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Lawmakers say they’re keeping an open mind about online university options

Rep. Marlene O’Toole, chairwoman of the House Education Committee, had a few words of advice today: Do your homework and keep an open mind about whether the state needs an online-only university.

“Don’t just leave here and say, ‘Well I made up my mind. I like it or I don’t,’ ” the Republican from Lady Lake told her colleagues during today’s meeting.

The Parthenon Group, a company that conducted the study on behalf of the state’s Board of Governors, presented its findings about online education to the committee today. It presents four options to increase the number of online degrees, ranging for allowing each school to continue operating separate distance education programs to establishing a brand new university.

The state Board of Governors has not said which of the four options it recommends. House Speaker Will Weatherford told the board last year that he wanted to "plant that seed" for creating a new university, which would be Florida's 13th.

The other other known public, online-only university is Colorado State University-Global Campus, according to Parthenon.

So far, lawmakers have said their focus is on studying the report and digesting the pros and cons of each option, especially when it comes to money. They praised the company for presenting an unbiased study that doesn’t appear to take sides.

But other voices, especially those from state university leaders, should be added to the debate, Rep. Joe Saunders said. State universities already have strong distance education program, he said, adding that University of Central Florida in his district could be a model.

“I think we’ve got to honor the work that’s already being done,” Saunders said. “And what I think we’ll probably land on, or what I probably will push for, is that we lift up those institutions and find a way to expand what they’re doing as opposed to creating something that is completely new.”

He said it may be more cost effective for the state to either encourage more collaboration between universities or select one or two as lead institutions. Both of those options are also outlined in the Parthenon report. Knowing the issue is a Weatherford priority shouldn’t hinder the debate, Saunders said.

“I have faith that everybody is keeping an open mind right now,” he said.