Online Learning & Leadership During Crisis
The EdUp Experience President Series #2 Join us as we have a fascinating conversation with Dr. David Harpool, President of Northcentral University. Dr. Harpool has been President of NCU for over 9 years and he has over 25 years of experience in higher education at multiple levels. During his tenure, NCU has grown quickly and, in 2019, NCU successfully made the transition from for-profit institution to non-profit institution as they merged with the National University system. David gives us great insight into alternative learning models, including NCU's one-to-one learning model. He also discusses the necessity of differentiating remote/virtual learning from online learning, which comes with a unique set of pedagogical practices. Toward the end of the episode, David discusses how he and his leadership team are tackling the issue of having/not having commencement.
**Dr. Joe Sallustio graduated from Northcentral University in 2019 with an Ed.D. in Organizational Leadership**
Thanks so much for tuning in. Join us again next week for another episode! Contact Us!
● If you want to get involved, leave us a comment or rate us!
● Visit us at The EdUp Experience.
Thanks for listening!
We make education your business!
How did you get to be the president at north central university? What's that story? Maybe you can give us the cliff notes of how your journey led you to be a president?
Sure. I started off as a high school teacher and coach and a speech teacher and went back to get a masters. And as I got a master's degree, I got more interested in higher education. Went to law school and took my first couple of clients out of a really large law firm in St. Louis working with colleges and I got to know how they work, how they function. And they had an opening for somebody to come in and teach in a combination of both their law school and a legal safe program.
And so I went there and got a tenure track position. I went from there to the Dean of the department. Then I went to the vice president of university. Then I went to the pros. And then I took my first presidency and I think this is the third one over the 25 years.
And so I went to NCU about nine years ago.
So was this something you wanted to do?
I like leading organizations. And so I think part of it was there's a natural instinct towards it, but also I went back and got a PhD in higher education leadership from St. Louis university. And when I got that, I got really fascinated in higher ed as a discipline, not just a profession.
I know that north central university is fully online but my first question to you. How have you had to adjust your leadership? You're leading a significant university here with lots of students. How have you had to adjust your leadership to, to, for your employees and for your students during the pandemic?
We've always I have a philosophy I always have had it, which is how you treat your faculty and staff is directly proportional to how your students will be treated.
And so we've always had a philosophy take care of your faculty and take care of your staff. And so we've done things over the years to make sure, for example, we've had eight consecutive years of merit increases. We've consistently improved healthcare. And the reason we do that is I think it's important that you've sent a clear message to faculty and staff that I understand how important they are, that there is no education experience without them.
So when this came along what we decided to do is first and foremost communicate directly to faculty and staff that they're important to us and what can we do to help if they need to take a reduction in their load? If they needed additional equipment to be able to work from home, although all but about 30 of our 600 employees were already working from their home.
If they needed some additional support, because we knew there were going to be children at home now and spouses at home. So first thing we just focused on faculty and staff. At the same time though, then we reached out the students and we did things that were a little untraditional for us because we work primarily with graduate students.
We have 11,000 students. And what we did is we reached out to them and said, Hey, we're going to form student groups. If you need somebody to talk to, we're going to provide some services available out of our social and behavioral sciences department. We're going to set up funding of almost $300,000 students that need emotional and financial support - we're going to change some academic policies in terms of helping you stay in school, extend your courses, continue to be enrolled. For those you need to have your financial aid reviewed. We're going to streamline that process. And then the third day we did is we asked ourselves, okay, what technology do we need to invest in ?
And as because we're primarily online university, we have a pretty significant investment in technology, but even we found there were some areas where we could improve things like speed to access to the library, open up courses a little bit earlier, things like that.
Interesting. And you said one thing that I want to just zero in on it real fast, because I think it's one of the challenges that some institutions are experiencing now. You said one of the things we looked at is adjusting or changing some of your academic policies during this time. That's not generally easy to do for a lot of institutions, even if they're prodded to move quicker.
I think education higher education in general there is bureaucracy and committees and this sort of malaise of it's like walking through the mud in your dream sometimes. There are fast moving institutions and sometimes not. So how did you move so quickly to change those academic policies and how have you positioned your university maybe from a cultural standpoint to be able to move so quickly to respond?
Yeah, that's great question. I tell people I've been asked that a few times and I tell them it started nine years ago. Because it all starts with culture. And if the culture you build is that we're not a president centric university. They're not here for me. It's not about glorifying me. And that we're not a faculty centric university that it's not about the faculty and that we're not just a student-centered faculty, but we're a learning institution, learning centered university, then that culture is built. So, when it came time to say to the faculty Senate and the various governing bodies who I have a great relationship with actually, and you say to them, Hey what's best for students. It was quick and they immediately made the changes we needed.
