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Should Florida have an all-online university?

No classrooms, no dorms, no football stadium, no parking lots. Could an online-only university work in Florida?

Rep. Will Weatherford, Florida's House speaker-designate, thinks so.

And Thursday, he asked state university system leaders to look into the possibility.

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is the fastest growing part of our education system," Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, told the Florida Board of Governors at a meeting in Tallahassee. He pointed to a growing number of students who take online classes as evidence the prospect already has support.

Fifty percent of the state's 300,000-plus students took a course online last year, Weatherford said. And that was just the most recent count he could find. Certainly, he said, those numbers have gone up.

"They want this flexibility," he said. "I think there's a way for the state of Florida to give this to them."

Weatherford said his idea was a suggestion, and he didn't intend to take any immediate action. But he thought it could be a viable option for the state's 13th university. (Florida now has 11 public institutions, and the Board of Governors has committed to making the University of South Florida Polytechnic its 12th.)

"I would like to just plant that seed," Weatherford said.

It seems to have taken root. Board chairman Dean Colson committed to responding to Weatherford's request.

It echoes the board's recent efforts to increase the university system's distance learning offerings. And State University System Chancellor Frank Brogan said the idea would "work beautifully" with the board's plans to consolidate universities' library and Web services.

Board member Ann Duncan, who chairs the board's Academic and Student Affairs committee, asked Weatherford if he had any particular existing model in mind for them to consider.

Not really, he said. Maybe something like the all-online Western Governors University, which began in Utah, but bigger and broader, Weatherford said. Perhaps the University of Florida could head it up, or maybe some entity outside the state. Maybe it'll be up to the private sector, or maybe a public-private partnership. Maybe it will require a combination of efforts, he said.

"I almost feel like it's limitless," Weatherford said. "I don't necessarily want to define it."

He reminded the board of the popular Florida Virtual online program for K-12 students. That program is the largest state-funded program of its kind in the nation, but its results are tough to track, a recent Tampa Bay Times report found.

Kim Wilmath can be reached at kwilmath@tampabay.com or 813-226-3337.

Should Florida have an all-online university? 01/19/12 [Last modified: Thursday, January 19, 2012 10:41pm]
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