Online degrees at UF offer flexibility, authentic Gator Nation experience

When officials at the University of Florida set out to build an online platform where students could receive an education that was of the same caliber and quality that is expected of UF, they stared at an empty drawing board. 

It was 2013, and at the time, most online universities were for profit. Other public universities offered online programs, but they were not as in depth or their name simply did not carry the weight of the flagship university of the state of Florida. 

Now, interest in receiving an education online from UF has grown in recent years. The key to UF’s success with its online programs, officials say, is that they are no different in terms of quality and rigor as in-person classes. 

The result: numerous UF online programs — both graduate and undergraduate — continue to be recognized as among the best in the nation. UF’s online programs are also recognized for their faculty credentials, diverse online technologies that aid student engagement for learning, and strong support outside of the classroom through academic advising, career guidance, financial aid and other resources.

Initially, however, there was a strong bias against offering online degrees, despite it being clear to many that the future of higher education involved these programs, said W. Andrew McCollough, UF’s associate provost for teaching and technology. 

“People like myself could not imagine an online program could have the same kind of excellence in terms of learning as face-to-face education,” McCollough said. “But over time, as technology has improved, and techno skeptics have gone somewhere else or retired, there has been an understanding and greater acceptance.”

Flexibility “a must” for students

When the university set out to implement online education programs, UF had two options, said Evangeline Tsibris Cummings, assistant provost and director of UF Online. 

The university could build everything separately. Separate staff. Separate faculty. Separate programs. The other option involved more work: finding out a way to provide the same education online with the same faculty and rigor associated with UF.

“UF chose the most challenging pathway you can choose because that’s who we are,” Cummings said. “Why would you give those Gators anything less than an authentic UF student experience, degree and faculty?”

Besides, the former option was already available through other institutions. Students who wish to obtain an online education through UF are seeking to be part of a larger community. 

“A lot of them say they never thought about going anywhere else,” Cummings said. “They know what it means to be a Gator.”

That was the case with Mary Katharine Farnell – a triple Gator.

Farnell had previously attended UF through the accelerated master’s program that allowed her to pursue bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting and complete them in five years. She graduated in 2012 and went into the workforce.

But after spending some time as an accountant, Farnell wanted to be a part of the decision-making process and have more input over the direction of her company.

She looked at several universities, including the Georgia Institute of Technology. But she decided to pursue the UF Executive MBA program at the Warrington College of Business, a hybrid program that involves online learning and some in-person meetings.

Farnell said the flexibility of online courses was crucial to her decision. She initially worried about not being able to build relationships with her peers. Her concerns, however, faded as soon as she started. 

“I was just really surprised at how well they were able to keep us engaged and interacting with our teachers and with each other even in an online program,” Farnell said. “I felt we were just as close of a group. I felt the staff was engaging with us.”

Further, school felt different, she said. She was less focused on memorizing the material just to get an A and instead was taking the time to ask questions. 

“I just really felt like in this grad program, specifically, the teachers were just really encouraging us to not just work for the grade, but to work for what we were really learning so that we could apply it to our lives,” Farnell said. “They really stressed how they could really apply our actual classes to our jobs.”

Farnell graduated in December with her MBA. Despite the challenges brought on by the pandemic, she said she still enjoyed her time in the program.

“It was just really cool that they really made it feel like we were one big group of friends going through it together,” Farnell said. “It sounds cheesy, but I feel like the whole ‘Gator Nation’ is true.”

Reaching the ‘furthest nook and cranny’

Despite UF’s success with online degrees, there were still challenges along the way, McCollough said. Professors had to work on making courses more engaging, while also addressing their offline availability as well.  

Engagement with her professors and peers was one of the main concerns that kept Tonika Jones from pursuing a graduate degree online for more than a year. 

Like Farnell, Jones first pursued at UF the accelerated master’s program that led to a degree in recreation and event management. When she graduated in 2016, however, she struggled to find work in her field.

Ultimately, she landed a job that led her to an academic coaching position assisting first-generation, low-income students with collegiate life. Through her experiences in that position, Jones learned about educational technology and instructional design. 

But she was skeptical about pursuing a master’s degree in education online because of her undergraduate experience with online courses.

“I like the convenience of online classes, but I always felt like something was lacking,” Jones said. “I always felt like I underperformed when I took classes online.”

Jones acknowledged that she took classes online during the time that UF was going through growing pains with its online courses. Much has changed since. 

Still, she was hesitant. She worried about the ability to ask for assistance from her colleagues or professor when needed. But Jones quickly realized that online programs at UF are not what they used to be.

“Once I got into the program, I was able to see the different advancements that have taken place even over just a few years,” Jones said. “It just opened my eyes to the different possibilities of online education, and how it’s really gained a lot of depth.” 

Jones said what she likes the most about her graduate online program is how accessible her classmates and professors are. Also, because many of her colleagues are already working in the field, Jones said her classmates are passionate about their education and seek to get as much from the program as she. 

That’s the main goal of offering programs online, McCollough said. 

“There are millions who have not had an opportunity to engage in higher education because they’re homebound for any number of reasons,” McCollough said. “Online learning provides an opportunity to bring the highest quality education to the furthest nook and cranny of our state or country.”

But higher education officials have to work to shatter their preconceived notions of who a college student can be, Cummings added. 

A college student can be a 30-year-old undergraduate student who works full-time at Disney; an active-duty mother in the military who is returning to finish her degree or a professional seeking to advance their career. Between bachelor’s and doctoral degrees, UF offers more than 100 online pathways to match the academic and career goals.   

“I think online programs in general are a cry for flexibility from students who want to attend a university but don’t want to attend in person full time or live in the dorms,” Cummings said. “And it’s thrilling to see these students, who are looking for quality online education programs, find that here at UF.” 

UF online programs on the rise

U.S. News & World Report ranked several UF online programs as among the top in the country in January. UF Online was named among the nation’s top five best online bachelor’s programs for the third year in a row, rising to No. 3 from No. 4. 

Further, the online master’s degree in education and the online bachelor’s in business were named No. 1 in the country.  

Other programs named among the best include: 

  • No. 2 Best Online Bachelor's Programs for Veterans
  • No. 2 Best Online Master's in Special Education Programs
  • No. 2 Best Online MBA Programs for Veterans
  • No. 2 Best Online Bachelor's in Psychology Programs 
  • No. 3 Best Online Master's in Educational Administration Programs
  • No. 3 Best Online Master's in Curriculum and Instruction Programs

 For a full list, visit the U.S. News and World Report UF online program overview.

Cynthia Roldán April 6, 2021