Digital Gator heads for live graduation

The University of Florida's online student body is increasing rapidly.

Published May 5, 2007

As James Moyer can tell you, Gator Nation isn't just in Gainesville anymore.

Moyer will graduate with honors from the University of Florida today, but it's the first time he has ever been on campus.

He completed his bachelor's in business on a computer at his family home, some 260 miles south of campus, instead of in a classroom.

"I'm looking forward to seeing the campus," said Moyer, 21. "I've only seen it in pictures, and taken the virtual tour."

Public universities - inexpensive, respected and well-known - have been fighting for a share of the booming online education market. Students like Moyer are their target consumer.

Since 2002, the university has more than tripled online enrollment to more than 23,000 this year. In 2003, 1 in 20 of the nation's college students were pursuing fully online degrees. By the end of 2008, that number is expected to hit 1 in 10.

They are redefining college life, and forcing universities to look beyond their bricks-and-mortar students.

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Distance learning has never quite shook off a declasse stink. Elite schools imparted some luster into online education, but there's still a sense that a degree from Harvard Extension is like a faux-designer handbag. It looks the same, but isn't.

The education of Hilary Duff is a case in point. The actor and singer earned a stinging rebuke two years ago from Harvard's student newspaper, which chastised her for failing to make it clear that she was enrolled at Harvard Extension, not Harvard proper. The writers called her a "chicken and a loser" and said she wasn't living "la vida Harvard."

Academics take up the debate in more temperate tones, but the issue is similar. Sure, students are learning the lessons. But isn't the life part of the lesson?

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There's no better illustration of the difference between campus life and distance learning than the way Moyer celebrated the Gators' triumph over Ohio State for the college basketball championship.

In Gainesville, students took to University Avenue in screaming throngs for a night of beer-soaked revelry. In his tiny hometown of Bokeelia, on a tip of an island near Fort Myers, Moyer subdued his shouts so as not to wake his sleeping parents.

The Moyers live on a dirt road "passable this time of year" in a house they built themselves "board by board by board, " said mom Kathleen Moyer. Their home is well-built and modestly furnished. The lyrics and score of Amazing Grace hang by the front door, above a table bearing a closeup picture of former President Ronald Reagan and an autographed photo of George and Laura Bush.

The island provides a natural isolation that's reaffirmed by the way the Moyers constructed their life. Chris and Kathleen Moyer home-schooled their three sons through a Christian education program. They work from home, building the Shepherd's Guide, a directory of Christian-owned businesses. Their social life is their family and their church.

Their quiet life will soon change. James won a scholarship to the University of Tampa. He plans to leave in the fall to pursue his MBA. He'll be the first of the Moyers' three sons to leave home.

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Five years ago, Moyer would have had a hard time completing his degree without leaving home.

Online universities catered to the mid-career student, the 25- to 54-year-olds that still make up the bulk of the online student body, said Richard Garrett, a research analyst with Eduventures, a firm based in Boston that tracks education trends.

The University of Phoenix, a private all-online educator that dominates distance learning, enjoyed ballooning enrollment and little competition.

Then public universities realized they were sitting on a gold mine. They could add students without adding new desks and dorms. And they were cheap: The University of Phoenix charges $495 to $595 per credit hour; Moyer's program cost $150.

First, he had to earn his two-year degree from a local community college. To get into UF's Warrington College of Business Administration, he had to meet the same admission standards as on-campus students.

It saved his parents the cost of room and board and allowed him to keep his jobs as the janitor at his church and the postmaster relief at the historic Pineland Post Office, just five minutes from his house.

Moyer's older brother also joined UF's online business program. His younger brother said he'll also consider UF's online offerings when the time comes.

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Moyer never met his classmates face-to-face, never divvied up chores with roommates, never suffered the late-night ravings of the dorm drunk. He also has never been forced to live a life of faith outside the refuge of his home and family.

But what about the rest of the college experience, like finding a mentor, and learning to live and learn side-by-side with people so different from his own family?

Moyer shrugged, and pointed out that face-to-face business arrangements are already a thing of the past. Working online introduced him to widely different personalities that he knows by screen-name, if not by face.

Moyer isn't worried about city life, or about living and working with people whose views are so different from his own. After all, he said, he has seen plenty from his perch behind the counter at the Pineland Post Office.

Asjylyn Loder can be reached at aloder@sptimes.com.

Fast Facts:

By the numbers

1 in 20 U.S. students pursuing a fully online degree in 2003.

1 in 10, or 1.7-million students predicted in 2008.

3.2-million students or 20 percent of U.S. college students that will have taken a fully online class by 2008.

323 online class sections offered by the University of Florida in 2002.

1,126 online class sections offered by the University of Florida this year.

7,443 online course enrollments at UF in 2002.

23,289 online course enrollments at UF this year.

14 students enrolled in the Warrington College of Business Administration at UF when the program started in summer 2002.

450 students will be enrolled this summer.

Sources: The Warrington College of Business Administration, University of Florida Division of Continuing Studies, Eduventures