USF a National Leader for Online Learning

Annual analyses of the university’s online offerings earn accolades from the Guide to Online Schools and U.S. News & World Report.


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By Kevin Burke

Special to USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (Jan. 15, 2013) — The University of South Florida stands as a national leader in online education, according to newly released rankings by the Guide to Online Schools and U.S. News & World Report.


Based on data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education, the Guide to Online Schools ranks USF 25th on its 2013 “best overall” list of the Top 30 nonprofit and for-profit schools offering high-quality, affordable online programs. It is USF’s first appearance on the annual index, now in its fourth year, and USF is the only Florida public university named among the nation’s best.


U.S. News, meanwhile, ranks USF’s online graduate programs in engineering and education among the best in the country for the second year in a row, rating the university’s graduate engineering programs 22nd nationally, the best showing of any eligible institution in the state, and its graduate education offerings 47th.


To be considered for the Guide to Online Schools rankings, a school must be nationally or regionally accredited and offer at least 10 baccalaureate or advanced programs that can be completed online. Each school is then given a score based on a weighted set of criteria including student feedback — the primary measure used to rank online programs — as well as cost of tuition (including textbooks), retention rates, student loan repayment rates, accreditation, and for-profit or nonprofit status.


USF currently offers 22 fully online programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels, in disciplines ranging from Applied Sciences, Global Sustainability, and Instructional Technology to Music Education, Public Health, and Reading K-12. Across the curriculum, 12.5 percent of all course sections at USF in 2011-12 offered at least some of their components online.


Overall, roughly 58 percent of all USF students take at least one online course (defined as 80 percent or more of content delivered online) each year, according to the Florida Board of Governors’ 2012 report on “Post-Secondary Online Expansion in Florida.” As a result, and taking into account its system-wide enrollment of more than 47,000, USF ranks first in the state for the number of students engaged in distance learning.


The annual Sloan Consortium Survey of Online Learning reports the national average of college students taking at least one online course each year is 32 percent.


Earning a spot in the U.S. News rankings of the nation’s top online graduate programs in education requires institutions to place in the upper third of ranked schools in at least three of four indicators: faculty credentials and training, student engagement and accreditation, student services and technology, and admissions selectivity. In each of the first three categories, USF rated highest among the three Florida universities — including the University of Florida and Florida State — on this year’s list, scoring 38th for faculty credentials and training, 29th for student engagement and accreditation, and 17th for student services and technology.


Regarding its rankings for best online graduate programs in engineering, U.S. News uses the same basic criteria and also calculates a new “peer reputation” component. In this year’s survey, USF posted significant gains in the metrics for student services and technology, climbing to #4 from #17 last year, and student engagement and accreditation, rising to #26 from #40 in 2012. It also placed 15th in admissions selectivity and in all three instances outpaced the University of Florida and Florida International University, ranked 26th and 48th overall, respectively.


“Online learning is rapidly becoming an important and integral part of higher education delivery, and each of these national recognitions provides evidence of USF’s ongoing commitment to expanding accessibility to our many outstanding programs to students for whom the traditional campus-based college or university experience is difficult because of various life factors,” said Provost Ralph Wilcox. He noted that the university also has begun adding a number of MOOCs, or massive open online courses, to its online inventory in further demonstration of USF's ready embrace of technology to enhance student access and success.


“The model of course delivery is changing almost by the day,” added Michael Pearce, USF chief executive officer for innovative education and system vice president for information technology. “Increasingly, students expect universities to have the programs, infrastructure, and systems in place that allow them to take classes on their terms, and institutions that are unable or unwilling to adapt to this new model will be left behind. So, we are continually evaluating and asking what can we do to adjust to and accommodate more of those students and their needs. They really do represent a big part of higher education’s future.”


According to the Sloan Survey, the number of students nationwide taking at least one online course now surpasses 6.7 million, an increase of more than 570,000 students since 2010. At the same time, more than two-thirds (69.1 percent) of chief academic leaders now say that online learning is critical to their long-term strategy — a new high.


Kevin Burke can be reached at 813-974-0192.