Saying No to Fully Online

The U. of Florida's political science department turns down a request to build a fully online degree over concerns about quality and the university's commitment.

November 10, 2014

UF Online, the University of Florida's online education arm, won't offer a political science degree after the department, concerned about quality and the state's shifting leadership, voted against the idea.

Unlike many online education initiatives, which target adult learners and other groups of students not normally served by course offerings on campus, UF Online is meant to educate first-time-in-college students -- high school graduates between the ages of 18 and 22. When a department at UF declines to participate, it creates a hole in UF Online’s lineup.

The decision wasn’t based on passionate opposition to online education, said Ido Oren, associate professor and chair of the political science department. The department already offers online versions of several of its introductory and upper-level courses, but the idea of stringing those courses into -- and developing a number of new courses for -- a fully online major gave some faculty members pause.

“I think there were a few who were passionately opposed, but my reading is most of the faculty were in a pragmatic, non-ideological mode,” Oren said in an interview. “They could see the arguments on both sides of the issue. I would say many faculty said, ‘I could live with it, it’s not my passion, I don’t want to get invested in it, but I could see why we would get involved.’ ”

Other faculty members, Oren said, questioned the quality of fully online programs -- a common concern among faculty. When the votes were tallied, about two-thirds of the department voted against creating an online major, which UF Online's business plan pegged for a launch during the 2017-18 academic year. The news was first reported by The Independent Florida Alligator.

"Ultimately people had to vote, and that’s where the chips fell,” Oren said. “We could have pulled it off, but I think there was a concern that the number of faculty committed to it and willing to chip in was fairly narrow. No deep bench, if you may.”

But the vote was also motivated by a sense of uncertainty about the state of the politics of higher education in Florida. That uncertainty has this fall permeated nearly every rung of leadership, from the university’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences to the governor’s mansion. The college is led by an interim dean. UF Online still is without an executive director. The Florida Board of Governors as recently as Thursday confirmed the university’s new president. Even Governor Rick Scott was locked (and ultimately prevailed) in a tight re-election contest against former Governor Charlie Crist.

That “general uncertainty” hovered in the background of the discussion within the department, Oren said. “If we buy into [UF Online], how committed is UF going to be to it in the future with all the uncertainty about major office holders?” he said some faculty members asked.

The idea for UF Online, after all, came from the legislature. It last year designated UF as a “preeminent state research university,” then told the institution to build an online education provider to increase access to higher education in the state. A new governor could have shuffled Florida’s higher education priorities.

At a faculty meeting, Oren tapped two senior faculty members, Michael D. Martinez and Kenneth D. Wald, to speak for and against, respectively, creating a fully online major.

Wald, distinguished professor of political science, presented three arguments against the idea. He said UF Online was asking the department to simply duplicate its existing major, although with fewer electives, which some feared could cannibalize the residential student population. Delivering courses exclusively online also created questions about how to provide advising and other services residential students enjoy, he added.

Finally, he said, UF Online didn’t convince the faculty that offering more online degrees would make the university more highly regarded among large public institutions.

“We felt that there were so many things [students] weren’t going to be exposed to,” Wald said, listing in-class debates, specialized upper-level courses and face-to-face mentoring. “It was going to be effectively a second-class degree.”

Martinez, a professor of political science, said he didn’t share the uncertainty expressed by some of his colleagues. With the election behind them and Kent Fuchs confirmed as the university's president, he added, some of the uncertainty has evaporated.

Instead of cannibalizing the number of students on campus, Martinez argued, an online major could help boost the political science department’s dwindling numbers. According to the university factbook, the department had 1,059 students five years ago; last fall, the number had dropped to 798. Many other departments have seem similar -- or worse -- slides. Since the departments are partly funded based on how many majors they enroll and how many credit hours they teach, an online major could also mean more resources, he said.

“People were, I don’t think, mad either way,” Martinez said. “We just had to decide at some point whether we were going to flip the switch or not.”

None of the faculty members said they were aware of any other departments that had held similar votes, although some had heard of varying degrees of enthusiasm from colleagues in other disciplines. W. Andrew (Andy) McCollough, the interim executive director of UF Online, did not respond to a request for comment.

The vote doesn’t mean UF Online will never feature a political science degree. While the department declined to contribute at this point, it passed a resolution reinforcing its commitment to online education and a desire to produce “specialized online degrees for highly motivated audiences,” said Wald, who used courses aimed at members of the military as one example.

Participation in UF Online is also voluntary -- at least for now.

“I know my colleagues and I don’t like to think of ourselves in such terms -- and we have our academic freedom to do research and whatever we want -- but we’re also employees of the University of Florida,” Oren said. “If -- hypothetically, let’s say -- there’s a new president, new provost and a new dean, and they basically issue a directive, they can tell us ‘Like it or not, you will develop a UF Online major by such-and-such date.’ I think people understand that, for now, we were given a choice, and I didn’t feel there was intense pressure on us. Who knows -- that might change.”


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