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Colleges, universities look to online programs to navigate an uncertain future

Online MBA

By Michael Vasquez

Measured strictly by size, the University of Florida’s recent Fundamentals of Human Nutrition class was a resounding success. The class, offered this past spring, was UF’s first foray into the online trend of Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. The class was open to anyone interested, from around the world, and more than 69,000 students signed up.

For comparison purposes, UF as a university has a total enrollment of about 50,000 a year.

In other ways, though, UF’s MOOC — and the track record of MOOCs in general — is less impressive. With the courses generally offered free of charge (hence the “open” part of their title) some inevitably sign up simply out of curiosity, or because it allows them to listen to the lectures of big-name professors at far-away schools such as Harvard or MIT.

Students often have no real intention of doing the work. Completion rates are generally abysmal, with more than 90 percent of students dropping out.

At UF, tens of thousands of students registered but didn’t even watch one class presentation.

Also, if stadium-sized online classes are indeed a glimpse into the future of higher education (and many have suggested they are), how are universities supposed to stay financially afloat when they’re giving away their product for free? Another issue: MOOCs usually don’t include any college credit, so how useful can they be for students who want a credential that is recognized and valued by employers?

The ongoing debate over MOOCs is a microcosm of America’s higher education industry, which is now at an Internet-created crossroads. Across Florida and the country, online learning allows schools to expand their reach, but it is also threatening the traditional business model of how to deliver knowledge and also how much to charge for it.

Across all sectors of the industry — public, private, and for-profit — there is the sense that online learning offers the greatest opportunity for future growth. For-profit universities such as the University of Phoenix and Strayer University were the first to truly embrace online, and their revenues soared as a result. Between 1998 and 2008, enrollment in U.S. for-profit colleges jumped by 236 percent, according to the independent advocacy group Education Trust.

Aside from their early mastery of the online platform, the for-profits excelled at marketing to adult, nontraditional students, as well as tailoring the educational experience to their unique needs. The University of Phoenix, for example, compressed its classes into five or six-week mini-semesters, with the idea that it’s easier for busy adults to absorb one fast-paced class than to juggle four classes in a full-length college semester.

More recently, though, for-profits have been criticized for using overly-agggressive, car-salesman-like selling tactics to recruit students. The schools often charge higher tuition than public colleges, and the student loan default rates at for-profit schools are dramatically higher than at other types of colleges.

The combination of bad publicity and stricter government oversight has slowed for-profits’ recent growth. In 2011, Fort Lauderdale-based Keiser University took the unusual step of switching its status from for-profit to non-profit, but the school still had to contend with a Florida Attorney General’s office investigation that began before the switch. Keiser last year agreed to a settlement with Attorney General Pam Bondi in which the school would offer free retraining to thousands of former students, while also changing its policies to add new consumer protections.

At the same time that for-profits have struggled, traditional public and private colleges have aggressively expanded their menu of fully online degree programs.

And when it comes to the MOOC experiment, UF isn’t the only Florida school taking part: Florida International University has offered community-oriented MOOCs in entrepreneurship or real estate, while the University of Miami is targeting teens with its MOOCs in Advanced Placement subjects like calculus.

UM has been hesitant to join the mad dash toward offering fully online degrees. For years, FIU has run online master’s degree programs, and UF has a staggering array of graduate-level online degrees — 70 in all.

This fall, UM will unveil its first online degree: a bachelor’s in general studies that targets adult learners who have some college experience and want to get enough credits to finally graduate.

“Overall, UM sees itself as coming cautiously to this party, and wanting to look very carefully at what the implications are for making the shift to online learning,” said Rebecca Fox, UM’s dean of continuing and international education.

For UM, which prides itself on small classes and high interaction between students and faculty, the task of teaching online presents a challenge to its whole institutional identity.

Ray Schroeder, director of the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service at the University of Illinois Springfield, says universities are now facing the same decisions that confronted the music and newspaper industries years ago when the Internet turned their whole operating structure upside down.

“Colleges and universities should be excited — this is an important change and movement in higher education,” Schroeder said, although he warned that online learning means colleges will face increased, and tougher, competition. Schroeder noted that well-known Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen predicts that about half of U.S. colleges and universities will go bankrupt during the next 15 years.

“There certainly will be a shakeout,” Schroeder said.

Davie’s Nova Southeastern University was an early pioneer in the realm of online learning — the school began offering an online master’s degree program back in 1986. Limited by the technology of the times, that master’s degree in computer-based learning was entirely text-based, with instructors typing out a lesson and students responding with typed questions.

Flash forward to 2010, and Nova had advanced tools such as “interactive teleconferencing,” which it used to train doctors in Iraq on emergency pediatric procedures. In a room located thousands of miles away, the Iraqi students practiced their techniques on plastic dummies, while Nova instructors at the Davie campus virtually looked over their shoulder online.

Where will things go from here? Perhaps the future will be something like the fully online (and bargain-priced) bachelor’s degree programs that UF will launch next year. State lawmakers in April approved a new initiative where UF will offer online bachelor’s degrees priced at no more than 75 percent of the university’s face-to-face tuition. With Floridians increasingly struggling to pay for college tuition, state leaders have pitched online classes as a way to rein in the cost of getting a degree. (Miami Herald)

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