NCU Cultural Evolution
Key to Keeping Students Engaged

Written by Judy Tierney

With more and more non-traditional students seeking out advanced degrees, online courses and programs are disrupting the brick-and-mortar model of traditional universities. While this increase in enrollment represents a great opportunity for universities that specialize in online programs, it may seemingly present a challenge for one that prides itself on a one-to-one learning model, and a class size of one for each of its students.

Provost Dr. David Harpool

So, how does a university like NCU meet the needs of an even greater population of students, while maintaining the individualized approach that has made the University successful for 20 years? We talked to NCU Provost, Dr. David Harpool, about the cultural evolution underway to keep NCU relevant and a top choice for motivated self-starters.

“One of my primary roles as Provost is making sure I engage with faculty to ensure they are engaging with students,” said Harpool, who sees student engagement as a top priority. “The kind of engagement we’re looking for at NCU is one in which there is a robust dialogue between the faculty member, who is a mentor and subject matter expert, and the student who has a particular passion about a discipline.”

Working with the Faculty Senate and the Deans from each of NCU’s Schools, Harpool recently created a new faculty appointment letter that more clearly sets forth what NCU means by engagement, and what the University expects from its faculty. The idea is to connect, in as many ways as possible, the student and faculty member as students are applying their chosen disciplines in the real world.

To enhance the overall experience for the student, the University has recently shifted from a ‘teaching by feedback’ concept to a ‘teaching by engagement’ approach. In the former, the faculty provided comments and corrections on a student’s work and made suggestions about how it could be improved. Alternatively, the engagement approach allows faculty to be much more proactive and involved earlier on in assignments, and guide students along the way.

"One of my primary roles as Provost is making sure I engage with faculty to make sure they are engaging with students.”

Dr. David Harpool

“As we looked at the impact of ‘teaching by feedback,’” reflected Harpool, “we determined it was good, but not sufficient. Feedback is only one part of the interaction needed to help our students be successful.”

Harpool describes the ‘teaching by engagement’ relationship as a partnership. “We see our students as blossoming scholars being mentored by our faculty scholars who are experts in the discipline already.”

Gone are the days where students put in years of work and received comprehensive feedback near the end of a project. Now that students and faculty start the journey together earlier on, faculty members can more easily offer support in critical areas of the program such as forming questions, determining research project parameters and guiding a student’s initial research. “We’re providing peer-to-peer, professional feedback in real time because that’s when the learning takes place,” said Harpool.

While the primary focus is on the student/faculty connection, NCU is encouraging its entire community to adopt the model of an open, meaningful dialogue early in the process to help students. Everyone who interacts with students – including academic and finance advisors, academic coaches, dissertation committee members and the IRB office staff – all have a role in making sure students stay engaged and motivated.

Another key focus area is identifying opportunities for students to attend conferences, present papers at meetings and symposiums, and gain exposure to professionals and information outside of the coursework setting. Harpool explained that finding ways to apply knowledge in new ways is especially helpful for graduate and doctoral students.

“We see our students as blossoming scholars being mentored by our faculty scholars who are experts in the discipline already.”

Dr. David Harpool

The move to the new model is taking place in coordination with the launch of NCUOne - the University’s new Learning Management System (LMS) - and the redesign of NCU’s doctoral program, which was led by Dr. John LaNear, NCU SVP, Academic Affairs. While it’s still early in the process, Harpool said that the biggest impact so far has been on students who are being moved to NCUOne, and students who are moving into the doctoral dissertation process.

“We’ve had multiple students who have said things like, ‘I’ve made more progress towards my dissertation in four months than I made in the first two years,’ or ‘It’s really refreshing to be excited about a subject in my discipline and to be able to interact with a group of experts,’” said Harpool. “This model, and the ongoing conversation between scholars, makes it a much more practical, applied process.”

Harpool and the rest of the NCU faculty and staff are looking forward to making an even bigger impact as the ‘teaching by engagement’ model is further implemented. “The evolving role of the faculty to coach, mentor, encourage, guide, and then critique, is a significant shift,” Harpool concluded. “That role is now broadened to require more systematic interaction, and I think we’re really going to see the educational experience enhanced. There is no substitute for a bright, talented faculty member connecting and communicating regularly with a bright, enthusiastic student.”