TAMPA — Sissy Kelly sits at the kitchen table, dogs ready to go out, teenagers milling and television chirping through the tight apartment air. She worked all day, picked up the kids from tutoring and had dinner. Finally, there is time for school.
She slides her black Samsung laptop out of a University of South Florida Bulls case, takes her syllabuses out of a yellow folder. She likes to print things. She's 38, a little old-fashioned. She doesn't tweet, owns a plain flip phone, hasn't bowed fully to the digital world, not yet.
Her son wrangles one of the dogs, Chance, onto a leash.
"Take a jacket," Kelly says. "It's cold outside."
It has been 15 years since a phone call changed the course of Kelly's education, fewer since she looked at the bulletin board during 60-hour weeks, ready to get ahead but seeing all the requirements: degree, degree, degree.
She has no time to sit on a quad and cogitate. But there is a revolutionary place open 24 hours a day where she can get a degree on her terms.
She stares back at the laptop, screen lighting her face.
• • •
"Ladies and gentlemen. This is the fastest growing part of our education system."
Future House Speaker Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel stood before university leaders in January 2012 talking about online education. Look into creating an online university, he urged, something to organize what was happening.
The state's college students were using technology like wildfire, half of them taking at least one class online.
The college education — for hundreds of years a stodgy world of elbow-patch blazers, dusty books and heady rumination — is changing at digital speed. Florida colleges offer some 30,000 courses and 700 degrees online. Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, have millions of average people learning Hippocrates from Stanford or guitar from Berklee College of Music.
It can be at odds with traditional values. Some teachers and parents worry the intangible, cerebral gifts of college — sitting in ivy-coated buildings, arguing with a professor, pondering, pontificating — could be lost.
But schools are not slowing.
In 2012, the Florida Legislature paid for the State University System to hire consultants. The Parthenon Group in January presented strategies to the Board of Governors, from letting each school do its own thing, to collaborating, to creating a single new online university.
The board opted for something in the middle. In February, leaders approved a plan, now wrapped in a sweeping education bill moving through the Legislature. The measure will let the board designate a lead institution, likely the University of Florida, to drive development of new online degree programs, set best practices and generally light the way.
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The legislation seeks to coordinate an effort that previously had schools moving in different directions. UF offers 80 online programs, 70 of them graduate level. The University of Central Florida has 60 online programs, six of them bachelor's degrees, 25 master's and 29 graduate certificates.
USF offers 26 online degrees and 46 graduate certificates in everything from sciences to music education to public health. It was ranked among the nation's best for having affordable online programs this year.
In the 2011-12 academic year, 6,525 full-time USF students never set foot in class, except maybe for orientation or a final exam.
All 28 state colleges, including St. Petersburg College and Hillsborough Community College, offer online classes. All the state universities do, except for fledgling Florida Polytechnic and New College of Florida, a small residential school in Sarasota where human connection reigns.
More than 170,000 university students in Florida take a blended approach, some online, some on campus. That's the sweet spot, experts say, the perfect mix of convenience and college life.
• • •
Sissy Kelly had completed exactly one college class when the phone rang.
She had left the military after an injury, she said, and had a daughter at 20. Still, she was filled with youthful ambition, focused on graduating from HCC and becoming a paralegal.
The call came after algebra. Her father had been in a motorcycle accident in Idaho. He wasn't going to make it through the night.
Kelly got on a plane.
Her dad lived. But school had gone on without her. She needed to work and support her daughter. She had a son, got jobs at Burdines and banks and eventually in the appeals and grievances department at United Health Care. She drove the kids to school and dentists, sold Girl Scout cookies outside Walmart.
But the kids were growing. They'd be gone one day. What was she going to do for herself?
She enrolled again at HCC, close to home in Town 'N Country, and got a two-year degree. With her schedule, the prospect of continuing her education at USF was daunting. A friend at work convinced her to try getting a degree online.
She spends nights in her kitchen or bedroom mired in public health and information studies, working toward USF's general studies bachelor's degree. Saturdays, she brings her kids to the library, and they study with her.
She wants them to go to college on a campus with trees and free thinkers, to spend time in a world that doesn't hold much meaning for her anymore. But it could for them.
• • •
"Every 12-year-old will be able to log in on the Internet."
Bill Clinton was accepting his party's nomination in 1996, espousing hopes for modern, connected classrooms.
Even before the Internet, schools offered distance options. WUSF first aired in 1966 after the Federal Communications Commission mandated certain channels be used for instructional television. USF offered credit through telecourses starting in the 1970s.
In 1994, the director of the veterinary technician program at what then was St. Petersburg Junior College realized more people could get jobs if they could get to school. Students, some as far as Denver and Alaska, took innovative classes on America Online, typing "?" when they had a question for the teacher. They worked in veterinary offices and took tests proctored by their bosses.
By 1996, 20,000 students had signed up for e-mail accounts through USF. The College of Engineering offered USF's first online course in 1999. The College of Education followed.
