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Mythbusting an Online Degree Program

We’re living in a new virtual age. Not the sci-fi virtual era of fantasy, but one that has slowly permeated our daily lives with apps, instantaneous video calls, fingertip-professions, and 24/7 information access. With this new era comes a new cityscape, shaped by a digital fabric. The next iteration of urban planners will have to tackle completely new answers to age-old questions: Where do we want to play or work? How do we get there? Which districts are growing or shrinking, and why? How can we engage communities that may not have the time or resources to participate in-person?

The Online Master of Urban and Regional Planning Program at the University of Florida trains and prepares students to tackle the new approaches needed to address these questions. It’s the first and only completely online, comprehensive graduate degree in the planning field in the U.S., putting students at a distinct advantage in terms of communicating, working and practicing planning in the digital realm.

When the topic of “online education” comes up, eyebrows raise: Are students well-prepared for the professional world? Aren’t classes huge? Do you even know your classmates or instructor? The quality can’t be as good as a campus course, can it?

We live, work, and play online – why not learn online?

Let’s dive in to some myths and facts about the current state of online education, with examples of best practices from the University of Florida’s Online Master of Urban and Regional Planning (MURP) Program.

MYTH: ONLINE STUDENTS AREN’T PREPARED FOR THE PROFESSIONAL WORLD

A few months shy of 2020 and it’s apparent: We’re not working our grandparents’ jobs. We’ve evolved from switchboard operators to social media curators, and from an 8-to-5 schedule to carrying our jobs in our pocket. Smartphones and technology change the way we work and learn; online data-gathering and instantaneous global communication are now the norm.

Like other programs, students in UF’s MURP Online program have access to a wide variety of software, accessible anywhere in the world through an internet connection. These online tools not only help students connect and learn, but in using them, train for our modern, mobile work place:

  • Zoom, a video conferencing platform, helps students connect, deliver presentations, and celebrate experiences like commencements and awards ceremonies.
  • ESRI’s ArcMap, ArcGIS Pro, and StoryMaps transform data into interactive, decision-influencing maps. These tools are online and are the standard for professional planners everywhere.
  • The Canvas learning management platform is a dynamic hub — storing all things necessary to deliver and absorb course content and resources.

Working with these tools not only regularly, but also remotely, gives these students a distinct advantage in digital professionalism.

MYTH: YOU CAN’T TEACH A PLANNING STUDIO ONLINE

One of the first (and most common) remarks about online education in planning is that it lacks the in-person interactions that are part of a studio experience. This is far from the truth, says Thomas Hawkins, MURP Online Program Director:

We designed the studio from the ground up to give master’s students real-life experience collecting planning data, authoring useful analyses, and conceptualizing development. The setting is a real place; students collect information from the same sources as practicing planners. Our approach delivers an experience that is as engaging as any on-campus studio, and incorporates methods to professional planning practice – it just takes place in virtual space.

In UF’s MURP Online Program, we harness the power of two educator-practitioners to deliver our Studio: Thomas Hawkins, JD, and Laurel Harbin, PhD. As AICP-certified planning practitioners, they integrate their professional networks, resources, and on-the-ground expertise to create a unique studio experience delivered online. The innovation leads to deliverables and products that are of substantial quality – take a look for yourself.

FACT: SMALLER CLASS SIZES ARE DESIRABLE

Remember MOOCs? Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) went through a massive boom-bust cycle since they once stole the online education spotlight. In contrast to unsubstantiated claims that students “may be better served by being in larger classes … by hiring fewer teachers,” studies show that smaller classroom sizes are more effective learning environments.

UF’s Online MURP Program takes an almost “boutique” approach to education. Students typically see course enrollments of 8-14 students per course, instructors curate and update course content each offering, and a personalized approach is witnessed through collaborative-technology implementation like Zoom video calls, virtual groupwork and presentations, work-at-your-own pace modules and case study investigations from the local to the regional and even global scale. In addition, students can pursue Independent Studies where they work one-on-one with faculty in a subject area of their choice. Let’s face it, learning at the graduate level benefits from instructors who hold students accountable and who students can speak with directly.

FACT: ONLINE COURSES HAVE GREATER QUALITY CONTROL

As an employee, how many hours have you spent in unproductive conference meetings? As a student, how many times have you sat in a dull lecture, or had an overworked professor with an exhausted attitude?

Hey – life happens; we’re only human. Until, that is, we shift the conversation to online learning. In contrast to lectures, which are teacher-centric, online learning environments “flip” the classroom, putting the student in control of the pace. This amplifies the ability for students to work through content, and successfully achieve student learning outcomes.

Also, a number of quality-control mechanisms exist for online courses that don’t exist for in-person courses: lectures are pre-recorded and refined for quality and instructor-student interaction is logged and recorded for quality and future reference. Education becomes more efficient through curated content, rather than mundane lectures.

MYTH: THERE’S NO COMMUNITY IN ONLINE EDUCATION

UF’s Campus and Online MURP students graduate side-by-side with the same degree.

Fostering online communities isn’t just a best practice, it’s a necessity in order to synergize with online learners and workers. Social media platforms are probably the most easily-recognized online communities. Considering yourself part of an academic online community is a little more challenging. It takes a lot of effort to match personalities to the faces behind the screens.

In UF’s MURP Online Program, we recognize and pride ourselves in the interpersonal relationships that have been created with every student. Life happens: honeymoons are taken, houses burn down, babies are born, hurricanes decimate neighborhoods, and medical issues arise (all of which have happened in our program, by the way). These life events are met not only with academic flexibility, but with support and understanding on a personal level.

TAKEAWAY: THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA’S ONLINE MASTER OF URBAN AND REGIONAL PLANNING IS THE FIRST AND ONLY COMPLETELY ONLINE GRADUATE PLANNING PROGRAM IN THE U.S.

Yes, there are other online planning programs in the United States. But UF’s MURP Online Program is the first and only comprehensive master’s in the planning field that’s completely online. No campus visits, weekend travel requirements, or displacement of any kind. Save money and the stress of periodic academic travel, and get a planning master’s completely online from a Top 8 Public University.

UF’s MURP Online student population spans states, countries, and continents; students bring global perspectives, and can earn their degree from wherever they may be in the world.

“As an alumnus of our campus MURP Program, and the Assistant Director of the MURP Online Program, I can wholeheartedly say that this is the premier online planning program in the U.S. I truly enjoy watching our students foster global connections on academic, professional, and personal levels. And working one-on-one with students and our alumni has allowed me to see firsthand that the MURP Online Program really does create experts in the planning practice.” — Kyle Dost, Assistant Director, MURP Online Program

Come join us here at the University of Florida from the comfort of your own home or office, and earn your Master of Urban and Regional Planning degree – online.

Kyle Dost is the Assistant Director of the University of Florida's MURP Online Program.

Tags: education