Florida's colleges are seeing a boom in students who prefer keyboards to blackboards, apps to athletics, chat rooms to dorm rooms.
And the schools are scrambling to respond. Broward College and the University of Florida are rapidly expanding their offerings, and others like Florida Atlantic University are planning to follow suit soon.
A year after Broward College designated its online programs as a fourth campus, enrollment surged 35 percent in one year to 9,000 students. The school this year is spending $500,000 to create new health-care management and cyber-security certificate programs, with plans to later add associate's and bachelor's degree programs in the high-demand fields, Associate Provost David Shulman said.
The University of Florida is also off to a strong start with its new all-online program. Even without much promotion, about 600 students have enrolled in UF Online, which started in January.
"The spring cycle is not when most people start, so it's pretty remarkable how many we got," said Betty Phillips, executive director of UF Online.
The most popular degree sought is business, followed by sports management and degrees focusing on criminal law, health and environmental science. Phillips said the university plans to do a big marketing push for the fall, to recruit students not only in Florida but worldwide.
One appeal may be the cost: tuition and fees are about $3,900 for full-time students, which is 40 percent cheaper than what traditional students pay.
For other students, especially working adults, the draw is the ability to take classes at flexible times. Professors post lectures and assignments on the web, so students never have to be in class at a certain time.
"My schedule is wildly unpredictable," said Shane Pullham, who is pursuing an associate's degree in network technologies at Broward College. "I am a confirmed night owl, and I find that my most productive study time is around 2 a.m. There aren't many traditional classroom settings that are available during my peak hours."
Web-based classes are gaining in popularity at many other colleges and universities as well. At the University of Central Florida, the state's largest university, online enrollment has increased 16 percent, while the number of students taking traditional classes has dropped. Florida State University has kept its overall enrollment steady in the past two years by replacing about 450 traditional students with online students.
While online growth has been slow at Florida International University and Florida Atlantic University in the past few years, both schools expect to add hundreds more students over the next two years, according to plans submitted to the State University System's Board of Governors.
John Kelly, who was hired in January as FAU's next president, said he plans to put a big focus on online courses, as well as classes that combine online and on-campus leaning.
"While online learning does not replace classroom education, it certainly has the benefit of being a part of a hybrid approach to an accessible college education," he said.
In addition to making a college education available to more students, there are other advantages, Kelly said, including the ability to use nationally prominent speakers and educators "who are skilled at connecting with large audiences across many locations."
Studies at Broward College and elsewhere have shown online students tend to perform below those who take classes in a traditional setting. Shulman said the college is adding academic coaches and other student support services to help students succeed.
For students like Pullham, the online experience is already working well.
"I feel that I have been far more productive and focused in my online classes than in any other learning environment I have ever attended," he said. "So far my experience has been overwhelmingly positive."
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