Before 2012, students who wanted to pursue an online degree at one of Florida's public colleges or universities would have to navigate through a maze of websites, trying to cobble together a set of classes that would meet the requirements for their program.
Now they can simply click on the Florida Virtual Campus website to view more than 700 online degree programs offered by the public higher education institutions and access a range of student services. "We are a one-stop place for students to go to get their services, rather than have them hopping around to different websites," says Donald Muccino, executive director of FLVC.
Florida's new online clearinghouse is one of several groundbreaking distance learning initiatives in U.S. higher education. Using collaborative marketing, contracting, and course development strategies, these programs are redefining online education while eliminating duplication among campuses.
An April 2013 report written by Rachel Fishman, an education policy analyst at the New America Foundation, stated that there are considerable benefits when state systems follow a more integrated approach toward building online education programs. These collaborative programs work to create "something that looks less like an unorganized collection of internet-based classes, and more like a true public university built around the tools of the information age--a kind of State U Online," Fishman wrote.
These state education leaders have created searchable clearinghouses for online courses and degrees, are sharing contracts and student services, and are fostering faculty buy-in for distance education, Fishman says. The results are programs in which students can seamlessly move among state institutions while completing their online education.
Here are four state systems with innovative approaches to online education:
Wisconsin: Flexible Option and eCampus
By the end of this year, a new program in Wisconsin will allow students to take competency exams and test out of course requirements for online bachelor's degrees in nursing, biomedical sciences, and information science and technology. Students in the University of Wisconsin Flexible Option program will be able to start on their degrees at any time and progress at their own pace after completing assessments in their courses.
The program was initiated by state officials concerned that only 27 percent of adults aged 25 and older in Wisconsin have a bachelor's degree. That percentage lags behind the proportion of adults with bachelor's degrees in neighboring Minnesota (32 percent) and across the country (29 percent).
"It really is a new way for adult learners to gain new skills that they need to become degree holders," says Rovy Branon, associate dean of online learning at the University of Wisconsin-Extension, which has helped lead the program. "And we know that equates to great economic success."
Because of its flexibility, the program allows students to enroll in a MOOC and then take a competency exam to test out of a related course in the Flexible Option program. Students may also have acquired skills through prior workplace or military training.
Even before launching this competency-based program, Wisconsin was an early proponent of coordinating online education services across its system of 26 campuses.
In 2010, the state launched e-Campus, a centralized portal that connects students to more than 100 of its online degree programs. The website provided a unified brand for the system's online programs, which faced increasing competition from for-profit institutions advertising on television. And for students, the portal simplified the search for programs, as all of them were now listed on one site.
Nearly 10 years ago, officials at the University System of Georgia noticed many K12 teachers enrolling in out-of-state, for-profit online programs to earn their master's degrees in education. …