Florida’s growing number of online college courses can pay off, but do your homework before you enroll.

By Kim Hackett

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Venice resident Lacey Faulkner and her University of Florida M.B.A. classmates shared pitchers of beer at The Swamp Restaurant in Gainesville after finals, as legions of Gators have done before them. But Faulkner won’t see her classmates again until the next round of finals because she is pursuing her degree entirely online.

Faulkner’s M.B.A. will be indistinguishable from the on-campus degree. She downloads lectures through iTunes and meets her study group using Google Meetup. When Faulkner has a question, she posts it on a discussion board or shoots her professor an email.

“It’s working out much better than I ever thought it would,” says Faulkner, 26, who works full-time as a pharmacy technician in Venice.

No longer the domain of for-profit schools, online undergraduate and graduate programs are now flourishing at such elite universities as Harvard and Columbia. Nearly all public Florida colleges and universities now offer some online courses, degrees or certificate programs. Legislators believe that by making higher education easier to access, Floridians will increase their earning potential, attract high-wage industries and boost the economy.

SARASOTA-MANATEE ONLINE OFFERINGS

In Southwest Florida, dozens of online associate, bachelors and advanced degrees are offered by brick-and-mortar institutions, such as State College of Florida, Webster University, Argosy University, Keiser University and the University of Phoenix, which have long catered to nontraditional and working students. Most offer a blended model, allowing students to mix online and on-campus classes so they feel connected to a community.

“Once they get here, they experiment,” says Gary Russell, SCF vice president of academic affairs. “They start on campus and then take an online class for convenience.”

SCF has about 27,000 students at its Venice, Lakewood Ranch and Bradenton campuses. About a quarter of all credit hours are now taken online. More students take all online classes than take strictly campus classes, Russell says.

Keiser University, a private, not-for-profit accredited school with 14 Florida campuses, has seen similar jumps. It now offers 27 online undergraduate degrees and 13 online master’s and doctorate degrees. Nearly half of its 800 Sarasota and Manatee students are taking all online classes or a combination of campus and online.

“Online students can go to campus and use the library; we interact both ways,” says Sherry Olsen, vice president of the online division.

LOOK FOR ACCREDITATION

Choosing an online program can be confusing now that so many colleges and universities offer degrees. Google “online college classes” and you’ll get 500 million results, so it’s important for students to do their research.

Accreditation is the first thing to look for. Florida postsecondary schools are accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. Accredited schools recognize each other’s degrees, so that if you earn a University of Illinois undergraduate degree in economics, Florida State University will recognize it for a master’s program.

“It’s like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval,” says Rosann Collins, a University of South Florida associate professor in the College of Business and a faculty adviser for USF’s M.B.A. program. Collins often fields calls from prospective students who have an unaccredited online bachelor degree. “It breaks my heart to have to tell them we can’t accept that,” she says.

To encourage students to earn their degrees in Florida, the state spent $22 million creating the Florida Virtual Campus (flvc.org), a clearinghouse of course catalogs and degree programs offered at state colleges and universities and some private institutions. The site includes admission requirements, financial aid help and advising. The state also created an online research center at UF to develop fully online degrees, best practices and technology that may eventually find their way to the rest of the state schools.

“Our goal is to be the on-ramp for higher education,” says Don Muccino, CEO of Florida Virtual Campus. “We want our students to come to us in the 11th grade to see if they’re ready to go to college and check back in with us throughout their lives.”

About 40 percent of Florida post-secondary students have taken an online class, according to a state task force.

Since 2011, all public high school students are required to take an online class to graduate, so they enter college more comfortable in an online classroom.

“It’s going to challenge the traditional model,” Muccino says.

TRADITIONAL EDUCATION

Not all institutions are jumping on the bandwagon. Educators at New College of Florida, the state’s honors college, and the Ringling College of Art and Design say that the one-to-one professor-student relationship integral to learning cannot be easily duplicated online. New College does not offer online classes, but is exploring how to integrate them. Ringling is considering allowing its students to take more book-oriented classes, such as history, online, says Christine Lange, Ringling’s special assistant to the president.