And I think that's the key. If the culture is focused on learning of students and the importance of students, then you make those decisions quickly. If it's a competition among various constituencies and shareholders that exist on universities, then I think it's where you get to slow down. And so in this case, it went pretty quickly because we already had that culture.
You talked about the culture and making it a learning culture. What is your philosophy when you think about being a leader, how do you develop future leaders? How do you make sure that you have a diverse ability to develop leadership as you progress and especially in a crisis like this, making sure that you have the proper leaders in place with you?
Yeah it has to be intentional. You have to put in a program to really identify very early people who have you think the potential and then give them the opportunities. I think the most important thing is you've got to give them a safe place to fail. People have to be given a chance to demonstrate they can do it.
And just to give you an idea, our cabinet, that, and we are not a typical in a university structure in the sense. Our cabinet, we don't take votes. We reach consensus, we disagree and we don't stop talking until we agree. And in that model, we're about 60% female and we're about 40% male right now, diverse, which represents our student population almost exactly. And I try to set a goal that at least 50% of everybody in our university leadership grew up in the institution and around 50% come from the outside. Cause I think you need other perspectives. So I could, right now in our cabinet, identify at least six younger women or diverse candidates, I would say who grew up in our system and became leaders. So they just did that natural step like I just described my own the best way to evaluate people, to continue to give them the responsibility and accountability and watch them perform.
I know that recruitment right now, enrollment big question for a lot of our institutions. So talk us through what are some of the things that you are doing differently now that you were in the past, specifically your role? What was your role like before COVID and what is it like now? And what do you think you'll be after COVID in terms of specifically talking about recruitment
I've spent a lot more time, probably in small groups with faculty and staff than I normally would. We do a thing every quarter called an unscripted where I just get on the phone for two hours and you ask any questions And there's no limits.
And so we have a pretty open dialogue. I'm probably blunt and transparent to a fault. And people are used to asking whatever they want to ask me. So we've done a lot more of those. We've done a couple with just students, which has been interesting. We've had, I think we had 300 students on one of them.
We want to know what's the university needing to respond to. But what I'm spending a lot of time doing right now, though, regarding the future is in terms of enrollment, we're doing as you would have expected - pretty spectacularly because students are now evaluating online learning really as a permanent alternative, especially when they hear there might be campuses not opening in the fall.
So they're looking around and I don't think it's for everyone, but what I've said. I want to make sure that we don't get lost in this dialogue. That's going on right now that what's going on right now is remote learning. It's not online yet. It's technology, assisted learning, but it is not online learning.
And I've been on a mission talking on multiple media fronts, where basically in order to do real online learning, there has to be a pedagogy that has to be some philosophy of teaching. Secondly, you have to have faculty who not only want to do it, but have been trained to do it are engaged. So everyone that comes in, knows you're going to teach online and they know it's hard.
And it takes more time. The third thing you gotta do is you've got to have a learning platform and we can debate whether their learning styles or learning intelligence, any of that research changes every 10 years, we go back and forth. But I don't think there's any doubt about learning preferences and you need to have Platform that meets those preferences.
Do I want to learn auditory or do I want to be able to read everything or communicate by chat or communicate by video, et cetera, et cetera. Then I think the fourth thing you do is have a system for evaluating student outcomes that is as technologically advanced as the learning management system.
So we've been out talking a lot about the difference between online learning and remote learning or technology assisted learning, not because I'm criticizing those things because they were absolutely necessary. And in some ways I've seen higher ed act faster in this circumstance than I thought was possible for traditional higher ed.
It's been quite impressive what a lot of those institutions have done. I want to make sure that online learning and the robust valuable contribution it makes to higher education is not lost or is not given an unfair evaluation by schools. And if someone used the analogy, I stole this, I can't remember who said it, but someone said you don't teach someone to swim in the middle of a flood and you don't teach somebody to drink water out of a fire hose.
And both of those are true. And I don't think you can evaluate the value of technology into education in the middle of crisis.
And I guess my question from a faculty perspective is in terms of developing that culture developing the idea that as far as the online learning, teaching pedagogy, what would your advice be? So what would your advice be for those schools that are just now trying to navigate this and don't have the experience and the legacy that you guys have in this area?
Yeah. The first thing I think is that you got to take on a pedagogy that has existed in higher ed for hundreds of years. Some would probably argue in the back to the Greeks, which I'm not sure that's ever properly been evaluated in terms of effectiveness, but the Sage on stage model is not a highly effective model of teaching.
I'm a speech and theater major. So there's nothing I'd rather do thhen getting in front of a crowd. It's probably not the most effective and it's funny, elementary and secondary school teachers by and large know this because they have 40 hours of teaching methodology before they ever walk into a class
You got to challenge that pedagogy. The second thing is, I don't think you've force faculty in a crisis you may, but you don't generally force faculty into online learning. What you do is you expose them to them in a very safe manner. I know one institution who tried giving one and a half credits towards the teaching load so that faculty would have an incentive to try it
I actually was got into online learning in 1988 to kill online learning in our university, I was a member of the faculty Senate, and I was appointed to go over and kill this new thing that was a threat and blah, blah, blah.
