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A Campus of More Than Classrooms

New Florida University Is Geared Toward Older, Working Students With More Interest in

September 10, 1997|MIKE CLARY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

FORT MYERS, Fla. — The landscapers are still planting palms and laying sod. Construction workers in hard hats nearly outnumber students. And President Roy E. McTarnaghan is operating out of an office tucked into a small trailer parked out by the air-conditioning system.

But Florida Gulf Coast University is open "to change the culture of American higher education," as McTarnaghan describes his mandate.

The nation's newest university is embracing alternative teaching methods and technology that make college easily accessible to working people. So the state-run university's first 2,690 students--

McTarnaghan calls them "clients"--can choose from a broad menu of classes offered on weekends, in off-campus venues, on videotape and over the Internet. Self-paced, independent study is emphasized, and students are encouraged to take competency exams through which they can earn credit for their work experience or other achievements.

"Certain principles permeate everything here, and access to education is one of them," said Suzanne Richter, vice president for academic affairs. "Learning does not have to take place within the traditional four-walled classroom."

Although many established universities, including UCLA, offer World Wide Web pages with course offerings, this is being billed as the first American university to open in the "cyberspace age" with such a presiding commitment to "distance learning." Initially, 28 of its 339 classes will be conducted electronically, and other courses in career-oriented fields--such as health care, criminal justice and real estate--are to be offered in off-campus modules in the five-county area. Thus, although the university--six years and $40 million in the making--is situated on 670 acres of virgin pine forest and wetlands midway between the Gulf of Mexico and the Everglades, about 25% of all students will rarely set foot on campus, if at all.

"We look for partnerships with other universities, for space in hospitals for health care programs, to school systems where teachers can study in their own locations," said McTarnaghan, 63, a former vice chancellor of the state university system. "We have to ask, 'How are we to serve clients who need services?' "

McTarnaghan acknowledges critics who see "distance learning" and cyber-teaching as education's fad du jour and a poor substitute for traditional classroom learning. "I've been a part of that [traditional] system for over 35 years myself," he said. "But we in higher education profess that we want to experiment with alternative ways to deliver learning, and measure the results. So let us measure it."

Although a big part of the university's mission is to provide continuing and graduate education to residents of southwest Florida, it is not a trade school. Undergraduates enroll in one of four colleges--arts and sciences, business, health professions and professional studies--and all students are required to take a three-credit environmental education course. Seniors are also required to complete a research project or paper synthesizing their work in various disciplines.

To emphasize the university's commitment to environmental studies, and to give newcomers an idea of where they are, faculty and students are offered a tour of the nearby Everglades, a visit to a seashell mound built by prehistoric Indians and a boat ride up the Caloosahatchee River. The program is called "A Sense of Place."

The campus is the 10th entry in Florida's university system, which includes the University of Florida and Florida State University, and offers state residents one of the nation's educational bargains. At $56 a credit hour, students can take a 15-hour course load for $1,680 in tuition a year. Nonresidents pay $257 an hour while graduate fees are $124 an hour for residents, and $429 for nonresidents.

But the campus is not designed to become another University of Florida, home of the Gators in Gainesville, a traditional, residential university with 40,000 students, medical and law schools, along with a multimillion-dollar athletic program that annually produces contenders for national championships.

The university does have a nickname--the Eagles--and a master plan calling for an enrollment of 10,000 within a decade. But the Eagles won't be fielding a football team any time soon.

What the university does want is to provide residents of this fast-growing area with a way to further their careers with course work or degrees, or simply enrich their lives by taking classes. The curriculum for the 16 undergraduate and 10 graduate degree programs reflects community desires as expressed in surveys since the university was authorized by the state six years ago.

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