Maintaining the quality and rigor of more than 250 online courses for the largest non-profit, private university in the US is no small task. In this podcast, Dr. David Nemitz, the Director of the Center of Curriculum Development and Associate Professor at the School of Divinity at Liberty University, talks about how his first project as a master's student led him to a passion for course design and helping students be successful.
Welcome to the MBS Direct podcast where we talk with some of our partners who are doing interesting things with content and education. I'm Carrie Watkins, the Senior Digital Consultant with MBS Direct, and today we are talking with Dr. David Nemitz, the Director for the Center of Curriculum Development and an Associate Professor at the School of Divinity at Liberty University. Thank you for joining us, Dr. Nemitz.
David Nemitz: Thank you for having me.
Carrie: As the Director for the Center of Curriculum Development, you help maintain the quality for the curriculum for some of the online courses, which is no easy task for a university that boasts almost 100,000 online students and over 250 online program.
David: That's right.
Carrie: Talk to me a little bit about what your role is and what that means to really help put together the curriculum for such a large university.
David: I've been in my role now for 10 years. When I came, just to give you a perspective, we had 80 courses and 6,000 students online. We had just begun to transition from a distance learning program that was basically a course in a box. They would put videotapes, they would put books, and they would send it off, ship it off to the student. The student would complete it, it would be shipped back, people would grade it, and they would get their grade. We transitioned into the modern age and everything went digital and online.
When I came in 2006, they had just began to take those courses in a box and transition it into eight-week modules online using Blackboard as the learning management system. My job has been to systematize the way we produce online education. There really was a strategy difference too because with the course in a box, Liberty was basically selling courses. When we went digital, our mentality changed to, “We're going to be delivering programs.” We began to put a system in place where we could systematically go from 80 courses to what you mentioned before, 250 programs. We currently have over 1,500 courses that have been developed, and as you said before, we have close to 100,000 students.
With transitioning from the course in a box to something more programmatic, what has that meant for the course design?
David: We developed a template for our faculty to follow and a system where our instructional design personnel would come alongside our faculty and help them take the concepts or the outcomes that they wanted those students to have and develop interactions online that would help them accomplish that.
How did the students react to this change?
David: I think at first there was a real tension because you have an individual who was used to the face-to-face, "Hey, I'll go to class, sleep, I mean take notes, and do the exams and get the grade and go to the next class." When you're 35 years old and you have a job, you have a family, you have a life, you're part of social organizations, you have to accomplish education in a different manner. You have to make the content viable and applicable to their life. Application-based is the assessments that we're trying to drive after.
I teach team leadership and conflict resolution, so the major assessment in that class is an application-based assessment. They choose a conflict in their life that has not been resolved. They go through five weeks of a personal case study, which results in them attempting to resolve that conflict. That was the biggest change that our faculty had to get used to. It wasn't just a theory, not just lectures, but how do I engage that student who lives in Idaho into something that will allow them to accomplish the outcomes for that particular discipline.
Carrie: Like you said, make it applicable not only to their studies and what they're learning but also their life and how they plan to continue on with their career that they've started.David: Absolutely. That's exactly right, Carrie.
Carrie: You've been at Liberty now for almost 10 years. What brought you to higher education?
David: In 1994, I moved to Grand Rapids to begin a doctoral study. I knew that I wanted to get into education. I had been involved in church ministries for 20 years, and during that time I had been teaching off and on for various universities where I was ministering at. The only way you're going to be able to teach is to get a doctorate, so I moved to Grand Rapids to do my doctoral work, and the very first course that I had was taught by the provost of the university.
The capstone assignment was something in regards to curriculum development, and so I was putting together this project and I put a draft that he was reading. When he read the draft, he called me to his office and said, "I'd like to have you present this to the dean of the school of professional and graduate studies." I went, "Okay." I did, and after I presented it they offered me a job. I became the director of curriculum at the university. It was a great introduction. How practical is that to have your first assignment in your very first course be the door that opens up a whole career. That's how I've gotten into education.
Carrie: What's kept you here in education and still in curriculum design?
David: The whole advent of internet studies and the non-traditional motif has really kept me in distance learning.
Carrie: You've been in education for a number of years. You've been with Liberty for 10. Liberty is a really interesting case study because they've really stayed true to where they see things going both with the online and their residential campus ... David: Right.
Carrie: ... and continue to grow when a lot of other universities have stagnated a little bit.
Carrie: You've had some really interesting perspective on education in general. What do you think education needs now in order to continue to be successful like Liberty has been successful?