And I went and taught it and two experiences changed my whole perspective. One day I was teaching debate and I had some students who were taking a political argumentation course from me. And I was noticing that certain students who were not very good in the classroom were my very best students were online, they were smart articulate and I noticed that some of it was gender. And I realized that I had some intimidation in my classroom that I had not picked up as an instructor. The second thing is I did a class on international negotiation differences, cultural styles issues - and we did a case study work – a manufacturing plant was folding.
What was the response? And watching the geographic difference, not only within the United States, but watching a European approach towards it versus a former Soviet at that time, former Soviet Union block, and watching how they came up with different solutions from “close it, that’s life” to let's all take a reduction in salary to - just bunch of different solutions. Those two experiences made me fall absolutely in love with online.
So can you talk a little bit about just alternative learning models, the north central one-to-one model and how accomplish your goals, using that educationally?
About nine years ago when I first came in and I came in as a, what they call a faculty scholar position, and then I moved into a general counsel position ironically there was so much regulatory scheme around it. And then I went into the provost and then became president. And in that I thought there were a lot of things NCU was doing well when I got there, I certainly didn't build the model.
I was concerned though that what we were describing as our teaching pedagogy back then. And you probably remember this was called teaching through feedback, and what I thought that was one element of teaching feedback. Absolutely. But I think if you involve faculty and students much earlier in the process, In the early creation stages, maybe post discipline knowledge, but right when you're starting to create the massive doctoral dissertation, and you're starting to conduct research, you get them together early there would be huge benefits. So we rewrote the pedagogy and called it teaching through engagement.
And it's based on the concept that all learning is really a one-to-one experience with faculty and students, and that you become not only colleagues, but almost peers in some aspects, and that you teach through engagement by continuing to having a dialogue as the way you teach.
And then you put that in a one-to-one model, which is how we, we do all of our courses. And then you build a robust learning management system. For example, the one you started with was highly reliable, but didn't have much functionality and we wanted a much more robust one. So we spent a lot of time and money working with education companies to find one and adapt it to our learning methodology so that you communicate any way you want.
You can communicate by phone, video, email, synchronous, asynchronous. You can tape a message. You can get it automatically and reply - all types of technology that didn't exist. And so we thought if you put really well-educated bright, committed faculty and students who are equally committed and ready to take the next step in their journey, you put those together.
You're going to get good learning. And that's what happened. Exactly. And I can back that up, that I felt the experience was outstanding. I did not encounter one single faculty member that was unresponsive in any way.
How do we get faculty to the idea of faculty that one-on-one relationships with the faculty, almost being like a peer. How do we get faculty to get off of that high horse and get down on the students level? How are you able to do the NCU and how would you encourage other universities and colleges to encourage that for their faculty?
Yeah. Yeah. I think it's the same concept of when you have team teaching, you have to believe, I believe that we're better together than you are individually. So part of that has to do with addressing how real learning takes place and I think a lot of it's the pedagogy and our faculty are clearly in charge of the class.
There's no doubt about that. And our faculty clearly set the standards for students in order to complete a course, master learning outcomes and move on. But because most of our students are over 30 and most of our students are already in their profession. You are dealing with someone who's already demonstrated a skill set.
They've already demonstrated professionalism. So, I think that gives us an advantage, but what I've always suggested is you’ve got to approach a classroom with the belief that while you're teaching, you're learning. And I've always believed that. I never, I don't believe that any course I've ever taught, no matter how many times I've taught it.
that I didn't learn something while I was teaching. And so, if you see yourself as a teacher guide learner, rather than teacher sole expert, I think that's the way you can persuade people to do it.
So I know that you had a call with 250 presidents of other colleges and universities. What were some of the big takeaways from that? And when you've been interacting with folks in the same position, what are some of the things that they're saying?
You're seeing a group of people who view this as a four month problem. And as soon as it's over, we're going back to doing things the way we were doing things, and we're happy with the way things were going. And we've been doing it that way, at least in the United States for 200 years. And like I said, some would argue way past that.
And I think there's, and I would say that group probably represents, and I'm just saying this off the top of my head based on comments made, I'd say that 30% of what I heard. Then there's about, I would say maybe 40% group who said, Hey this is a wake up call. And when this crisis is over, we have to start investing significant amount of money in building online capabilities and technology capabilities that we've just we've been dealing with it incrementally, but we no longer can afford an incremental approach.