The MOOC revolution quietly simmered in the 2000s. It was different than online college. It didn't offer degree credit. Anyone could watch online anywhere. In 2012, the concept exploded, ushering millions of people across the world into classes through hosts like Coursera, Udacity and edX.
Philip Bishop wrote his doctoral dissertation on ideas surrounding community learning.
"I had never seen anything close to a full-blown democratic education before massive open online courses," he said.
He was one of the first USF professors to wade into MOOCs. In fall 2012, Bishop taught a face-to-face class cultivating readings from Aristotle, Confucious and John Dewey.
He "flipped" his class, recording lectures for students to watch on their own time and saving class time for higher-order thought. He put the lectures on YouTube and hosted a MOOC on University of Reddit. For his students, it was a credit course. For anyone else, it was free enrichment.
"I thought I would probably have a dozen or two dozen people sign up for it," he said.
Almost 1,400 students signed up from 39 countries — Singapore, Sweden, Jordan, Poland, Pakistan. MOOCs, though, are not a Utopian fantasy.
An extremely small percent of students actually stick with the class, Bishop said. There are issues with exams, making sure the test-taker is who he says he is, the question of how and when to give completion certificates. And from a university's perspective, it doesn't make financial sense to give credit for free. Most leaders say, for now, MOOCs are not a threat. They're a supplement.
• • •
Sissy Kelly's course load is heavy, but organized.
She uses an electronic calendar on USF's Canvas system. She knows when to watch a PBS series on tuberculosis, when to post reactions. She knows when papers are due, when it's time to discuss the movie Food, Inc.
It can go quickly if you're self-directed. Thomas Madjar earned his associate's degree from USF in 2001, and recently returned to get a bachelor's degree online. After just a year, he is almost done. He goes to class on campus once a week and takes the rest of his classes online.
"Some people are embarrassed to speak their mind unless they're behind a computer," said Madjar, 32. "I think there's better idea generation through the computer. A little more bold."
Like traditional education, there is good and bad with online classes. Most are interactive, some with elaborate software and documentary-style tours of businesses. Some professors do "classroom capture," posting password-protected digital lectures online so students can review things they didn't process the first time.
This month, Lois Roma-Deeley, an award-winning professor from Paradise Valley Community College in Phoenix, visited USF to talk about teaching. She was a writer, a poet who likes paper in her hands, faces in a classroom.
"I have some concerns for the classroom of the future," she told a room of teachers. "I was having this conversation with my son, and he was saying, perhaps in the future, the premium education experience will be face-to-face. . . . It made me think about access to education. It made me think about the privilege of educational experience. . . . I would hope in the future that we continue to reach back into the past."
But she was willing to evolve. This year, she offered her first online class. In poetry.
• • •
"It's hard to explain to people, at least it is for me to explain to people, why you can't do it less expensive."
Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, was listening in January as the consultants presented suggestions to the Senate's Committee on Education, trying to grasp why it's not always cheaper to go to school online.
The concept has the potential to cost less. Right now, it usually costs more. Tuition for online courses is no less expensive, and extra fees often are assessed. St. Petersburg College, for example, adds $12.50 to $15 per credit hour for online classes. At USF, it's $50 extra per credit hour.
It's not cheap to convert a face-to-face class to online. At USF, it can range from $15,000 to $60,000. Delivering an online course at a state school can range from $3,000 to $12,000 annually, and could go up depending on the size of class and the resources it needs.
"We don't have costs associated with capital development, building more classrooms, heating or air conditioning those classrooms," said USF provost Ralph Wilcox. "But the fact of the matter is, ensuring quality as we move from a face-to-face delivery platform to an online platform, if it's done right, is an expensive proposition."
Teachers and assistants have to be paid. Lectures have to be recorded. Tech support has to be available around the clock.
"One of the things that the research university is going to have to help us do is to try and determine what the true cost is and can be of high-quality online education," said Frank Brogan, chancellor of the university system. "People are all over the map with what they think it should cost."
And what of the traditional brick buildings etched with names of community benefactors? Leaders can't envision a world where that goes away.
"Higher education, which has been around for hundreds and hundreds of years, does engage in a certain amount of edifice envy," said Brogan. "There's nothing more exciting than building a new building. At the end of the day, while we're still building and renovating new facilities, we have to do that now with a much larger eye toward online education."
• • •
Sissy Kelly got another call last October.
Her father had suffered frontal lobe damage from the accident years ago, she said, and was having trouble managing finances. Once again, she got on a plane to Idaho, to her dad's trailer park.
She was still deep into online classes at USF.
But now, near her dad's place, there was Zip's Drive-in with delicious hamburgers and chocolate shakes. It had a creaky wireless connection that felt like a mouse running on a wheel. But it worked.
Kelly went to Zip's, ordered a shake and went to class on a laptop 3,000 miles from campus.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3394.