11/30/1997 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


So that no one, especially academic mossbacks at other institutions, misunderstands exactly what is happening at the state’s 10th and newest university, the 1996-97 course catalog of Florida Gulf Coast University puts its attitude on prominent display.

At FGCU, the catalog boasts: “Tradition is challenged; the status quo is questioned; change is implemented.”

And for better or for worse, this spirit of iconoclasm manifests itself on this verdant, unfinished 760-acre campus on what used to be pine uplands and cypress swamps on the edge of the Everglades, just east of Interstate 75 between Alico and Corkscrew roads. This is the home of Virtual U, a brash new university where tenure is a quaint memory, where administrators base their course offerings on what their “customers” prefer, and where the campus is so steeped in technology, the Internet and distance learning that roughly a fourth of its students seldom see a classroom.

Virtual U is one of the nation’s boldest experiments in distance learning, and state university system Chancellor Charles Reed knows that the academic world is watching.

“We saw a chance to try to do things in a more effective and efficient way,” Reed says. “One of the things that is happening at Gulf Coast is that that institution is moving from a teaching-centered to a learning-centered environment, and that’s really strange because on the traditional campus, it’s teacher-professor-centered rather than student-learning-centered.

“That’s hard for the traditional university people to understand. It’s hard to believe that Gulf Coast is offering courses on demand, doing it at night and on weekends. The thinking is that after a year or two, Gulf Coast will give up and quit doing what they’re doing.”

That does not seem likely.

FGCU has not proved whether distance learning is a viable long-term tool in higher education, but it clearly has shown that at least some students can be reached no other way. As the makeup of the potential student body continues to change, as university students become older, tied to jobs and families, FGCU is finding that its customers are tired of the conventional ways of learning.

“I do my work from my home Internet/e-mail site and can do the work at midnight if I so desire,” student Lee Baldwin writes, via Internet. “So you see that the ability to do the stuff on your own time and not have to leave my world is a definite plus. Distance learning is great for people like me.”

Baldwin is precisely the kind of student traditional universities have ignored. She is 52, married, and has five adult children and three grandchildren. Two of her children live with her, she works from 8 to 5, comes home and cooks dinner and helps clean house. She has an associate of arts degree, but wants a bachelor’s to help put her in line for job promotions and salary increases. She is a full-time employee with the Florida Parole Commission and lives in Tallahassee _ about 325 miles from Fort Myers.

Essentially, the practical, market-driven needs of students such as Baldwin were at the center of FGCU’s mission from the beginning. For that reason, undergraduate education is the school’s main focus, with many programs in the arts and sciences, business, environmental science, computer science, education, nursing/allied health and social services. And its bottom line is that students are “customers,” practitioners seeking skills and knowledge that can give them an immediate leg up in the workplace.

FGCU President Roy E. McTarnaghan uses the word “broker” to describe how FGCU may in time become one of the nation’s most important virtual campuses. Currently, for instance, officials are exploring the possibility of offering through distance learning a master’s degree in library science for local students through the University of South Florida or Florida State University. A master’s program in engineering _ many engineers are needed in this fast-growing part of the state _ is also being planned through distance learning.

“We will be reaching out to build relationships with our sister institutions to help bring programs of need to our area so that we may broker service rather than having to own degree programs in order to offer them,” McTarnaghan says.

For its first year, FGCU enrolled 450 graduate students, 200 freshmen and 1,750 transfers from other state schools. The campus itself has finally taken shape, with new facilities _ bookstore, cafeteria, dormitories and student services complex _ that give it the traditional feel of college. A widely held misconception about Virtual U is that all, if not most, of its courses will be taught through distance learning. Actually, only 25 percent are taught at a distance. The rest are traditional on-campus courses.

A striking feature of the campus is that none of the classrooms has a chalkboard. The professors and their students do not need these and other relics of the not-so-distant past because the majority of the classrooms have a “teaching podium” or “multimedia lectern” that lets the professor display electronic images on a screen or on the World Wide Web. And most desks, like each carrel in the new library, have a computer access port. Scattered through the campus are the various tools of the 21st century: computers, CD-ROM, cable TV, satellite TV, digital imaging, videos and telephone lines.

But FGCU’s true radicalness is often revealed in faculty offices.

