Onward, Online

Rick Fehrenbacher talks about what’s already underway and up ahead for continuing, online and professional education at Seattle University

Story by: Mike Thee
Published: 2013-11-05

When you walk into the new space for SU's Continuing, Online and Professional Education (COPE) in Pigott Pavilion, you're immediately struck with a feeling that you are staring right into the future-and that the future is now.

Off to the right, behind a glass partition running from ceiling to floor, oversized tablets that actually are full-fledged PCs hum. Easily moveable furniture is positioned throughout the room, just asking to be rearranged. Large monitors on the walls emit an intriguing glow that is at once eerie and inviting. This is the room at rest, but it won't be long before it's alive again with 25 faculty members creating new ideas, collaborating with one another and ultimately reinventing how they teach.

They are COPE's first cohort of professors, pioneers on a six-month journey. Their mission? To design new courses that will be taught online, or as hybrids that blend online and more traditional classroom teaching. It is the beginning of a new era at SU that in time will see the roll-out of new courses for graduate students, undergraduates and adults who are returning to college as non-traditional students. It's all about responding to higher education's changing landscape, meeting today's students where they are-and doing it the SU way.

Leading the effort is COPE's director, Rick Fehrenbacher. Part English professor, part techie, Fehrenbacher is as much in his element dissecting a line from Chaucer as writing a line of HTML. Previously the director of Distance and Extended Education at the University of Idaho, Fehrenbacher joined SU in fall 2012. A little over a year into his time at SU, he talked about COPE, how SU is assuring that online learning aligns with Jesuit pedagogy, what's coming in the year ahead, how he became involved in online and continuing education, and more-he even shared a quirky connection he has to former NFL quarterback Brett Favre.

The Commons:  What drew you to SU?

Rick Fehrenbacher:  Seattle University has always had a very strong academic reputation. I'm Catholic-I had a couple uncles who were priests, and I love the university's mission. I was also drawn by the opportunity to start something new. SU hadn't done much in continuing, online and professional education. At the same time, the university did a lot of research on how to do this well before they hired me. There was a vision before I even got here, and fortunately it coincides with my own, so it's worked out well. My sons were living on the west side (of the mountains) so it was good as far as a family move as well.

The Commons:  What have your first impressions of this place been?

Rick Fehrenbacher:  It's great. I love it here. It's the dedication to mission here that drives the institution. In a lot of places, that's just lip service, but here people actually live it, and it's immensely gratifying to work at Seattle University. I mean, every day when you come to work, you know why you're here and you know what you're trying to do.

The Commons:  Can you talk about why it's important for SU to get more involved in online and hybrid education?

Rick Fehrenbacher:  Right now only 16 percent of students in post-secondary education are your 18- to 22-year-old, on-campus students. Eighty-four percent of the students who are engaged in higher education right now are typically working adults of some sort. It's incumbent upon us to offer them access to this transformative Jesuit education. You know, Ignatius was an adult learner. He came back to school late in his life. COPE is quite consistent with the university's mission.

The Commons:  Can you talk about how Ignatian pedagogy comes into play in designing online or hybrid courses?

Rick Fehrenbacher:  That liberal arts component of a Jesuit education-that concern with social justice and ethical leadership and finding a way to make your education not just about a job but a way in which you combine intellectual and vocational interests to lead a meaningful life-this is what we want to focus on. Anybody can take an online course anywhere-they're all over the place. We have to be Seattle University and without our Jesuit emphasis we're just everybody else.

The Commons:  So then how do you assure that a Jesuit ethos is woven into online and hybrid courses?

Rick Fehrenbacher:  It's interesting-I just went to the deans' conference for adult and continuing education with for the other Jesuit institutions. Some of them have been doing online and hybrid education for a very long time. One thing we discovered was that some of the schools didn't take Jesuit pedagogy into consideration when developing online courses, which I think is a mistake. But we are. If you go on our website, one of the things you'll see is that if you work with us to develop a course, you go through a cohort with other faculty members. It's a six-month course development process. And it isn't just about technology or formatting your courses or your lectures for online delivery. It's about rethinking your course and how you can offer it online while remaining consistent with Jesuit pedagogy. So we evaluate courses based on the Ignatian pedagogical paradigm and have created a framework that includes context, experience, reflection, action and evaluation, and we have benchmarks for each of these.

In some places the online course development process goes like this: A faculty member says, "Here are my lectures. You guys put those on line." We're not doing that here. We have three brilliant instructional designers-Jayme Jacobson, Erin Riesland and Jane Snare--who collaborate with faculty to think though their courses and re-conceive and develop them for online delivery as inspired by the Ignatian pedagogical paradigm.

The Commons:  Can you talk about the main priorities your office is focused on?

Rick Fehrenbacher:  Our work is focused on three major initiatives.

One is to work with our existing graduate programs to move them into hybrid or online delivery formats. One of the things we've discovered about our graduate students is that they very much want to come to Seattle University but they don't want to come to campus very frequently. Many of our graduate students are mid-career professionals, and more and more of our competitors in higher education are moving into online and hybrid delivery, which makes it easier for these students to get their degrees. We haven't been doing that as much as we should and now we're moving our delivery into that mode in order to allow our students better access to our classes and to make their lives a little bit easier-without compromising quality.

The second initiative is to look at some of our undergraduate courses and move those into online delivery. We're going to do this strategically. We don't plan on becoming the University of Phoenix. We want to find ways to deliver courses to students online so, for instance, they can stay on track for graduation, or to address scheduling problems for certain courses. Mostly, however, we're developing undergraduate Core courses for delivery in the summer session. We're finding that many of our undergraduate students have to go home during the summer because of financial constraints or because they just miss their dog and their parents. Often they're taking courses online; they're just not taking them from us. We'd like them to be able to take courses from us, which can help them stay on track for graduation.

Finally, we'll be instituting adult degree completion programs here. There are literally hundreds of thousands of people in the Seattle metropolitan area who have some college but don't have a degree. Many of them have family, many are single parents, some are returning veterans. We want to find a way to allow them access to a Seattle University education, so we're formatting some degrees and certificates for adult completion. Because most of these students are working adults, courses will be delivered in hybrid and online format. But mostly hybrid-we find that adult learners have much more success in hybrid courses than they do in purely online courses.

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As someone who attended Seattle University as a non-traditional student for both undergrad and grad school (I had a gap in my undergrad education due to a stint in the Army and during my masters attended part-time while working and raising a family), Rick's vision is compelling and I am excited that Seattle University is moving in this direction. The Ignatian educational philosophy is one of the reasons I chose to go to school and ultimately work at SU, and I agree that it is key to how SU can provide outstanding online and hybrid education while differentiating itself from other online/hybrid education providers. Supporting faculty is also key, and it's inspiring to watch COPE at work. John Buell, BA, M.Ed. Class of 1996 and 2007
(11/6/2013 3:49:00 PM, John Buell )