GCU tie-in is buy-in for nontraditional students

March 18, 2020 / by / 0 Comment

Jason Hembree (left) and Brian Hardy are two of the 183 faculty members who teach online students from their office at 27th Avenue and Camelback Road.

Editor’s note: This story is reprinted from the February issue of GCU Magazine, an inside look at the unprecedented growth of the University in the last decade. To read the digital version of the magazine, click here.

Story by Mike Kilen
Photos by Elizabeth Tinajero
GCU Magazine

Outside Rick Holbeck’s second-floor office is a desk-filled expanse the size of a football field. Half of this enormous floor off 27th Avenue and Camelback Road is for 182 online full-time faculty who teach courses for Grand Canyon University.

In October 2010 when he arrived, Holbeck was one of those teachers – the staff back then was small enough to fit into a couple of cubicles.

“We were a test,” said Holbeck, who is now the boss of those 182 as Executive Director of Online Full Time Faculty. “(GCU President) Brian Mueller wondered what it would be like if we got a bunch of full-time faculty teaching here with four monitors.”

Rick Holbeck, Executive Director of Online Full Time Faculty, says having instructors communicate regularly with students is what sets GCU apart.

The idea was to create a student-supporting online faculty that was different from other institutions. Faculty would call students to welcome them, respond to their questions within 24 hours and include faculty with admissions counselors and student service advisors on a team to help students.

“The idea was to support nontraditional students who hadn’t been in school for some time and were maybe a little nervous about their writing skills or technology skills – and to have somebody live on the phone they can talk to and walk them through,” Holbeck said.

“I think the turning point was immediate.”

Within a year, 80 online full-time faculty members were needed just to keep up with the rise of incoming students.

“Being able to advertise to students that your first few classes are going to be with full-time faculty that are approachable and there to help you, I think was a huge sell to students,” Holbeck said.

Today, the full-time faculty on campus are joined by adjunct instructors across the country to provide online education for more than 80,000 students, more than double the number 10 years ago.

Among those “original eight” faculty attracted to GCU was Assistant Professor Rebecca Richey. She’s still teaching.

“It was a unique opportunity to develop programs in a different way – the avenue to have full-time teaching for online students,” Richey said. “Our teaching staff are really proficient at making connections with students online. That is a unique gift not everyone has the ability to do.”

While part-time instructors may have other jobs, Richey said, offering full-time faculty to all students in their first year allows for a personal focus and time to develop relationships.

“One student of mine, before Thanksgiving her husband died suddenly, and she had to move out of state to find a job. But she was able to finish up her education,” Richey said. “Just being with her and having that Christian perspective with her and knowing that someone is praying for her, that means a lot to be able to do that.”

While the online enrollment growth continued, Holbeck said the staff also became better at retaining students. All that success allowed GCU to begin building a campus of traditional students, which became a thriving place that added even more appeal to online students.

“Just to know you are part of something bigger,” he said. “You are not just a building with a sign on the side of the highway.”

A GCU community was forming – even though it was online around the world.

The online program “stayed true to a very traditional pedagogy,” Mueller said, with small, interactive and collaborative groups of students who could engage with faculty. “That’s creating a community in an online classroom,” he said. “Then we try as best we can to connect them to the institution.”

Students can stream Chapel or basketball games, attend special “Lopes on the Road” events at games on the road near them, and come to campus for Commencement.

“They are in Cincinnati and our basketball team is on TV, they want to be able to say, ‘That’s where I go,’” he said. “And our graduations are amazing; they come from all over the world, bring in their parents and bring in their children and are incredibly proud.”

They may meet traditional students and “they want to be part of that,” he continued. “This is a traditional university. They want to say this is a campus with a sense of purpose that is going to be here 50 years from now. … Increasingly now they are saying, ‘I want to be a part of this university, what this university does in the community, the impact it has.’”

Almost half of online students are studying on a graduate level, and many have established careers. That works out well for traditional undergrad students, who often get hired by their GCU brethren.

The full-time faculty outside Holbeck’s office have the advantage of collaborating on new technology or teaching methods. It’s all designed to create community. Faculty may have students share a photo of themselves with their online class doing a Lopes Up hand gesture, for example, or encourage sharing videos that they created with other online students.

“A lot of things are connecting them,” Holbeck said. “They feel like they are not isolated working in some room but are part of something bigger.”

As it has turned out, much bigger.


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