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When Florida Governor Rick Scott on April 22 signed Senate Bill 1076, he tasked a “preeminent state research university to establish an institute for online learning” that would “offer high-quality, fully online baccalaureate degree programs” by January 2014. A few weeks later, the Florida Board of Governors granted the University of Florida that designation.

Regardless of the jokes about the sluggish pace of change in higher education, Florida now faces a looming challenge: Can you create a degree-granting online institution in seven months?

“If in fact we were starting from scratch, we wouldn’t have a prayer,” said W. Andrew McCollough, associate provost for teaching and technology at UF, who admitted that his team is feeling the time constraints. “No question about it.... [T]here clearly was an aggressive timeline.”

The Board of Governors on Friday unanimously approved the university’s plan to create an alternative online campus, UF Online, which could increase UF's enrollment by more than 24,000 students in a decade. At the moment, the university has more than 150 instructional designers scattered across six studios producing 26 different courses. Come January, UF Online will make available its first seven online undergraduate degree programs, as well as a handful of lower-division (or general education) courses. Next fall, the first cohort of freshmen will enter the virtual halls of UF Online.

“My guess is we’re not going to have a whole lot of students on the first of January. We will have some transfer students, and we’re prepared to deal with those,” McCollough said. “It is my expectation that come next summer and fall we will have the first wave of [first-time-in-college] students. At that point, given the rapidity with which we’re in the production process, we’ll be ready. We’re going to be ready January 1, but we’re going to be really ready come next fall.”

UF Online’s first degree options involve adapting the university’s “2+2 programs” -- where students take two years of residential courses, then finish with two years online -- into online-exclusive degrees. These programs include business administration, criminology, environmental management, health education and behavior, and sports management. Biology and psychology, two majors McCollough said are among the most popular at the university, are last-minute additions to the spring semester. The plan calls for five new majors to be rolled out each academic year.

Florida last year hired the Parthenon Group to draft several options to increase access to online education. The consultants presented a range of scenarios, from letting each state institution experiment separately to founding a brand new online university. UF Online falls closer to the latter end of that spectrum. The institution will be housed in UF’s office of academic affairs, and its executive director will report to the provost. For this academic year, the legislature earmarked a total of $15 million to get the online campus off the ground.

There are -- at least at this point -- no plans to make UF Online a freestanding entity, McCollough said.

McCollough said UF will draw on many of the experiences and resources gained from the online graduate degrees it offers, but that the university has “not had to deal with the 18-year-old online.” With the deadline for fall 2014 freshman admission less than a month away, admissions officers are already selling the online experience at college fairs across the Southeast -- even though McCollough said UF Online will be in “learning mode” in its first few years.

“We’re already late,” said McCollough, adding that he thought UF Online could become an attractive options for the thousands of students who are turned away because of space issues. “The kids haven’t really thought about this. It’s just something we’re kind of springing on them at the last minute. I’m confident by the time we get another year under our belt, the argument will have resonated, and they’ll be able to make an informed decision about which way they want to go.”

UF Online’s first students are likely to see their online experience change as the university experiments with adaptive and competency-based learning, modular term structures and personalized pathways. The plan calls for UF Online to test those and other methodologies and implement them as appropriate. McCollough said that does not mean early adopters will receive an inferior online education, however.

“They’re going to get a real online experience consistent with the current level of technology and knowledge,” McCollough said. “We’re not going to guinea-pig them.”

Nor is UF Online guinea-pigging its programs. McCollough said university officials have talked extensively with other institutions that offer online undergraduate degrees, including Penn State University and the University of Maryland University College.

“We practically moved up there,” McCollough said. “We need excellence the day we kick off.”

In addition to listening to these institutions, UF is also copying them. Last month, the university announced it had hired Elizabeth D. Phillips (formerly Capaldi), a former professor and provost at Florida for more than a decade, to serve as UF Online’s first executive director. Phillips serves as executive vice president and provost of Arizona State University, and was instrumental to the creation of ASU Online.

Similar to ASU, UF Online will outsource many of its administrative tasks -- assessment, marketing and retention support, among others -- to an outside vendor. While the plan does not name a specific partner, McCollough said the company on the other side of the negotiating table is Pearson.

A spokeswoman for Pearson said the company will not comment on a potential deal until negotiations have concluded.

The deal with UF is likely to resemble Pearson’s partnership with ASU, which an executive in 2010 described as the company becoming a “comprehensive services solution.” Last October, Pearson also acquired EmbanetCompass -- a $650 million warning shot to competitors that the company was serious about its play to help universities take their academic programs online.

“Universities are really good at teaching and research, but they’re not so good at other stuff,” Phillips said. “[Pearson provides] services that would be difficult for us to do without starting all over again.... If we tried to do that, we’d be a brand-new business.”

The partnership leaves UF Online free to focus on content creation. Faculty members will receive additional compensation for developing online courses, but while many have already shown interest, McCollough said “When it is necessary, the teaching in UF Online can very well be a faculty assignment.”

The Faculty View

John Biro, president of the UF chapter of the United Faculty of Florida, the union that represents faculty members at 11 public institutions in the state, said the faculty has yet to discuss the plan in detail.

“Of course there has been much discussion for some time about the whole general trend toward online education and UF’s part in it,” Biro, professor of psychology, said. “Many faculty members are enthusiastic about the trend and want to be part of it. Some are not. That’s inevitable.”

Biro also pointed out that some faculty members have raised questions about intellectual property rights, and that any assignment has to follow the provisions of the faculty’s collective bargaining agreement. He said he expected those issues to “loom large” during the next round of contract negotiations.

Marc Heft, UF Faculty Senate president, said in an e-mail that any issues related to program development will be “discipline-specific.”

“There clearly has been UF-wide interest [in] this initiative as well as questions about the effectiveness of online versus on-site education -- the national question,” Heft wrote. “However, as we move forward, we'll have the opportunity to design and implement these programs, and, also, be uniquely qualified to assess and evaluate them.”

One of the major selling points of UF Online will be its price. Students from Florida will pay no more than 75 percent of the cost of tuition, or about $112 per credit hour. Combined with savings on room and board, the university estimates online students will pay about $8,400 less per year than those physically in Gainesville. Out-of-state students will pay market rates; the plan suggests charging between $450 and $500 per credit hour.

When the plan to offer online degrees was making its way through the legislature, lawmakers billed it as an effort to increase access to higher education for Floridians. By slashing tuition rates for in-state students, however, lawmakers appear to have created a dependency on those who pay full price. According to projections, 43 percent of the students at UF Online in 2024 will come from states other than Florida. Among residential students enrolled in the fall of 2012, that number was about 19 percent.

“What [lawmakers] did was set up a tuition regime which virtually made it difficult -- maybe impossible -- to recapture the cost necessary to deliver content online, because we could charge no more than 75 percent of some of the lowest tuition in the United States,” McCollough said.

The savings come with some drawbacks. For example, online students are not charged an athletics fee, which means they can’t enter ticket lotteries to watch the Gators play in person. McCollough said the university is still pondering how to deal with the students who enroll in UF Online but move to Gainesville anyway.

“Out of the gate, we’re trying to draw a bright line, if you will, between the online student and the resident student,” McCollough said. “We’ll see how that works.”

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