One of the benefits of an expansion of online classes in Florida universities is that it gives students more flexibility in balancing their academic loads with extracurricular activities like jobs, student government or clubs.
It has helped a University of Central Florida senior devote the majority of her time this spring to her extracurricular activity: serving as a member of the Florida House of Representatives.
As a new House member serving on six committees, Rep. Amber Mariano, R-Hudson, is enrolled in two online classes from UCF. The political science major is taking an online research class where she is developing her senior thesis and another online class called: “Democracy, Capitalism and the Individual.”
Mariano is not alone. A new report that will be reviewed next week by the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the 12 state universities, shows that six out of every 10 university students took at least one online class in the 2015-16 academic year.
Overall, 24 percent of the credit hours earned by undergraduates last year were in online classes. That ranged from 31 percent of the undergraduate credit hours at the University of Florida and the University of Central Florida to none at New College of Florida, the state’s smallest school, and Florida Polytechnic University, the newest university.
Florida A&M University, which is asking lawmakers for $5 million in the next state budget to boost its online program, reported 2 percent of its undergraduate credit hours were online.
At the graduate level, 25 percent of the credit hours were online, led by 75 percent at the University of West Florida to 2 percent at FAMU.
The Board of Governors’ goal is to have 40 percent of credit hours in the state university system earned in online classes by 2025. Those numbers reflect a variety of options for students, including solely taking online classes, taking some online as well as regular classes, taking hybrid classes, which combine online and in-classroom teaching, and taking only standard classes.
But Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican who is advancing a major higher-education package in the Legislature this year, has raised questions about the shift to online learning.
“I think that online education is appropriate as a supplement to education. But for students who are on campus, I think you lose something by not having the interchange that occurs between a professor and a student,” Negron said.
Negron said online classes are “appropriate for students who are distance-bound,” but he sees it as a “diminution” of their education if they spend too much learning time online.
“It’s all about balance,” he said. “But I think by having 40 percent of on-campus students learning by staring at a computer, that’s not what is happening at the great universities in this country.”
Mariano, who unseated former Rep. Amanda Murphy, D-New Port Richey, in the November election in a Pasco County House district, said “there is definitely a value to having in-person class discussion,” but the online options provide flexibility.
“As long you don’t force them into it, I think that students should have the option,” she said.
Florida is a national leader in using online university classes, with 158,000 students enrolled in online classes in the fall of 2015, trailing only Texas, with 197,000 students, according to the new report.
Undergraduates who took between 41 percent and 60 percent of their classes online were more likely to earn their baccalaureate degrees faster than students who took no online classes, the report showed. The online students graduated in an average of 3.95 years compared to 4.47 years for non-online students.
Students who solely took online classes tended to be older, with 30 years as the average, compared to the 23-year-old average for students taking a combination of online and standard classes or no online classes at all.
“Older students are more likely to be place-bound, working fulltime and/or supporting families, making distance learning an ideal way for them to complete their degrees,” the report said.
One downside for the solely online students is a lower retention rate, reported as 72 percent for the students who started in the fall of 2014 and continued in 2015. The retention rate for the students taking some online classes or none was well above 80 percent, according to the report.