"Many large schools, act as if you were lucky to be there and do not care if you graduate or not. It matters what happens to you, things to help you succeed. "
This is how the senior and first-generation university student Alex deCurnou described his experience at the University of Central Florida (UCF). Alex is among the students, teachers and administrators with whom I met during a visit to UCF last month. I was there to see and hear first-hand how UCF became one of the most innovative schools in the country.
In the last 20 years, UCF has expanded to serve more than 64,000 students and is now one of the largest universities in the country. Digital learning has been a key driver of UCF's growth and the university has expanded while serving an increasingly diverse population of college students, keeping tuition affordable and increasing graduation rates.
At a time when the United States is on track to produce 11 million fewer postsecondary credentials by 2025 than the economy will demand, UCF is building a success story that could be a blueprint for many other universities across the country.
So, how did UCF do it? During my visit, I was impressed by three elements of the culture and approach of the university that students, faculty and administrators believe have been instrumental in UCF's success.
Putting the needs and success of students at the center of decision-making
This story began when university leaders analyzed the data. The numbers showed that too many UCF students were struggling to get the last credits needed for graduation. UCF President John C. Hitt, interested in addressing this bottleneck and also in finding ways to increase access for students, prioritized online instruction to give them more flexibility and open more paths for graduation.
The change paid off to UCF students. Today, the UCF six-year graduation rate of 70 percent is approximately ten points higher than the national average.
Across the country, more than 60 percent of students work while attending college and more than a quarter of students work full time. Working students need flexible courses and programs that help them learn at their own pace and study anytime and anywhere. UCF structured its programs to provide options for students, including traditional on-campus classes, evening classes, fully online classes and combined classes. Today, nearly 78 percent of UCF students take online or hybrid courses, and 38 percent of all credits are earned online.
"Our goal is to find ways to incorporate the school into the lives of students," says A. Dale Whittaker, vice president and executive vice president of UCF. UCF is committed to tailoring the education of each student to the individual, while also facilitating meaningful interactions among students.
And UCF's online learning not only offers students flexibility and options, it also opens up possibilities for their teachers.
The faculty of support as instructors and course designers
Online learning at UCF means more than just publishing online course content for students. They see it as an opportunity to think deeply about what they can do in online instruction that they can not or do not need to do face to face. Over time, UCF developed a collaborative process that maintains consistent quality and leverages the unique experiences, content, and teaching style of each faculty member.
The faculty receives training in online course design, which includes how to design lessons and modules that incorporate video, interactive tests and social networks. The faculty is also combined with instructional designers who help them think about which tools offer the best option for specific courses.
A member of the faculty I spoke with, the professor of digital journalism Richard Brunson, told me that the development of online content caused creativity in his teaching . "I can do more than just talk about what we're learning," Brunson said. "I can really show my students, I can create a video in a sports apparel, a hospital or a police station and place the students in the environment where they will report on the story."
Creating a culture of continuous improvement
During my visit to UCF, the word "culture" appeared in virtually every interaction I had with the leadership, deans and faculty of UCF. Each of them described the UCF community as a place where they constantly evaluate how they work, what the information tells them and where they can make improvements. Far from relying on what they have achieved, they are motivated by the new possibilities that their work has opened.
Dr. Joel Hartman, vice president of information technology and resources at UCF and director of information, gave a great example. "We've always used the ratings as a proxy for learning," said Hartman. "For the first time, we are really learning about student learning, we can see where students are struggling in a course, what interventions help them get on track and how we can adapt to the strengths and individual needs of students."
Technology allows teachers to do what they do best: focus on the needs of each student, while providing the richness of their experiences and experience to the classroom. That's part of what makes UCF's approach to digital learning so powerful. To help more schools learn from UCF's success, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation helps fund the work of partners such as the University Innovation Alliance (UIA). UIA is a coalition of 11 public research universities, including UCF, that serve a large number of first generation and low-income students.
The UIA works with members of its universities to identify proven innovations and help disseminate them nationally so that other universities do not have to reinvent the wheel or experiment with unproven strategies.
Think of how many more students like Alex we can boost if we focus on innovation and expand what works in places like UCF to more colleges and universities.