Take that of Mary Ann Zager, an assistant professor of criminal justice. Like her colleagues, the Internet is integral to her conferences with students. She routinely uses e-mail to answer questions from her students, and, on a recent day, she answered questions from a student about a juvenile justice course assignment. Although the school term was more than 2 months old at that point, Zager had not met this student in person. She was, however, familiar with the work and study habits, computer skills and intellectual abilities of the student from their online communication.

Of the 25 students in Zager’s juvenile justice class, 10 are distance learners. Most are professionals in their fields and are seeking college degrees primarily for job advancement. Their average age is 33, roughly the same as within the university at large. And because they have families and may live far way, regular travel to campus is impossible.

Alexis Trevino, 29, could not attend college any other way. She is a swing shift supervisor at Hardee Correctional Institution and the single parent of a 10-year-old daughter, and she wants to earn a degree to improve her job.

Her work schedule alone prevents her from attending a traditional university: 12 a.m. to 8 a.m. on Friday and Saturday; 4 p.m. to midnight on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. She uses her free time to study and care for her daughter.

“I am very satisfied with the distance learning program,” Trevino writes. “I can set my own study schedule, which allows me to spend time with my child. I have no travel expenses to attend classes. And I don’t have to worry about missing class if an emergency comes up.”

Many courses, such as those that require hands-on laboratory experiments, cannot be taught effectively at a distance. Clifford Renk, a professor in the Department of Clinical Laboratory Sciences, for example, has no distance courses at this time and no plans to develop them. But there is also the larger question about whether the lack of human interaction is productive for any course of learning, whether distance learning in itself diminishes the university and the institution of higher education _ especially graduate studies.

University life, after all, is more than tests and grades. To those who are loyalists of the traditional campus, university life is centered around a library, with its stacks of bound books and journals, a place where scholars ponder great ideas for the sake of pondering them. There is a real fear that the rush for practical experience is replacing abstract understanding, and that intellectual curiosity is being traded for one-upmanship in the gritty workplace. Academics also worry about losing the socialization process that makes university life unique.

For Rosie Webb Joels, who is in her 20th year as a reading education professor at the University of Central Florida, the traditional higher education paradigm is the ideal. Two years ago, UCF introduced a limited number of distance learning courses. She believes that in-class socialization among students is essential, especially for those wanting to become teachers.

“I’ll challenge anybody to prove to me that there’s great scholarship going on the Web,” Joel says. “I think that in distance learning classes, most of the processes are being dumbed down. . . . It’s another mechanism to generate student credit hours. Distance learning is also a way to sap professors of their intellectual capital. I still believe in the community of scholars, especially when I don’t see a great support at UCF, or anywhere else in the United States, to do advanced, creative things on the Web.”

Judith Solano, an associate professor in the Department of Computer Information Sciences at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, agrees. But she has another more abstract concern about the effects of distance learning.

“When we pursue a college degree simply for the short-term goal of getting a job and making money, we diminish the traditional notion of higher education,” Solano says. “A college education wasn’t considered something you rushed through as quickly as possible and moved on with another notch in your belt.”

At Virtual U, these educational issues are being played out on a daily basis. For example, FCGU professors are constantly looking for ways to preserve as much of the socialization process as they can. In addition to inviting her distance students to campus for group sessions, Sherri Smith, assistant professor in the Division of Criminal Justice, asks students in her distance classes to submit brief autobiographies and photographs, which are entered onto a Web page. Students can click on the photo and read about their classmates.

“All of the students access the information about one another,” Smith says. “They e-mail one another all the time. The bios are not real face-to-face contact, but it gives you some of the socialization process that you’re missing out on.”

FGCU also has the distinction of being the site of the Florida Public Postsecondary Distance Learning Institute, a statewide organization created by community colleges and universities to coordinate distance learning between the two. And FGCU President McTarnaghan is often globe-trotting, learning all he can about successful campuses in other nations. Last year, he even took a distance class at the University of London. If you read the latest issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education and trade publications, you will find that increasing numbers of universities nationwide, including the University of Florida and Florida State, are seeking experts in distance learning.

Like it or not, FGCU, or at least some version of it, is in the future of education. While it cannot possibly be allowed to replace the familiar institution of higher education, neither can it be dismissed as a miserly substitution. As the early progress at Virtual U demonstrates, there is a role for it in our changing society.

To contemplate the issue of determinism versus free will always will have a place in the academy. But fast-growing Lee County, home to FGCU, also needs engineers, nurses and correctional officers right now. And distance learning is one of the ways to provide these workers.