March | April 2017

'Technology is Changing the Way We Live'

By Mary Branham, CSG Managing Editor
Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford believes technology is transforming everything from the way we get our news to the way we educate people. The Sunshine State this year took online education a little further and the House of Representatives entered the e-world with a new app.

What impact is technology having on education?

“Technology is changing the way we live as people. It’s not just the way we educate people. It’s just changing the way we live our daily lives. Ten years ago when you woke up in the morning, probably the first thing a lot of people did—if you wanted to find out what was happening in the world—is you went to pick up your local newspaper … and started reading it. Some people like to turn on the TV and watch the news. But most people now, if you have a smartphone, the first thing you do when you wake up is roll over and grab your smartphone. … Digital information has changed the way we live as a people.”

What was the driving force behind Florida’s e-university?

“The concept here is to leverage that (change). … It’s one thing to just put information online; anybody can do that. But it’s formulating it and providing it in a platform that is in line with the 21st century learning needs of our students. It’s a very exciting frontier that we’re on the cusp of. What technology can do for education is that it can make the education system student-centered.”

Will this help recruit older students to campus?

“What we also did this year that hasn’t been touted as much, is we gave some money—$3.5 (million) to $4 million—to the University of West Florida, which is based in Pensacola. They’re going to use that to target students who started their degree but never finished it and give them sort of a soft landing zone to get them re-acclimated to the university setting and let them do online learning, complete their degree. … We want to target those folks and give them the opportunity to go back and get their degree so they can be more employable and earn more income.”

How does this address the challenge that all states, and the nation, are facing
with the need for more people with bachelor’s degrees?

“We just can’t build enough brick-and-mortar institutions. The revenue source we have in Florida—and every state has their own—has basically dried up. The ability for us to build enough buildings and dorms and labs to meet the entire need of all the students in our state, or potential students in our state, to meet the demands of the marketplace is just really not realistic. I think online education … allows us to grow exponentially the amount of students who are getting a college education, but they don’t necessarily have to live on campus and do it in a traditional way.”

The legislation sets a cap on how much online classes can cost. Why do that?

“Seventy-five percent of tuition is the cap. What’s neat about that is there are also fees that a traditional student would have that (online students) don’t have to pay. So 75 percent of tuition at cap is somewhere between $12,000 and $15,000 for a four-year degree. Think about that—the concept of you being able to get a degree from the University of Florida, a flagship university that’s ranked in the top 25 public universities in America. To do that and to be able to get that degree on your timeframe, because part of this concept is also to not just do it in a traditional format, but also to offer what is called competency-based learning. Competency-based learning basically means it’s not semester-based; you don’t have to wait for the next semester before you move on to the next class. If you master the content and can show it, you can move forward at a more rapid speed.”

Do you foresee students in other states enrolling at the University of Florida?

“We think it will be very marketable outside the state of Florida. If we do it right and it’s truly innovative and the platform is creative and it’s better than any other products that are out there, we think people from all over the country will participate. But probably more exciting than that is there is an international demand for university degrees in the United States, so whether it’s in Asia or South America or Europe, creating a degree that is an American degree from a very well-known institution in Florida and making it accessible to students from all over the world actually becomes a revenue stream for the university. It also becomes a way for that student to have a connection to Florida and to the United States.”

What challenges did the legislature consider in establishing this program?

“Online learning is a new frontier. It’s a little bit of an unknown and people tend to be scared of what they don’t know and don’t understand. So getting the traditional institutions in this country to get excited about and wrap their arms around the opportunity that online learning presents (is a challenge). I think we’re getting there, but there are still a lot of misperceptions out there. I think people still question the quality of online learning, but I think over time those people will be won over.”

Tell me about the House mobile app.

“The concept is to bring citizens of Florida closer to what their legislature is doing. I have a smartphone, and many people do, and an iPad. We get a lot of our information from apps now, not just websites. If you’re trying to stay with the times and you’re trying to communicate to people what you’re doing up in Tallahassee, you’ve got to be reaching them from different facets. The term that’s used is crowdsourcing. If you want feedback from the public, you’ve got to get it in different formats. We use email, we use websites, but another way to do it is to use an app.”

Do you think this will rekindle an interest in government?

“If we expect … our younger generation to engage in government, they’re not going to do it on websites and they’re not going to do it by watching TV or C-SPAN or watching their local televised products. … (People of) all ages are using apps and smartphones and iPads. … Most younger people don’t see the relevance of government in their lives and part of that is the way their government communicates with them is archaic. This is a way to communicate with the citizens of our state, both young and old, in a way that is in line with the 21st century.”

What advice would you offer other state policymakers
with regard to technology?

“I think we’re on the cusp of some exciting changes. I would encourage all legislators—Republican and Democrat in every state—to find ways to make your state government more relevant to today’s technological environment and engage your public through technology, through social media, to get feedback and to crowdsource with the public. When we do that, if we do that, the feedback we get will be better, it will be more timely and it will make us better public servants.”