Education Futures Podcast 31: Dr. Dalene Fisher, OKWU

by | Sep 7, 2021 | Education Futures Podcast

At Oklahoma Wesleyan University, they understand that educating the whole student isn’t just about the four years it takes them to earn a bachelor’s degree. It can start before then and lasts long after graduation.

In this podcast episode, TEL’s Executive Director, Dr. Rob Reynolds, talks with Dr. Dalene Fisher from Oklahoma Wesleyan University. Dr. Fisher is the Assistant Provost, Dean of Arts and Sciences, and also an Assistant Professor of English at Oklahoma Wesleyan University. She has been instrumental in several of the major projects OKWU has launched to reach students where they are.

Seeing Education Through Multiple Lenses

Like many college students, Dr. Fisher wasn’t sure what she wanted to do when she graduated with her bachelor’s degree in behavioral science with a minor in English. After working in mental health for several years, she took some time off to raise her family. A fortuitous opportunity to help her children’s school with an English position introduced her to teaching and she was hooked.

Dr. Fisher went back for her master’s degree and Ph.D. as her students were in grade school and high school. “It was really, really good for me to be able to see education both through the eyes of a mother, as a student myself, and as a teacher,” she said.

Teaching high school students encouraged her to focus on more than just clarity with her teaching. She credits that with making her a better college professor.

“Learning how to put things together in a clean way, in a way that doesn’t just instruct, but also delights,” she said. “That’s the goal of an educator, both to delight and instruct students as they move along their educational journey.”

Creating A Growth Opportunity for Students

At OKWU, the administration is focused on helping students no matter where they are on that educational journey. But they also saw that the traditional college experience wasn’t meeting the needs of their students.

Students are coming to college for personal growth as much as for career opportunities. But sitting in a large lecture hall, taking notes for 55 minutes, and regurgitating the material in papers and midterms wasn’t providing much career or personal growth for students.

“We’re wanting to look at students in a way that we’re seeing them from every aspect and giving them opportunities,” Dr. Fisher said. “Not just to hear from us [administrators and professors] as if we have all the wisdom there could possibly be, but to make sure that they’re engaged in that learning process.”

At OKWU, those growth opportunities go well beyond expanding the mind. They understand that to help students reach their potential, they need to focus not only on what the student learns in the classroom but also on how they feel about and what they do with that knowledge. That starts with the pedagogy but doesn’t end there.

According to Dr. Fisher, professors are taking on more of a mentor role for students. “They’re people who are walking alongside these students and helping them find their place in the world. And that place begins in their classroom,” she said. “I think that’s what drives a good educator is that transformative process that we get to be a part of in the students’ lives.”

Meeting Students In The Digital Age

Helping students with that transformation also means meeting them where they are. Students are increasingly needing more digital options to reach their goals and juggle their responsibilities. And for OKWU, providing online options for courses also helps prepare students for life after college.

“We’ve reached this point of understanding that we’re moving into this digital age,” Dr. Fisher said. “And so education is moving more and more digital and we want to make sure that we’re part of that.”

Through their partnership with TEL, OKWU provides fully online concurrent enrollment courses through OKWU Prep and online versions of their general education courses. They are also working to provide their faculty and staff with more training to take advantage of their LMS.

“The digital integration is something that we’re focused on, not just now but looking into the future,” Dr. Fisher said. “[We’re] trying to figure out how can we maximize and give the students the best opportunity to go wherever they’re feeling led in order to continue their education?”

Expanding Worlds In Northern Oklahoma

Located in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, OKWU works hard to foster a diverse student body and to help students feel at home there.

“Whether you’re in an online class or if you’re taking a GPS class and one of our graduate programs, we want you to feel like you belong,” Dr. Fisher said. “And we don’t just want you to have that feeling, we want you to actually live that out in the way our professors are interacting with our students, in the clarity with which we deliver the course content so that it’s understandable regardless of your background or whether or not you’re a first-gen student or your great-grandpa went to college. It shouldn’t matter.”

Listen to the full podcast interview to learn more about the work Dr. Fisher and her team at OKWU are doing to build opportunities for students no matter their starting point.

