Serious Thinking About Online Learning In Florida

Last week, we heard Phil Hill’s take on a statewide meeting in California to address how technology-mediated learning could help the state meet its higher education goals.  David Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) was a key presenter at a similar meeting recently held in Florida.  Below is David’s take on that meeting.  One thing is for sure, we are increasingly seeing this discussion about how question of how e-learning can be part of a strategy for the state or province to better serve its students.

At the behest of the Florida Legislature, the State University System of Florida Board of Governors engaged the Parthenon Group to conduct a study of what options might be available to the State with regard to future development and expansion of high quality online learning and to ascertain what current leaders and stakeholders in the State felt about these various options.  The Parthenon report was presented to the Board of Governors Strategic Planning Committee at a meeting on December 17, 2012.

Photo of David Longanecker

David Longanecker

Accompanying the report were presentations by Bruce Chaloux, Director of the Sloan Consortium, who shared with the Committee how the various options presented in the Parthenon report compare to other innovative approaches being pursued throughout the country and by me.  I shared with the Committee the policy implications associated with the various options that had been presented.

The legislative request originated from increasing legislative interest in finding more cost effective ways of providing postsecondary education and clear fascination with some initiatives in other states, particularly with the efforts to create a $10,000 degree, the current hype about MOOCs, and the heightened visibility provided within Florida to for-profit online institutions in the Presidential campaign of last year.  This despite the fact that Florida is already a national leader in the provision of online education, in both its private and public sectors of higher education.  Parthenon reported that 40 percent of the students in Florida colleges and state universities, excluding the research university sector, already take at least one course online, compared to 31 percent nationally.  And institutions like University of Central Florida are recognized as national leaders in the delivery of online and hybrid technology-mediated instruction.

The discussion at the steering committee focused on a 4 by 4 matrix of goals and strategies to achieve those goals.  The goals included:

(1)  expanding access,

(2)  increasing efficiency so student costs could be restrained,

(3)  strengthening the link between postsecondary education and the labor market, and

(4)  enhancing the student experience.

The four strategies mapped out by the Parthenon Group were:

(1)  allowing all institutions to follow market forces in developing online offerings, which would be for all practical purposes the strategy that Florida has pursued up to this point,

(2)  fostering collaboration between institutions,

(3)  establish one or more lead institutions to be responsible for the delivery of online programming throughout the state, or

(4)  create a new online institution to be the best in the world at doing this new type of business.

Although press accounts indicate that the original sponsor of the legislation envisioned the state following the fourth option by creating “the ultimate” new public university for the delivery of online learning, there was very little support for this idea from either the Parthenon report, the consultants, or the leaders and stakeholders who were consulted.  While the Parthenon report picked no favorites among the four strategies, its analysis demonstrated quite clearly that this option would not well serve the four goals that had been established.

While the committee did not settle on “a plan” at the meeting, the general tenor of the meeting suggested that what may best serve Florida would be an amalgam of strategies 2 and 4 — fostering collaboration, but with some institutions as recognized leaders.  This approach was perceived as finding a balance between allowing institutions with an inclination to be more aggressive in this domain to be so, while allowing late adopters not to be entirely shut out of what is likely to be a ubiquitous element in the future of American higher education.

As readers may or may not be aware, Florida is what might be called frugal in its level of support for higher education, ranking 32nd in support per FTE student.  It is also recognized, however, as perhaps the most cost effective state, ranking first in the cost per degree granted.  Thus, any strategy for providing greater availability of online learning has to keep in mind that dollars are tight in Florida and that the State’s current investment in online learning is working quite well, at least as compared to most other states.

David Longanecker
President
WICHE

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