Students at the University of Central Florida are busy, and it’s not always with classes. They have sports to play, student organizations to run, even parties to go to. So to keep class schedules as flexible as possible, and to offer more sections without putting up new buildings, UCF leaders have turned to offering more online courses for students on campus.
It has always seemed strange to me that students living on campus would choose to take courses online. After all, the original promise of teaching on the internet was to reach remote students who couldn’t easily get to a campus. But like many institutions, Central Florida has figured out that students often prefer at least some online options, and that it doesn’t mean they stay holed up in their rooms.
On this week’s EdSurge On Air podcast, we talked to Dale Whittaker, who is the provost and executive vice president at the University of Central Florida. He’s currently leading another evolution in online teaching, as the institution moves into adaptive learning. And they hope that the future of campus learning is for students teaming up to teach each other as they work through online exercises in campus coffee shops.
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. We encourage you to listen to a complete version below, or on your favorite podcast app.
EdSurge: I wanted to talk about online learning. I understand that for University of Central Florida, many of your online students are actually residential students taking a course or two online and the rest in traditional classrooms. Can you talk about that?
Whittaker: Yeah. Absolutely. Our online students are more digital than they are distance. What that really means is that we have students who are taking all online courses, or all face-to-face courses, and most of them are taking some mix of the two at any time in the semester. But these students are also using our rec center. They’re participating in student government. They’re part of a Greek organization. They’re coming to football games or talking to their professors. The majority of our students live either on campus or live around the campus.
So it sounds like one of the things your university figured out a while ago is that one way to offer more classes and sections without building new buildings is to use online.
Yeah, for us that’s exactly what it helps us solve. In fact, when we started this, we started it because students couldn’t get the classes they needed to graduate on time. I know other institutions are having the same problem. Now, what we find ourselves able to do is serve so many more students—in fact, 20,000 more students in any given semester than we have the physical facilities to support.
How many students go to UCF?
We have 64,000 students. The other thing is our students go year-round. We’re an urban institution, so these are students that live and work around the campus. We had 39,000 students last summer, and we wouldn’t have had 39,000 students last summer if they didn’t have online options.
What’s in it for the students? I see there’s cost savings to you because you don’t have to put up a new building. What do they get out of it, since you charge them the same tuition?
This 20-year strategy that we have and all the growth in our online courses has been based on student demand. They can register for classes that are either face-to-face or online and, when they register for online, our faculty members who teach the same face-to-face class teach it online.
From the students’ perspective, what they tell us is they want that flexibility. They want the flexibility, especially time, to be able to take it when they can fit it into their lives. They may drive out to the campus if they work downtown three days a week and take face-to-face classes and then fill up their schedule with online courses so they can work downtown on Tuesdays and Thursdays, let’s say. About half of our students work 20 or more hours a week.
Do you ever have this feeling that students are missing out, since they’ve made all this effort to be there on or near campus, but they’re not always in person with students and professors for class?
Let me answer that in terms of learning and then in terms of the social aspect. In terms of learning, they’re not [missing out]. What we know is that they’re actually doing better in the online courses than they are in the face-to-face. This comes back to 20 years of faculty development where basically we know that, if a professor teaches an online course, they have to go through 80 hours of training to learn to teach online. And, frankly, we don’t require that training of the face-to-face. We have a very high quality standard for the online courses, so that if you ask the question, ‘Do they learn as well?’ I’m absolutely confident in that.
Let me talk about the social aspect. One of the best stories is our student body presidents always takes only online courses. What it does, is it allows them to be much more engaged. They sit on the board of trustees. They run their governments. They are often called out to present to student groups.
We see the same thing with students that are, for example, working with Siemens in our research park. They can take a half day of work, from eight am to noon, and they can stay engaged on campus and then, in their own time, get their coursework worked out during that semester.
