a new learner, comfortable with leveraging technology to connect and customize their academic pathways, who also wants a more flexible option, the freedom of movement, yet the same valuable degree from a top 10 public university. These FTICs are applying directly to UF Online to pursue their degrees entirely online and they’re growing in number.

Q4: Per your LinkedIn update, the PaCE program has an orientation session (students and families) that takes place on-campus…this is fairly atypical for online education programs. Why is it important for students who are not on campus for their first two years to be on-campus for a 'preview' session?

It surprised some when we opted to require our hybrid undergraduate students to join us on campus for orientation – here called UF Preview – even though they start with fully online classes. However, we’ve seen great success with this model. Students not only receive a full orientation about UF, our online program, and all resources available to incoming students, but 95% of these new admits leave Preview fully registered for their fall classes and are on track for their chosen major. Preview is run by UF Student Affairs, out of the Dean of Students Office and they do an amazing job. All academic advising is conducted by UF faculty and professional academic advisors to ensure that each and every student is counseled on how to best begin their academic pathway at UF via UF Online.

Q5: How are PaCE students transitioned to campus for their third year at UF?

Each UF Online student, including our PaCE students while they are with us online, has a personal academic advisor. Students consult with their advisor at least once a term, but hopefully much more frequently, on their course load, the best sequence of their courses and course loads each term, and how they are enjoying their online learning experience. It is with that advisor that each PaCE student maps out their plan to transition to campus after they have completed 60 credits via UF Online. Some students enter PaCE with significant credit from high school dual enrollment or Advanced Placement testing and so we require a minimum of 15 credits of the 60 be completed via UF Online.

We also love to keep in touch with our PaCE students once they depart UF Online and transition to our residential campus. Many of them report being so well prepared and organized to start their upper division work, having learned an effective time-management routine for independently completing coursework and assignments as an online student. Better yet, our PaCE students remain in touch and even serve as mentors to the new incoming cohort, offering great advice on how to embrace the fully online part of their degree program. In fact, some of our UF Online Student Ambassadors are PaCE students who began their UF programs online, have transitioned to campus, but now work to counsel and support UF Online students as they excel in their own academic programs via UF Online. I’m not kidding when I say that our students are truly amazing and I’m proud of the great community UF has established within UF Online – now 3,500 strong, with over 2,000 alumni to date and growing.

Q6: PaCE program orientation sessions are hosted by UF Student Affairs and Undergraduate Academic Advising…are there specific features to these sessions on what it’s like to be a hybrid learner, how to keep connected in the first two years, etc?

PaCE students are required to attend this on-campus Preview session where UF helps orient them to the University but also spends considerable time helping students navigate the different majors, curricula and meet with an advisor to register for fall classes. We’ve found that this model works great to help ensure these students are ready to start their fall classes with their best foot forward and that they’ve had the benefit of this direct counseling on which classes make sense, in what order. Most of all, the Preview program provides students and their families with so many touch points to answer their questions. Starting college is an exciting phase and it also brings a lot of anxiety about the transition. We love helping them with that and everyone across UF brings their energy and expertise to welcome each student into UF Online via PaCE. Beyond traditional first time in college transition questions, PaCE students, of course, also have questions about how online classes will work, where they find their assignments, and more.

For the past two years, we have also held a UF Online Welcome event to reach our students right before classes begin and help get the students focused on navigating the UF learning management system, getting on the UF VPN, understanding the vast resources available to all UF students via the UF libraries (from anywhere!), knowing how to contact the UF IT help desk, as well as addressing UF’s strong stance on academic integrity in the online learning environment and how we will be proctoring their assessments. We have also learned that our students like to hear from and ask questions of fellow online students, so with the launch of our first set of UF Online Student Ambassadors this fall, we were able to have a panel for the incoming students that included these fellow UF Online students! It was a great success and we even used a crowd polling tool to draw out questions.

Q7: One of the core aspects of student success (and retention) for a majority of universities has been the proliferation of first-year experience programs. How are PaCE students supported during their first-year and is this support structured differently than systems/processes/outreach for on-campus students?

