1. Opinion

Column: UF Online adds speed, depth to learning

A student struggling with homework at 2 a.m. should be able to get help at 2:01 a.m. Most faculty aren't available to help at that hour, but the University of Florida is devising ways to deliver help anytime, anywhere, electronically.

A student who gets a problem wrong will get follow-up problems that are twists on the task until he or she gets it right — or until we dispatch a tutor.

Our professors cannot time-travel, but we want our students to do so. It would take no more than typing a key word to transport the student to the moment in a lecture months before when the professor covered the basics of the leveraged buyout.

We want a student to be able to use her cellphone to search the Web and her textbook, to talk to her classmates in real time while traveling on a bus and to have the ability for input from faculty and tutors at the same time. We can imagine education as play, such as a FarmVille-style game on urban planning.

Our vision is a made-to-order education for tens of thousands of students at a time.

Monday's launch of UF Online will allow us to pursue an audacious vision of graduating more students more quickly and at less cost to Floridians. Most important, and why I've returned to the University of Florida this month to lead the effort, UF Online will improve the speed and depth of student learning.

The Legislature wisely included a research component in the law that designated UF as the state leader in online higher education. The Online Learning Institute will serve as UF Online's R&D arm.

Just as UF Online will use technology to give thousands more Floridians than can fit on campus an opportunity to earn UF degrees, the Online Learning Institute will use technology to teach us about teaching. Our researchers will analyze students' keystrokes, clicks and other online behavior to determine what helps students learn the most.

As a large research university, we have wide-ranging in-house expertise. Our teaching experts train educators to make the best use of technology. UF engineers have created virtual patients to help teach pediatricians-in-training. The Digital Worlds Institute in our College of Fine Arts explores how to incorporate music, three-dimensional images and gaming technology into teaching.

What we discover can in many cases be put to use in on-campus classes. And true to our land-grant mission, we'll share what we know with Florida's other public universities.

The potential for breakthrough achievement comes in the promise online technologies offer for personalizing teaching. Online instruction can be customized to go faster or slower, become more visual or text-based, concentrate on what the student needs instead of reinforcing what he or she has already mastered. When it's been too long since a student last logged on, he or she will get an email asking why.

The power of customized teaching and use of multimedia is greater engagement of the learner. And research shows that results in faster, more effective and longer-lasting learning.

This is a completely different model than the much talked about massive open online courses. MOOCs are free and without admissions requirements and typically don't feature the student support that is central to UF Online.

UF, too, has dabbled in MOOCs and racked up the 40,000-plus enrollments of students across the globe. But MOOCs aren't a degree program, they're individual not-for-credit courses whose students often already have a degree. What's more, a very small percentage of students complete — or even start — the courses.

By contrast, UF Online students must be admitted to the University of Florida. They'll travel along 120-credit paths to a degree that the public recognizes as mastery of a subject and preparation for employment. Yes, we charge for it, though in-state tuition is only 75 percent of the rate for on-campus students.

No one has yet solved some of online education's most serious challenges. We're still devising the best way to provide labs for our online biology students who begin next summer. We haven't solved the conundrum of how we can have students who are scattered across the state — and indeed the world — work effectively on group projects. And we need to scale our best teaching techniques.

UF Online is exciting from a pedagogical point of view because it renews and redoubles our focus on what makes great teaching. Its theoretically infinite reach and dazzling array of presentation possibilities make UF Online an enterprise unconstrained by the limits of traditional education. And really, that's what education is all about — focusing not on limits but on potential.

Elizabeth D. Phillips is the executive director of UF Online. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.