And you can tell that by the amount of money being invested, In education companies and the amount of relationships you're seeing announced between what I would call OPM online program managers and universities. So I think there's a pretty good chunk of higher ed that says, okay, we've got to get prepared for this because this may become a new norm.
On a more permanent basis or at least part of it will become part of our new norm. And then I think there's the rest of groups in the middle saying we're still evaluating. We're not sure if Online learning is remote learning. We don't have much interest in it but we keep hearing, there are people that do it, are doing it better and more robust and that they have equal to or better outcomes sometimes.
What I don't know is whether this crisis - is this crisis going to permit incrementalism as a leadership forum, because as you said, at the beginning, majority of higher ed has been a story of very slow change, defend the status quo at all costs.
I'm, unfortunately I'm old enough to remember that when we went from Monday, Wednesday, Friday classes to Tuesdays and Thursdays, that was controversial. And then we went to evening. That was controversial. Then we went to weekends and that was controversial. Then they went to what we call extended learning extended campuses, and that was controversial.
So however, higher ed has not had a track record of what I would call quick adoption. And I think the real story of higher ed is going to be when we come out of this crisis. Is this a four month blip that made people reevaluate, made some people solidify what they were already doing, or is it going to be a life-changing event in the history of higher ed?
It's going to require people but I would argue this no matter what, whether you have COVID-19. Yeah. Technology is developing in higher ed at such a pace that you cannot ignore it. You cannot just say we're going to continue to do things the way we used to do, because the students who are coming in the next 10 years, aren't going to put up with a lack of technology.
Are you having a commencement?
I don't go as far as saying, I think it's a sacred part of higher education and we know that's going and we know it's really important to students, but it's also really important to faculty, staff and administration. It's a one time you really get to see. The fruits of the labor. So we are at this point, planning holding it, we we have begun to process what would be the decision-making paradigm and one would be and ours happens to be this year in Arizona.
What's the state of Arizona's policy at the time. Number two, what are the bordering states? Since we're in all 50 states and 23 countries, it's a little more complex. If we can. How would we do a spacing and would we limit who can attend? Rather than our typical bring everybody you want to bring because of the health risk, what would we do in terms of mask?
Clearly changing ceremonies in terms of shaking hands exchanging physical diplomas at that moment. We've looked at it when we have nursing stations available. We, we test temperatures. We're walking through all of that. We also, that's tied to our annual faculty symposium for us, which is the time where we bring in all of our faculty from around the world.
So we're working on that. So I think most universities are, I'm also facing as a father who has a daughter graduating from Boston university as an undergraduate. And she's all excited. And then now of course, if, and when they're going to have that ceremony, I think we're all facing it.
We have one advantage in the sense that we have always traditionally done ours in late summer, not to compete during the may period. One is we have a lot of people. Family, other family members going to school. And we've always tried to avoid the competition of everybody sitting in may because we don't have to.
Secondly, we're really late in August this year and third word this year, we chosen to do it outside of Phoenix. Where it will be a beautiful, a hundred 1,920 degrees, but we're inside, but it might, Disher actually pay us. Because if there's any, and there's no science behind this, but if there's any relationship between this being responsive to heat so the bottom line is you identified exactly the issue.
We're looking at every one of those details. Do we take three times the size of the room we would historically take and spread everybody six foot, six feet apart? So we are looking at, but at this point I think we're going to sneak it in. We'll probably limit the size. We typically run somewhere around 3000 people and I know they're not going to bring back sporting events for 20 and 25,000 people this year.
I think we're going to wait and see what the, what size limits they recommend. But to answer your question is we're doing everything we humanly can. If not, we will do two things. We'll do a very robust remote one, which is we broadcast anyway, we live stream every year for those. And secondly, we will give everybody a second pass for the following.
The first time we can do it in person. So that just because they missed their window, doesn't mean they couldn't walk the next year if they wanted to. But my bias is present. It is to have it if at all possible and to do it as safely as I can.
I'm good. Okay, David. So I'm going to finish off here. Thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate it. I know you're busy, special evidence going So two last questions from me. I'd like to ask all our guests, number one, what would you like to be remembered for?
And number two, what does the future of education look like to you?
I want to be remembered somebody. Was in it for the right reasons. I care about students. I care about faculty.
I care about staff. The only two things that have ever changed anybody's life are education and faith, and I want to be known that I promoted both of them. And then in terms of where higher education is going. I believe higher education degree-granting will still be important 200 years from now.
I know that there is this view that micro-credentials are coming along and people are going to question the value of higher education. But my experience has been teaching people how to think, use technology, think critically problem solve research. It's always going to be the basis of what's next.
In fact, if you watch the response to the COVID-19 crisis, it is not an indictment of higher ed. It is actually proof positive that what we teach is the right thing to how to research, how to study, how to problem-solve. And so I'm very optimistic about the future of higher ed.