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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Online university a "big issue" for Rep. Will Weatherford



imgres.jpegFlorida House speaker-designate Will Weatherford had kept his idea of an online public university under wraps for months. Then he let it drop this past week at the State Board of Governors meeting. He said he simply wanted to "plant that seed" and see whether it sprouts.

But Weatherford told the Gradebook soon afterward that it's going to be "a big issue for me next year when speaker." Why?

"I love online education," he said. "That's where the world is headed."

A little context. Weatherford got his share of home schooling while growing up, so he's got a soft spot for getting an education in alternative ways. He's been a big supporter of the state's corporate tax credit scholarship program (vouchers to some), he's pushed for online course requirements to graduate from high school, he lent his support to a failed proposal for a new charter school in Pasco County.

So when Weatherford says he's looking for education leaders to get out of their comfort zone and address the needs of those who don't fit the traditional mold, although he stresses he's not seeking a fix for everyone, he clearly is talking about something that makes him comfortable. We asked him how much stock he owns in computer companies or online education providers. 

He called us cynical and said he's not an investor, but rather a backer of offering more schooling options to people who need them.

"It ties into the economy," Weatherford said, touching on the Republican talking points that Florida needs a highly educated and competitive workforce to attract and retain businesses. 

And yet not everyone can live on campus and attend afternoon classes. Not everyone wants to join Greek life, spend their time attending social events, work on a schedule that suits researchers and professors.

An online university, Weatherford contended, could serve these people who have jobs or families, maybe don't live near a campus, and yet need extra education to get ahead. He estimated 75 percent of university students might fit that description, although he acknowledged that they wouldn't all necessarily seek to take their classes online.

Isn't this niche already filled by schools such as the private St. Leo University, right in Weatherford's backyard?

It is, he said, and leaders from those places are in fact advising him. Just because the private sector has its hand in the market doesn't mean the state shouldn't consider the concept, he argued.

"Part of the responsibility of the state is to provide quality higher education," Weatherford said. "Why would we not enter into that space?"

An online university might not offer research opportunities or every degree that exists. But the state already has universities for that, Weatherford said.

This would be an alternate choice with a possibly very large demand.

Think about it, he said. Florida's largest universities already are maxed out, and they turn away far more applicants than they accept. Meanwhile, Bright Futures scholarships are not usable at private schools, while they could apply to a public online university. Plus, adding on to the existing universities is unlikely, with money for construction gone for the foreseeable future, Weatherford said.

As Florida looks for ways to re-form its higher education model, he said, online education should be part of the mix.

Weatherford has challenged the Board of Governors to take on the idea. Their initial response was positive. So, too, was the public reaction that Weatherford received via e-mail.

Still, he said, the idea must in the end come from the university system and not from the Legislature. His goal was to start the conversation and, it appears, make sure it doesn't die out soon.

"We have to think outside the box," Weatherford said.

[Last modified: Saturday, January 21, 2012 12:04pm]


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