Florida, not known as a higher-education innovator, nevertheless might become the first state in the nation to open an all-online public university.
As even venerable institutions such as Harvard University and MIT join the push to offer more coursework online, the "mail-order diploma" is losing its stigma.
Nicknamed "Online U," it would be Florida's 13th university. It's one option of several under consideration by the state's Board of Governors as it grapples with an increasing need for an educated workforce, rising tuition and a loss of utility tax money for construction of new buildings.
The board this month hired The Parthenon Group of Boston to begin researching online options, including the fully online school. Another possibility is pulling together the best online courses offered at the University of South Florida, University of Florida, Florida State University and others, making them available to all students, no matter their home school.
Those who embrace the move to high-tech education consider it the most dramatic, society-altering innovation in the history of teaching.
"I personally believe it is a change in education not seen since the invention of the printing press," says Matt Hintze, a UF adjunct professor and member of a task force advising the board. "The ideal type of learning for many is the polar opposite of what we do now."
Others aren't so sure. Sherman Dorn, a USF professor specializing in the history of education and policy concerns, says universities already have excellent online resources, and it would be foolish to ignore them.
"Of all the options, the online university is probably the weakest one," he says, citing a lack of community identity, limited prospects for alumni donations and other negative factors. "It probably would start out with 23/4 strikes against it."
A majority of college and university professors feel uneasy about the rush to offer online courses, says a 2012 study by Inside Higher Ed and Babson Survey Research Group.
A survey of more than 4,500 professors revealed 58 percent describe themselves as having "more fear than excitement" on the growth of online learning.
Almost two-thirds say they believe the learning outcomes for an online course are "inferior" or "somewhat inferior" to those of a comparable face-to-face course.
However, today's students, deeply steeped in technology, have come to expect online options, usually taken alongside traditional courses. They can study at all hours from the comfort of home, dorm or local Starbucks.
More than 75 percent of the nation's colleges and universities offer courses online, and the number of students taking them rises every year, according to a 2011 survey of college presidents and the public conducted by the Pew Research Center.
At USF, 76 percent of students have taken at least one course online, higher than the national average of 46 percent.
Christian Lemus, 18, a freshman at USF, has taken two courses online at St. Petersburg College. He is enthusiastic about the one-stop shopping for online offerings statewide.
"I'm a mass communications major, and UF has a great program," Lemus says. "I would love to be able to take some of their courses online."
But the idea of an all-online university leaves him cold. "I absolutely would not do that," Lemus says. "You need a sense of belonging and a support group. I would need guidance and a place that sees me as an individual, not as an account."
Distance learning long has appealed to nontraditional students, such as those who are older, in the workforce, unable to get into increasingly competitive schools, or high school students hoping for a head start in college.
Community colleges have outpaced four-year schools looking for ways to accommodate students not interested in school mascots and pep rallies. Ninety-one percent of two-year schools nationwide offer online courses.
"This is a characteristic of two-year colleges; we're known for embracing new things," says Ken Atwater, president of Hillsborough Community College. "The 21st century student is demanding a different way of receiving an education."
He says he would like to see HCC join a consortium of schools bringing together the best online courses statewide. "Anytime we can provide more access to courses we don't have is a win for us," he says.
Determining who might take advantage of expanded online offerings is one of Parthenon's tasks.
"We know that not every student is best served by this," says Haven Ladd, a partner at Parthenon in educational development.
Already raising their hands for an online university are students enrolled in Florida Virtual School — a free, public, K-12 online school formed in 1997. In the 2011-12 school year, Florida Virtual School served 148,000 students with 125 courses.
"Both informally and formally through surveys, we hear time and time again that our students and parents wish they could continue their education online in higher ed," says Brian Marchman, the school's director of student experience.
Some Florida Virtual School students are homebound because of illness; others are child actors or athletes who need the flexibility online learning offers. Some want to move through school more rapidly. Others failed a course needed for graduation.
Marchman challenges the concern online learning means little interaction between students and faculty. "Almost to a one, our surveys show that parents and students get to know their teachers in a much more rich and engaged way," he says.
UF's Hintze, founder of TutoringZone, a for-profit online college tutoring service, believes it makes sense to put the best professors online and offer that experience to all of Florida's students.
"Let's find the rock stars, the 10 most compelling instructors, with Tom Hanks or Angelina Jolie charisma," he says. "Let's have students take a test to determine their best learning style and match them with the right professor. For example, introverts are sometimes lost in the traditional settings. Let's give them what they need."
One ardent proponent of the expansion of online learning is State Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and incoming House speaker. He has urged the Board of Governors to explore options.
"We need to be cutting-edge and bold," he says. "This is where education is going. This is where the future is headed. Students are demanding more access to online learning. They want something that's affordable and high-quality."
In addition to Hintze, advisers to the Board of Governors include some of the most outspoken proponents of online learning.
Andrew Rosen is CEO of test-prep giant Kaplan and heads the online, for-profit Kaplan University. His book, "Change.edu," asserts universities spend too much money on sports programs and luxurious residence halls while denying education to many.
The book was given as a gift to all Board of Governors members by Chairman Dean Colson.
Whatever the board recommends, the Legislature will have to approve the money. Weatherford says he is pushing what he calls "disruptive innovation."
"I want to do more than just organize the online classes," he says. "I want to take it to the next level."