The other thing this all calls to mind is that I think a lot of the talk about digital innovation really focuses on class, like courses, but you’re mentioning all these extracurriculars. Is that part of it is to make it a mix? I think that’s an interesting anecdote about the student government president.
Really, to be frank, we were driven to do this because we didn’t have the money to build the buildings, because the students wanted to graduate on time and our core mission is to raise the educational attainment of our community. We weren’t going to throttle back on the students that we admitted. We were going to continue to grow even though we didn’t necessarily have the resources to build the buildings. In a sense, I think we got here by accident, but where we have come might be pretty enlightening.
In an online setting, there’s nothing stopping other institutions with online programs, like Arizona State University, from trying to compete with you, and maybe even with lower prices. How much do you worry about other programs taking this idea of lower cost to offer online education even if it’s good and taking away your students?
I don’t worry about it at all because our whole focus is making sure that people in the community can become more educated because it will shift the economic opportunities of our entire community. The bottom line is if Arizona State or community partners like Rollins or other institutions can help with that, we’re all for it, but we’re going to be just as competitive in Phoenix as they are in Orlando. For me, that’s what drives innovation.
One thing University of Central Florida has become known for is large lecture classes. As I recall, some in-person courses are so big you have overflow rooms where students watch the lectures on TV. How does what you’re learning in online play into those large classes?
First of all, those large lecture-capture classes, at the start of the semester, we schedule those into large lecture halls and maybe 20 percent of the students show up, the other 80 percent watch online, and then it goes down to about 10 percent [showing up].
You’re okay with that?
We’ve been okay with that up until now. We’ve just prototyped over this past semester 10 adaptive-learning classes that we think have a really good shot, depending on the subject matter, at replacing lecture capture. What we’re trying to do is increase the quality while maintaining the scale.
Can you say a little bit more about how the adaptive works?
Adaptive learning basically is an individualized track through a body of knowledge. From a student’s perspective, if they’re starting the course with the class with a lot of background, they may see no remediation. They may move very quickly through the course. They may master the course in a matter of five, six, seven weeks and move on.
It looks to them like an online course?
Exactly. And it’s assessed in real time, so as the student, you know what you know when you know it. Other students, myself, let’s say, might be struggling with a concept. In an adaptive-learning platform, the system would take you back to the fundamentals and make sure that you’ve worked through that and you understand that, and then bring you back to the new concept and try to help you move forward. But it is outside the classroom much like watching a lecture capture. It’s just of higher quality we believe at least for certain areas.
You’re saying you’re trying to move away from those giant rooms with overflow?
Yeah, we really don’t do much of that anymore. That was in the early years, and that was because many of the students showed up for lecture in person. They don’t anymore. They realized five of them could be sitting, like you and I are at this coffee table, and be watching the lecture capture, discussing, and working on their homeworks.
Again, our students are more digital than distance. These students are not in their pajamas in their dorm room playing video games and learning online. They’re in our coffee shops. They’re in our libraries, in our learning spaces and they’re working together in many cases. In fact, the next evolution is facilitating that group work in an intelligent way, assuming people learn well by being in physical and human contact with each other.
If adaptive learning is ’learning my way,’ then what we’re building is ’learning my way, together.’ What we know is active and collaborative learning works. Active learning means practice. It means doing it. Collaborative learning means doing it with someone else that’s learning the same thing at the same time that you are.
There is deep learning that happens when people, two naïve learners, learn together. There’s teaching that happens. What we’ve built, what we are building is a platform that basically says, “Hey, you’re a little bit ahead of me. You might know this subject and you’ve been given some rankings by some other students. Now I know that you can teach it.” If you’re advertising that fact, they might come to you and say, “Hey, can you help me on this?” and, "If you help me, I may rank you up," and so we’re creating something called the Learning Marketplace that allows you to move up as your expertise and teaching increases, all the way up to a professor level.
How soon is this going to be available to students?
We’re planning to prototype it in the fall. We will let you know in a year how it worked.