North Carolina Central University leverages hybrid living and hybrid learning to transform how students live and learn, attract quality faculty and staff, and build community

“Hybrid living” is changing the student experience at this HBCU

North Carolina Central University leverages hybrid learning to transform how students live and learn, attract quality faculty and staff, and build community

Higher education has been tasked with learning how to evolve to meet the needs of its students and stakeholders, all of whom want to ensure their financial investments and time spent on campus and in classrooms will position them to be successful after graduation. An impending enrollment cliff just a few years away is making this evolution even more imperative.

At North Carolina Central University (NCCU), campus leaders have moved beyond hybrid learning and have developed a concept of “hybrid living” to improve student retention and deliver a stellar student experience that meets students’ varying needs.

“Our campus’ approach to hybrid is strongly linked to student retention as well as recruitment of high-quality faculty and staff. I truly believe that beyond hybrid learning, we’re really in a chapter of hybrid living,” said Leah Kraus, NCCU’s Chief Information Officer. “At the beginning of the pandemic, we were trying to answer how can we use technology to deliver the same level of programming both inside and outside of the classroom and administratively? The idea of community at an HBCU, at minority-serving campuses or smaller campuses in general, is different than on a large campus, and it was crucial to keep up the high-touch engagement.”

NCCU’s hybrid living and learning policies have evolved naturally over time as technologies and student demand changed.

The campus was well-positioned to stay in touch with faculty, staff, and students early on in the pandemic thanks to a conscious choice to embrace technology and use it whenever and wherever it enhanced learning and communication–along with the knowledge that network security was where it needed to be.

“Part of what made us so successful is that we invested in a complete end-to-end network refresh in 2018, and with that, Webex was the first enterprise license tool that was made available. This means that we started the pandemic with the network and familiarity with collaboration and video conferencing in place,” Kraus said.

“We knew the quality and security of our Cisco network infrastructure was going to support the technology needed in the classrooms. For many universities, their infrastructure wasn’t ready, and they were trying to procure the necessary connectivity, whereas our biggest pain point was actually making sure all of our students and faculty were equipped with the devices needed to access the network.”

When Hurricane Ian hit in the fall of 2022, many NCCU faculty shifted classes online and continued to offer coursework synchronously thanks to the tech tools already available to students, faculty, and staff. University leadership and emergency management teams hold many meetings over Webex to ensure everyone’s time is used effectively. And when monkeypox presented a concern at the beginning of the fall 2022 semester, NCCU held important campus town halls remotely.

NCCU faculty have become adept at synchronous teaching on various platforms, and the university will next prioritize using data and analytics more robustly to bring apps into its tools to evaluate student engagement.

“Despite their familiarity with teaching from anywhere, our faculty are clamoring for more training and are eager to use innovative technology beyond straightforward teaching. Whether that means installing a confidence monitor or bringing in speakers remotely, we’re all invested in creating an innovative, dynamic learning environment,” said Kraus.

It’s also important to Kraus to acknowledge the role that hybrid living, hybrid learning, and technology play in helping students and faculty form relationships and connections.

“I think faculty are used to being the experts in their field, so when they were first faced with teaching over collaboration platforms, it might have been, understandably, intimidating. Now, it is a given. The pandemic coincided with a summer of reckoning in terms of the racial injustices taking place in our country,” she said. “With George Floyd’s murder and the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement that summer of 2020, this was a deeply personal moment for the entire NCCU community. Many of our faculty were directly affected by these events, and their openness to embracing technology was in large part because it allowed for connection. Faculty demands for hybrid tools go beyond their role as instructors and include personal considerations.

“For NCCU, we’re not going backwards on hybrid. We’re going to keep moving forward and fully utilize the benefits of technology,” Kraus said.

Editor’s note: This story is adapted from a Cisco interview with Leah Kraus and is published with permission.

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Laura Ascione

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