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UCF President Hitt: How We’re Using Digital Learning to Increase Access and Improve Outcomes

With all of the benefits higher education offers individuals and society, why do so many universities pride themselves on whom they keep out?

The intellectual, economic, and social impacts of a college degree are well documented. Simply put, there is no better tool than a college degree for improving social and economic mobility in the United States.

Why, then, has the standard practice for decades been for institutions to boast about how exclusive they are and how many applications they reject?

The University of Central Florida is taking a different approach. UCF is focused on meeting the needs of qualified students seeking a college education – and ensuring those students succeed. The university is doing so in one of fastest-growing and most diverse metropolitan regions in the country. More than half of our students are transfers, about 45 percent are from underrepresented groups, one in four are first-generation, 40 percent are Pell-eligible, and nearly half work 20 or more hours a week.

Many people, both inside and outside of the academy, believe there is an irreconcilable tension – an “iron triangle” – between access, quality, and cost that posits any increase in access will come at the expense of quality unless costs are increased.

We believe there can be a different relationship between access, quality, and cost.

This new relationship is evident in the outcomes UCF is generating for its more than 66,000 students, with the university’s digital learning efforts leading the way.

UCF’s distributed learning program provides students with high-quality, convenient, and engaging opportunities to obtain courses, graduate certificates and degrees.

But it does more than that.

It expands access by removing barriers of geography and time. As our world becomes more personalized – from our phones to our homes – digital learning allows students to personalize the learning process based on what works best for them.

It saves time and money for students, with faster times to degree for first time in college students taking 21-40 percent online courses versus those taking only face-to-face courses. A faster time to degree means less debt. And because UCF Online students do not pay many of the university fees that support on-campus programs, undergraduate student fees are approximately 22 percent lower than those paid by on-campus undergraduates, and graduate student fees are approximately 17 percent lower.

It saves money for the university with lower marginal cost per undergraduate credit hour for online versus face-to-face, while avoiding much of the additional capital outlays that traditionally come with growth. If we exclude faculty salaries, annual revenue generated by distributed learning courses represents close to a 21:1 return on investment.

But most importantly, it improves outcomes. Students taking blended courses have higher success and lower withdrawal rates than those taking face to face courses, including students who are minority or Pell-eligible. This is one way UCF is closing the achievement gap.

Coupled with UCF’s focus on student success, predictive analytics and advising, the university’s online efforts have proved powerfully effective. Among all registered students, 80.9 percent (60,958) took at least one online or blended-learning course. Registration in online courses accounted for 42.2 percent of the total university student credit hour production, or 672,428 credit hours. The majority of our students are digital – not distance – learners.

And as student success has increased, so has quality.

UCF has made a commitment to ensure the student experience is excellent by requiring faculty to undergo an 80-hour faculty development program before teaching their first online course. Faculty also work with instructional designers and teams of content producers to help them design and develop courses.

And it’s working.

In recent years, U.S. News & World Report ranked UCF’s online bachelor’s programs as among the best in the nation. UCF’s work has attracted the attention of Ithaka S+R, which issued an analysis looking at how UCF’s online and collaborative initiatives are shaking up higher education assumptions “by reducing cost, improving quality, and enhancing access simultaneously.”

But we aren’t resting on our laurels. We’ve launched 10 pilot courses in adaptive learning. The promise of adaptive is “Learning My Way” – individualized experience, individualized content, individualized assessment and individualized support.

As UCF has grown, it has brought in an increasingly diverse student body, transforming lives and livelihoods for generations. UCF is showing that cost, access and quality are not an “iron triangle.”

Critically, the university shows that scale, multiplied by excellence, creates impact. An impact that we believe should be measured not by how many students we turn away, but by how many we help succeed.

Now that’s something to be proud of. ______ John C. Hitt is President of the University of Central Florida.


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