David: If there's one thing about education that is always a constant, that it's always changing. If you think about even K-12, there's always a new way to do math, there's always a new way to teach. I remember when I was in Pennsylvania and I was first married, I was putting my way through my last year of school. My wife and I, for a job, I had a part-time job, we were maintenance people at an elementary school. This elementary school was on the cutting edge. You know why? The classrooms were all modular. The walls would open up and there would be these big classrooms and then you could separate. That's the thing. The theme in education is they're always changing, they're always chasing after the thing that will make it better. Right now, what I see in higher education is that tension of, “We've always done it this way.”A bachelor's degree is 120 hours. It takes four years to do that bachelor's degree. A credit hour is based on 45 hours, and you really should spend two hours out of classroom for every hour that you're in classroom. It's the Carnegie Unit that has been in place for years. You know what? I think we need to rethink that. What does it mean to master a discipline? What is the time-on-task that's really needed?
Carrie: Not only just the time element, but you asked does it take that long. For some, it may take longer. There's definitely this discussion happening with the business world and the universities and how are you preparing these students. What else is Liberty doing to make sure that their students are prepared for life?
David: There's a real push at Liberty, and I'm sure other schools as well, to connect people who are in the workplace with the degree of programs.Not just internships, not just send my students to Washington, DC, to do some things, to get some real-life experience, but using our adjuncts who teach our online courses to speak to some of those assessments, to speak to some of those outcomes that are going to be needed by our students to be successful in their discipline. How does that curriculum, no matter what class you're teaching, how does that curriculum tie that student to real life? Are they involved in a church? Are they involved in a ministry? Are they involved in their community? There's got to be at least one connection to real life in every one of these courses. It's a little bit more work on the student side. If you think of personalities, an outgoing person, no problem. How do engage the person who is a little bit quieter or a little bit introverted into these same types of assessments or activities? That's going to really be a challenge.
How is technology playing into some of those discussions?
David: The technology that we have, we're really integrating a lot more residentially and online. Let me give you this perspective. We have 14,000 students on campus residentially, and at last count 8,000 of those 14,000 students have engaged an online course during their time here at Liberty. It's not just if you're a residential student, you're in class. No, if you're a residential student, you're in class for some things and you're doing online for the others. For example, if you're a student in the school of divinity and your major is missions or global studies, guess what you're going to be doing? You're going to be spending a semester in Italy or Africa or England doing your studies. If you're over there doing some type of work, how are you going to go to class? You're engaged with your professor online as you're actively engaged with what you want to do full-time for a job. Technology gives you a platform to be able to do life wherever you need to go.
Carrie: It provides that flexibility, absolutely.
David: It does.
What do you think is some of the most interesting things happening in the education industry right now?
David: I think the more and more that we do online education, I see the tension between the efficiency of that asynchronous online component with the human need expressed by a lot of our students about high-touch, personal, face-to-face interaction. That's what is the most interesting thing, I think, in education. We're trying to figure that out, how do we do it efficiently and effectively but still make it human?
Carrie: That is a very, very interesting question and I think one that a lot of schools are grappling with.
David: I've seen different schools and our university toy with synchronous online. There's so many little things that play into that whole high-touch, personal, face-to-face interaction. I know it's a throwback. Our average age is 35, so they remember being in class, they want to talk to somebody. The best way that we have found to bridge that gap of having a online, asynchronous, and the face-to-face is our faculty. Our faculty have to be engaged with the student. Every eight weeks, I get approximately 40 new students. My first goal is to get to know them as personal as possible. The reason why that's my number one goal right out of the gate is because I'm engaged with calling them at least once during the eight weeks that I have them. There's something about listening to a voice, hearing the voice inflection. That's the face-to-face interaction, the high touch that we need to be committed to when we're doing online education.
Carrie: Absolutely. That's got to have a strong impact on student success across the board, that high touch. If someone wanted to learn more about Liberty, about course design at Liberty, or just wanted to get in touch with you, what would be the best way for them to do that?
David: They can go to our website. Just look up Liberty University. If they search for CCD, which is the acronym for the Center for Curriculum Development, we do have a whole webpage devoted to what we do. After looking into that, if they wanted to give us a call, that'd be fine.
Carrie: Thank you very much for your time, Dr. Nemitz.
David: Sure, Carrie. Thank you.
For more information on any of the topics discussed in this podcast, or any other questions you have about digital content options, contact your Account Manager or you can reach out to me, Carrie Watkins, Senior Digital Consultant, on Twitter, @CarrieJWatkins.