Online traffic is burgeoning as UCF students take more courses by computer.

Checking into class online from a dorm room or an off-campus home, coffee shop or even poolside could help ease the traffic tie-ups and classroom crowding fueled by UCF’s record enrollment growth, officials say.

Surveys show students like the quality of their instruction in addition to the flexibility that going online adds to their schedules, UCF officials say.

Spreading out into the virtually limitless expanse of cyberspace bodes well for a school reaching its physical limits. There’s little hope the cash-strapped state can come up with the money needed to build classrooms to keep pace with anticipated growth, university officials say.

UCF’s total enrollment surpassed 53,500 students last fall, overtaking the University of Florida to become top dog in enrollment in Florida and third-largest in the nation.

The Orlando university’s head count is expected to go even higher this fall once final figures are tabulated next month.

Meanwhile, registrations for classes that involve going online for all or part of the time has shot up from about 29,000 in academic year 2002-03 to about 111,000 in 2009-10.

At UCF, online courses fall under the umbrella of the Center for Distributed Learning. Besides online classes, distributed learning includes courses delivered through interactive or prerecorded video.

But the most pronounced growth has been in courses delivered entirely online or in “hybrid” or “blended” formats that combine online instruction with seat time in a classroom.

Blended courses that reduce overall seat time in a specific classroom at a specific time have made possible the wider sharing of precious classroom space, officials say.

Online pioneer

UCF has been at the national forefront in the development of online classes for more than a decade. College systems such as the University of Missouri and the University of Illinois have studied UCF’s methods. In 2003, the Sloan Consortium, a 400-member association of institutions that advance online learning in higher education, gave UCF a top award for its accomplishments.

UCF online-learning experts have been called upon to speak at conferences and share expertise with other colleges and universities across the country, said Joel Hartman, vice provost for information technologies and resources.

Through the years, Hartman has guided the expansion of a comprehensive course-development system that includes intensive training for instructors and constant research into new technology. The goal is to make the online class experience as engaging and rigorous as any face-to-face class, Hartman said.

Distributed learning — with roots in mail-order correspondence courses produced entirely in print format — started as a way to reach students who lived in remote areas or otherwise couldn’t get to college in the traditional manner.

Later, online courses were seen as a way to reach nontraditional students who could not attend regular daytime college courses because of work or family obligations.

But steady online-enrollment growth also is predicted among traditional students, experts say.

Most new students nowadays arrive at UCF well-versed in computer technology, Hartman said, so online courses don’t intimidate them. Courses are updated to take advantage of technological advances and trends. For instance, incorporating social media such as Twitter to alert students to class-related developments is relatively easy, he said.

Growth continues

As of last fall, about half of all enrolled students took at least one course online, said Thomas Cavanagh, assistant vice president of UCF’s Center for Distributed Learning.

Online-course development has progressed so rapidly that it’s difficult for many to conceive what it takes for a student to succeed in them, officials say. Far from being a passive, electronic version of a standard class, students must actively participate in online discussions and complete the required coursework within a specific time frame to keep up and receive a passing grade.

Taking courses online requires students “to stay focused and manage your time well,” student Kyle Hickman said.

To help students, the university library now has an online-learning center.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates, in his annual letter to the public through his charitable foundation, expressed hope that online education will become more interactive and easier to access.

UCF has been working hard in both areas for years, Hartman said.

The university is part of a statewide consortium figuring out ways for institutions such as the state universities, state colleges and community colleges to share course content and development practices, officials said.

UCF, meanwhile, has been doing its thing for 15 years “and been growing like crazy ever since,” Hartman said.

Source:, UCF online classes: Many students hardly need to set foot on campus, by Luis Zaragoza, Orlando Sentinel 10:36 PM EDT, August 26, 2010. Luis Zaragoza can be reached at or 407-420-5718.