“As an art and design school, so much of what we do is studio-based,” Lange says. “A teacher spends time walking around looking over students’ shoulders” offering suggestions on mixing paint, for example. It’s a little daunting to do online.”

That does not mean that they eschew technology. In an innovative design class, Ringling students use web cams and virtual classroom technology to collaborate with design teams in South Korea. Blended teams annually compete in a design competition.

MOOCS

Though it is convenient and growing rapidly, online education has yet to prove that it can lift disadvantaged communities by providing a low-cost alternative to traditional college.

Just a few years ago, politicians and educators preached that MOOCs (massive open online courses) would break down barriers to higher education by making Ivy League lectures available to the masses. Services such as Udacity and edX sprung up online to broadcast lectures on everything from Chinese art to the art of novel writing. Some MOOCS offered certifications but most were not for credit. Recent follow-up studies found that only about 4 percent who registered for a MOOC completed it.

“They serve a unique purpose,” says Beth Garland, USF’s chief business officer for Innovative Education. “MOOCs allow a person to learn about a subject area just because they are interested. Because there’s often no cost, there’s no down side to dropping out.”

COST, CONVENIENCE AND COMPLETION

With online classes at state schools generally costing about the same as campus tuition, educators say degree-seeking students are more invested than they would be in a MOOC. Garland says the average online class completion rate at USF is 80 percent, slightly higher than USF’s brick-and-mortar completion rate. At SCF, though, which has generous admission requirements, “we generally find the completion rate is not quite at parity,” says Gary Baker, SCF director of online learning. “We review it every semester and we’ve done well to get them closer.”

The best online degree programs go beyond taping traditional classes and sticking them up online; some schools, such as USF have “course-conversion” specialists to help professors adapt their materials to the online world.

“It’s not a case of going online and hearing me droning on for three hours,” says Collins, whose classes average 20 minutes. Students have online assignments, read independently and have to participate in an online discussion group as part of their grade.

Accredited online programs require teachers to take a course on how to teach online. At USF, it is a month-long class taken entirely online. “It is good practice for instructors to experience an online class,” says Garland. “It teaches best practices and they get certified to teach in an online environment.”

Florida schools vary in how they charge and how they test. SCF charges the same for its online and campus classes; UF charges an online class fee in addition to tuition. Faulkner’s M.B.A. program cost her $52,000 for a 27-month program—including all books, a computer, iPad and software—slightly more than if she attended clas-ses on campus. While the timing is flexible, Faulkner says it is still a demanding program, requiring about 25 hours a week.

“The people who are drawn to this have lives, they have kids,” she says. “They don’t have time or money to quit their job. Everyone knows they are in the same boat and it makes you a little bit more comfortable.”

TELLING THE GOOD FROM THE BAD

Evaluating online programs is getting easier. U.S. News and World Report ranks online degree programs in addition to its annual top colleges and universities. Florida is among the most-represented states on the lists.  UF’s online graduate business program ranked third in the nation; USF ranked 25th for its overall online program in another ranking, and the private Saint Leo rated 18th in the same study. Before you enroll, ask these questions:

  • Is the school accredited?
  • What is the completion rate for online classes?
  • Does the coursework fit your career goals?
  • How much does it cost?
  • How big are the classes?
  • How flexible is the schedule for taking and completing the coursework and/or degree?

About 40 percent of Florida post-secondary students have taken an online class.

FLORIDA’S VIRTUAL CAMPUS

All state schools are part of Florida Virtual Campus (flvc.org), and all the programs listed there are accredited. Financial aid and Bright Futures apply equally to online and on-campus degree programs. You can select how you want the online course delivered: online, two-way television, audio, video or print only. Some programs, such as UF’s M.B.A. program, require you to take tests on campus; others allow you to take online tests or exams at a proctored site. You can also search the offerings of a particular institution. A questionnaire helps you assess whether an online program is a good fit and whether you have the prerequisites and test scores to gain admission. There are hundreds of certificate programs if you just want to improve your knowledge and skills. Each state institution uses the same class numbering system, so an introductory English 101 class counts the same at State College of Florida as it does at Florida State University, and the credits generally transfer.

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