Education Executive profiles Northcentral President Clinton Gardner

The Online Advantage

Dr. Clinton Gardner explains how this online university mastered virtual learning by keeping it personal, attentive, and catered to the needs of the individual student.

Today, the web is as wide as its name suggested when we first heard the term more than a decade ago. But, according to Northcentral University’s Dr. Clinton Gardner, something’s missing when it comes to online education: personal service and individual attention. That’s just not acceptable, at least not to this prominent online university.

"The relationship between professors and students, or as wecall them, mentors and learners, at Northcentral University is truly unique,” said Gardner, president. “Unlike other online institutions that use a cohort model to replicate a physical classroom in a virtual space, we teach all of our learners one  at a time, providing them with the individual time, tools, and support they need to succeed.”

Based in Prescott Valley, Ariz., Northcentral University has been pioneering online education since its inception in 1996. Its founder, Dr. Donald Hecht, long held a vision for developing an alternative university that could help people pursue their education while juggling the tasks of daily life, such as working full time and raising a family.

Hecht understood how hard it was to earn his masters and doctorate degrees in a traditional university environment; he traveled more than 35 miles several times a week just to attend classes. Thus, with the rise of the Internet came his motivation to create a 100% virtual online university.

Online attentiveness
From 1996 to 2002, Hecht worked diligently to obtain accreditation for Northcentral. Without it, the university wasn’t eligible to support students seeking Title IV financial aid. While this may have put a damper on the university’s undergraduate enrollment, it didn’t sway those learners pursuing their masters and doctorate degrees from taking advantage of the university’s online opportunities.

In 2003, Northcentral received accreditation by the Higher Learning Commission, giving it the reputation and distinction Hecht worked so hard to obtain. However, the university remains largely dedicated to its learners seeking advanced degrees. Today, more than 70% of the institution’s 9,000 learners are earning their doctorates while 26% are participating in the university’s master programs.

According to Gardner, what’s making Northcentral the premier choice for mature learners is its convenient yet intimate learning environment. Through Northcentral’s online portals, learners have a direct connection with their mentors throughout the entirety of their courses. “We do have threaded blogs, so our learners can exchange ideas with each other,” said Gardner. “But our aim is to provide one-on-one instruction and attention as opposed to creating an open forum.”

To Gardner, that approach not only gives Northcentral the advantage among its online competitors, but also among its more traditional onsite opponents. “Even in a physical classroom, a student wouldn’t get the individual attention and support that we provide our students. That’s why we think online learning is so impactful; it’s not about anonymity. In fact, executed in the right way, online learning is all about making personal connections,” he said.

Enrichment extras
Northcentral’s connections and supports go beyond the learner/mentor portal. In fact, it offers a host of services to learners that are enriching their online learning experience. For example, the university recently teamed up with Smartthinking, an online education tutoring company, to provide advisement and feedback to learners tackling tough assignments such as dissertations or thesis papers. Gardner said he hopes to add more of these online advancements to Northcentral over time. “Whatever we can do to make the online learning experience more enriching as well as synchronous and seamless for our learners is a priority for us,” he said.

Because so much of what Northcentral does is technology based, the university is constantly finding ways to advance its online platform. Right now, Northcentral is focused on enhancing the digital content for its courses and is transitioning its online bookstore from hard copies to digital editions. With learners in every US state and in more than 70 countries worldwide, digital textbooks and delivery will be another great asset for the online university, said Gardner. “This university was founded on the idea of providing a quality, convenient learning experience to our learners. There’s nothing more convenient than having everything you need to learn right at your fingertips.”

Next on the net
Another convenient development on the rise at Northcentral is its compact course offerings, which the university will begin offering in the fall. Unlike its original 12-week courses, the college will be providing a faster track of eight-week courses that
provide students with the content delivery through a more efficient approach.

Gardner is hoping these accelerated courses are attractive alternatives for those with limited time. Adding to that efficiency concept, Northcentral is speeding up its course enrollment schedule, allowing new learners to enroll in courses on a weekly basis as opposed to waiting until the first of the month.

In addition, Gardner wants to expand the amount of programs offered at Northcentral. The online university offers a multitude of programs through its School of Business and Technology Management, School of Education, and School of Behavioral and Health Sciences, with more than 100 specializations in undergraduate and graduate programs combined. Still, Gardner is looking to expand those offerings, including those for undergraduates.

“Our focus lies on our graduate and doctorate learners, but with more undergraduates seeking learning opportunities online, we believe our programs will continue to evolve at the undergraduate level,” he said. “When it comes to online learning, we know our university have a lot to offer.  Online the opportunities are endless—as long as you don’t forget to keep
them personal.”

—Erica Garvin