People of SU

Onward, Online

Written by Mike Thee

November 4, 2013

a student working on their laptop

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

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.

The Commons:  What is your office working toward accomplishing specifically in the year ahead and beyond?

Rick Fehrenbacher:  We have begun work with our first cohort of 25 faculty from all across the university-some who are working in graduate programs, others in summer programs. Our plan is to have some of our graduate programs capable of being offered in online or hybrid fashion by fall of 2014 and to have about a dozen or so undergraduate courses offered this summer in online format. We're also planning on having our first adult completion certificate ready to go by fall of 2014, as well. And then by 2015, we hope to have a couple baccalaureate degrees ready to be offered for adult degree completion, and even more summer classes and graduate courses ready to go, as well. So we're moving pretty quickly here.

The Commons:  What's the biggest challenge in moving into online/hybrid education?

Rick Fehrenbacher:   The biggest roadblock to doing online courses is always faculty resistance. And I can understand that as a faculty member myself; I just happened to be a little eccentric in my love of technology and teaching. In a lot of ways, this faculty resistance is justified. There were a lot of terrible online courses that were done in the first wave of online course development. And there's apprehension over MOOCs (massive open online courses), which have a place, but generally remind me of bad public television. But the fact of the matter is that technology has advanced tremendously since the bad old days, and nowadays there are many different ways to engage students and to find ways to interact with them using technology that you just didn't have before-and these technologies are much easier to use. You can build some absolutely stunning online courses now.

But with that being said, it's important to reiterate that it's not about the technology; it's about the teaching. When faculty go through our cohort program, they don't touch a computer for the first couple months because we take them back to basics. We talk about learning outcomes, we talk about what it is that they really want their students to get out of this course. Then we start building from that, because if you let the technology be the tail that wags the dog, you've lost already.

Again, I understand how apprehensive faculty can be about this stuff, and I'd like to extend an open invitation for them to come down to our offices and look around or to take a look at our website. If they have any questions, we're always available to talk.

The Commons:  Without getting too much into the weeds, what are the cohort sessions like?

Rick Fehrenbacher:  They're a lot of fun. It's more of a workshop than anything else. The faculty members who come in here generally leave saying, "I really enjoyed that." I think they look forward to it. It's a chance for them to talk about their teaching and work with other faculty members and their courses, and in my experience faculty don't often have a chance to do that.

The Commons:  How will it work in terms of who owns the courses that are developed? Will the university own those, or the faculty members?

Rick Fehrenbacher:  At most institutions, when faculty develop online or hybrid courses with university resources the copyright belongs to the university. But we're giving the copyright to the faculty member. That's because we want them to feel a sense of ownership of these courses.

The Commons:  Your academic background is English. How did you become so fully immersed in continuing and online education?

Rick Fehrenbacher:  Continuing education is important to me because I was a non-traditional student myself. I didn't start college until I was 27 years old. When I got out of high school I joined the Army and after that I beat around doing a bunch of different jobs-I worked in an oil field, I shoveled shrimp off of boats, stuff like that. I think I was trying to live my life like a Dylan song, circa Blood on the Tracks. I just wasn't really ready for school yet. So at 27 I came back to school and while it wasn't the easiest thing in the world, I had a lot of help from faculty, staff and administrators along the way. I started at the University of Southern Mississippi and eventually earned a Ph.D. from Duke. Working in continuing and adult education is my way of paying it back to the people who helped me succeed.

As far as online education, I was a Medievalist and Medievalists are kind of geeks. We learn old, dead languages that nobody else speaks. I had a (Commodore) VIC-20 and I learned to program very early on, just because I thought it was fascinating-like learning dead languages. So when technology and teaching-two of my passions--started to conflate, I just sort of fell into it. I became the default tech guy in the English department. At first that meant I was the person who could install printer drivers, but then I started building out websites for teaching and started using more and more technology in my classes until it kind of took over what I was doing, and frankly I became less and less of a Medievalist and more and more of a teaching and technology person.

The Commons:  OK, how about some non-work questions…What do you like to do in your free time?

Rick Fehrenbacher:  I'm still an English guy so I still read a good bit, mostly historical fiction and poetry. I also enjoy the outdoors. I take week-long backpacking with my sons pretty much every summer and have started to get into sea kayaking. I lived in Idaho for 20 years, so  I like to hunt and fish. I travel a good bit, and have run the bulls in Pamplona five times. Is engaging in high-risk behavior a hobby?

The Commons:  As a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi, do you ever run into Brett Favre at alumni events?

Rick Fehrenbacher:  Here's a bit of trivia: My brother played on the Southern Mississippi football team and he wore #4 before Brett Favre did. My sister-in-law was there getting her master's degree (after my brother played), and she would be on campus wearing his old jersey and sorority girls would say, "What are you doing wearing Brett Favre's jersey?"

The Commons:  Anything else you'd want to add while the floor is yours?

Rick Fehrenbacher:  No, just that I'm very happy to be here and I think this is going to be a terrific initiative for Seattle University, for its students, for the faculty and for the community. I can't tell you how much I enjoy working here. It's been great.