Editor’s note: This story is reprinted from the March issue of GCU Magazine. To view the digital version of the magazine, click here.
By Karen Fernau
Nicole Rhoades spends a good portion of her day as an online instructor at Grand Canyon University fielding questions from students eager to fine-tune their writing.
When occasionally stumped for an answer, Rhoades knows exactly where to turn. Help sits a cubicle or two away.
GCU’s entire staff of 163 full-time online instructors work side by side on the second floor of the new administrative building near the corner of 27th Avenue and Camelback Road.
Their workplace – designed to build a strong bond between instructors and their students – is a rarity in online education.
GCU stands out as one of the only U.S. universities to house full-time online faculty on campus rather than leaving them scattered in home offices, said Rick Holbeck, GCU’s executive director of full-time online faculty.
“It’s a very different model, and other universities are looking closely at what we do,” he said.
For online instructors, GCU’s novel approach makes teaching easier and more rewarding.
“It’s wonderful to be able to collaborate every day with other instructors. We share what works, what doesn’t. We are better together than apart,” said Rhoades, a full-time instructor in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
Along with encouraging collaboration, working on campus makes it easier for instructors to build strong, productive relationships with students.
“Basically our office hours are 40 hours a week, not two hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” said John Steele, an online professor in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences who along with co-workers moved in December to campus from satellite offices in Tempe and north Phoenix.
“We know how important it is to connect with our students, to give them individual attention, and being here helps.”
To foster that connection, full-time faculty contact students shortly before they begin classes to encourage distance learners to ask questions and get help.
It’s all part of GCU’s goal to make online learning personalized and engaging.
“Our faculty members grow close to many of their students, and that’s no small feat for someone who never walks into a traditional classroom,” Holbeck said.
Key link for students
A strong student-teacher relationship is what keeps James Wray on track for a bachelor’s degree in Christian Studies.
“I can reach out at any time and get personalized attention. I’ve not been in school for 35 years, and without the unbelievable support from GCU, I’m not sure I would stay in school,” said Wray, an assistant director of New Beginnings of Tampa (Fla.), a ministry for homeless veterans.
Wray, who’s enrolled in his third class, said GCU’s support extends beyond the classroom. The former contractor has little experience with technology or research and has received help on both fronts.
“I’ve reached out to Tech Support, and they were right on the ball. Same goes when I had a question on an assignment and called the library,” he said. “I’m across the country, but thanks to all the support, I feel very much part of the University and its mission.”
Housing full-time faculty to teach online courses on campus was the brainchild of GCU President Brian Mueller. The experimental campus program began in 2010 with six full-time instructors hired to work on campus.
“It was successful out of the gate. Two months later, we hired 15 more,” Holbeck said.
Numbers keep rising
Hiring continued as online enrollment increased dramatically. According to GCU’s fourth-quarter 2016 report, nearly 65,000 students are enrolled in online classes, a nine percent increase over 2015.
The stunning growth has been driven, in part, by GCU’s commitment to building bridges between instructors and students. Other factors include 24/7 log-in access, small class sizes, interaction with other classmates, tutoring assistance and chat support to the more than 200 programs, emphases and certificates.
Classes are eight weeks long and students take one course at a time.
GCU’s Christian foundation also allows online students an opportunity to pair faith-integrated learning with the flexibility of online.
“I like that when I speak with an instructor, I can quote Scripture. It’s great to be enrolled in a university that shares my faith,” Wray said.
Another goal of GCU’s full-time faculty is to foster a hybrid learning environment. Students attending the Phoenix campus are able to enroll in a combination of classes, from traditional brick-and-mortar to classes on their laptops.
“Hybrid learning is the future, and for us the future is now,” Holbeck said.
Sara Robertson, an instructor in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, agreed: “GCU only benefits by integrating online and ground staff. It’s great for us and the students.”
Another perk has nothing to do with academics. Working on campus allows faculty to cheer on the Lopes at sporting events, attend plays in Ethington Theatre and dine with friends in the Student Union.
“I like feeling a part of the University, seeing the kids on campus, going to games,” Robertson said. “I teach online but am part of the bigger picture.”
Contact Karen Fernau at (602) 639-8344 or email@example.com.