All of our UF Online students get a dedicated, personal academic advisor who is with them for the duration of their studies in UF Online. This benefit extends to our PaCE students as well while they’re with us in the online portion of their studies. In fact, we are proud of our low ratio of students to advisors. Yet, over the next five years, we are going to further lower the ratio while simultaneously increasing our expectations and duties for these academic advisors for UF Online students. We focus beyond the first year and prefer to have this real human connection between students and advisors that carries them through each and every semester in UF Online.

Q8: I’m assuming that PaCE students will spend a lot of time in UF’s learning management system during their first two years. Are there any specialized technologies at play for providing them with opportunities for maximum digital engagement?

During the 2016-2017 academic year, we launched a virtual campus for our online students – the UF Online Plaza. This is a completely secure environment for all of our online students to connect, share and just reach out to us with questions. When I first got to UF, I told my team that we were an online program but we weren’t acting like one, we didn’t even have an online forum to connect our students! Instead we saw them looking for one another on Facebook and our LMS didn’t have a means to connect across classes or across populations in a way that our students gravitated to at all. So, we launched the UF Online Plaza, started to group students by major, and encouraged them to start their own chat groups by topical area. As new students are admitted, we are sure to orient them about the Plaza, send them a Plaza welcome email and encourage them to update their profile and introduce themselves. I am delighted that most recently it has really taken off and now we have a good problem: how to help manage the questions, the postings, and the content. And, for me, this reinforces that online students are in fact students; not some remote, distance learner that avoids connecting. While PaCE students are encouraged to use the Plaza and they do certainly engage, we’re also seeing great usage by students who are pursuing their entire degree online, working, some raising families, but many outside of Gainesville. It is great to see them connect across UF colleges, across majors, and this, to me, is a new component of the UF undergraduate online experience.

Aside from the Plaza, we also have a UF Online Connections Program where we convene in-person events for our online students and their families. Coming up next month, we have our annual homecoming event and many of our online students travel to Gainesville for that and we have a great time. We really want to maximize opportunities for our students to connect with us as a university, with one another, but also for them to uniquely contribute to our university family with their own voices, experiences and ideas.

Q9: PaCE has been around for a few years now. How do the educational outcomes of PaCE students compare to students who spend all 4 (or more) years as campus-based students?

We’ve actually seen many PaCE students graduate with their bachelor’s in just three years, starting with spring 2018 graduates and others in fall 2018. Now, many of them graduated in spring 2019, including an amazing Gator who started in the inaugural cohort of PaCE and graduated with highest honors from his UF college. Our UF Online students, including our PaCE students, often pursue graduate programs after the completion of their studies at UF and, in fact, due to the flexible format and freedom of movement, we see many of our online students able to pursue research, field study, or internships and/or professional roles during their undergraduate studies, not simply afterwards.

Q10: Anything else you would like to share about PaCE?

I’m proud that UF saw the opportunity of UF Online and embraced that most challenging option imaginable: widening participation with online pathways not to separate faculty or separate curriculum but we’ve forged new, versatile pathways to the very same degrees and faculty that are taught right on our main Gainesville campus. To me that shows the combination of the strength of our traditions and commitments to academic excellence but also our innovative spirit as a campus community. That said, for UF, with such a competitive applicant pool and our high academic standards in our residential program, there was important and correct skepticism that online pathways might not even work here. But with the start of UF Online, and with the benefit of tremendous state investment in this major overhaul of access pathways, we had an opportunity for a major course correction that unlocked tremendous innovation by our faculty who remain at the core of UF’s entire academic enterprise and reputation.

UF worked hard to determine the best ways to maximize access points to highly competitive and top 10 public university undergraduate experience. The launch of UF Online wasn’t some revenue generating scheme or, as some assume, a dastardly evil plot to boost enrollments at the expense of quality. Far from it: this is a great example of UF innovating to meet our core, land grant mission, and I’m very proud of that. Online pathways done right can really enable students to flourish in their field of chosen study, as part of a dynamic and digital learning community.

However, it isn’t just happening here. Conversations are going on across higher education right now focusing on how to widen participation to students seeking a more flexible, accelerated or even part-time pathway. And, it’s an exciting time! Nevertheless, let’s remember that online teaching modalities and pedagogies are just one part of this really important but multifaceted conversation about how our top, modern universities are evolving their programs to widen participation and equity of access.

What questions do you have for Evie?

 

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