12/20/2012 11:33 am ET

Florida Considers Online-Only Public University

Some Florida lawmakers want to see a new public university opened in the cloud, but education leaders in the state remain skeptical after seeing the results of an independent study of the idea.

Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford (R-Wesley Chapel) asked the state's Board of Governors to look into creating an online-only school as a way to increase access to distance learning, the Miami Herald reports. The Parthenon Group, a consulting firm, then looked at four options for expanding online education in Florida, including adding to existing infrastructure and creating an entirely new institution.

The study concluded that creating a whole new online-only institution would cost a minimum of $50 million to start, according to the Tallahassee Democrat. The two most favorable options on the table, according to the report: a collaboration between several universities, or the designation of one lead institution to act as the primary school for online education. Another option, offering Massive Open Online Courses, would be the cheapest, costing the state about $100,000 per class.

The study's results have college officials much less enthused than state lawmakers about the idea of online-only learning. The Tallahassee Democrat reports University of Florida Provost Joe Glover warned at a recent panel that efforts to expand online education would work against another goal of Gov. Rick Scott (R) and Florida lawmakers:

Glover, the provost at UF, told the BOG panel that not all subjects work well online. He pointed in particular to the STEM (science, technology, math and engineering) fields, which require labs and often demand immediate feedback from an instructor. Gov. Rick Scott and lawmakers have pushed repeatedly in recent years for more STEM graduates, saying there is a demand for them in the workplace.

Scott recently voiced support for the idea of charging different tuition rates to Florida students based on their majors, with cheaper tuition for "business-friendly" courses of study. The idea instantly met with opposition, in part due to growing ire among higher education advocates about budget cuts to state universities despite restrictions on tuition rates.

Florida provosts also expressed concern about competition among existing online education programs at the state's public and private universities, considering schools in the state already offer 700 different online programs at 39 colleges and universities.

Online college courses are more common in the Sunshine state than anywhere else in the country. According to the Parthenon Group's report, 40 percent of Florida students report taking at least one class online, compared with a national average of 31 percent.

According to the Miami Herald, Florida educators appear to feel a sense of anxiety about how much time they have to craft a proposal for politicians:

State University System Chancellor Frank Brogan said the board should take its time. But board member Manoj Chopra, a faculty representative, said lawmakers could step in and force their hand. “I’m a little worried if the choice will be made for us by then,” Chopra said, possibly referring to how Florida Polytechnic, the state’s 12th university, was fast-tracked into existence this year by the Legislature.



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