Education Futures Podcast #31: Dr. Dalene Fisher, Oklahoma Wesleyan University

Full Transcript

Rob Reynolds:
Greetings everybody and welcome to another podcast from TEL Education. I’m really happy today to be joined by Dr. Dalene Fisher, who is the Assistant Provost, Dean of Arts and Sciences and also an Assistant Professor of English at Oklahoma Wesleyan University. So she wears a lot of hats there and I’m fortunate enough to have worked with and to know Dalene and really appreciate everything that she brings in terms of wisdom and experience to the higher education landscape and just education in general. So we’re fortunate to have her with us today. So welcome Dalene, it’s great to have you on board.

Dalene Fisher:
Thank you so much. It’s great to be visiting with you guys today.

Rob Reynolds:
Super. So we always start these conversations out, Dalene, by asking our guest to tell us something about their personal education journey. So much to our students’ surprise, we weren’t hatched one day, full business dress teaching classes. We all went through our personal journey. So why don’t you give us a little bit of a background on yourself and how you got here?

Dalene Fisher:
Sure, I’d be glad to. Well I actually love telling this story because I think like a lot of the students that I teach, we don’t always know what we want to do when we’re 18 years old. People change careers several times throughout their lives and I’m no different. My undergrad is actually in behavioral science, I got an English minor. And so I kind of kept going back and forth between do I want to be a psychologist? Do I want to be an English professor or teacher? And I found that there’s a lot of similarities between those two things, it’s the study of human character. So I actually spent the first decade of my career working in mental health. I helped with case management of individuals who had different sorts of mental health issues. And I loved that but I started having children, having babies.

And when my children became school age, I ended up enrolling them in a private school that just happened to need an English teacher at the very last minute. It was actually the third quarter of school. And I said, hey I might be able to do that. And so I popped into the classroom and the books I was assigned to teach were Pride and Prejudice, To Kill a Mockingbird and A Brave New World. And those were some of my favorite texts ever. And honestly, the first day I got up in front of that class I just was like, wow, I want to do this. And so I loved those conversations, the great conversations that can come out of literature, the critical thinking, getting to know the human story, the connection between understanding how great literature can transform us. I absolutely loved that. I saw that happening with my students.

So I ended up going on and pursuing my graduate degree. I was in my early thirties to mid-thirties at the time, and I just kept going. So got that graduate degree in writing and editing. And then I ended up going on and getting my Ph.D. right after that. And that opened the door for me to be at the university. So educationally, my children were in grade school. They were in high school as I was also getting my degree at the same time. And I was a student so it was really, really good for me to be able to see education both through the eyes of a mother, as a student, myself and as a teacher. And having the chance to teach high school students I think has helped me become a better college professor as well because just learning how to put things together in a real clean way, in a way that doesn’t just instruct, but also delights because that’s the goal of an educator is both to delight and instruct students as they move along the educational journey. So that’s how I ended up here. So it’s been a good journey.

Rob Reynolds:
Wow, that’s awesome. I love the point you’re making about the importance of different perspectives and how that kind of really fills you out as an instructor and a guide for students because you can see it from different perspectives. Whether it’s from a mom, from a person who kind of was pursuing a different career as a professional, to a teacher, to just a reader, someone who enjoys literature, et cetera. And you bring all that together and you can kind of help students. I think one of the things that fascinates me about teaching students and similar to you, I started out even when I was in graduate school because I was in languages, I did substitute teaching. I taught at schools and then a variety of capacities and in different subjects all the way through graduate school.

And that certainly informed working with younger students all the way down to kindergarten up through high school, had a big impact on me and what I did in the classroom. I also think that’s important to go back to that kind of first stage of your career, these experiences that students have. And I know one of the criticisms of higher-ed in general is it’s the ivory tower. Students don’t get enough, it’s not practical enough for students and they don’t have those experiences that help them obtain wisdom sometimes or help them really get what they need to let’s say out of what they’re learning. So I know that you, both as an administrative leader and as a professor at Oklahoma Wesleyan are really interested in student lives and really committed to that and helping them grow up and grow out in wisdom. And I’m just curious, in your position, what are you doing both personally and with the faculty there and as the leadership at OKWU to give students this broader sense of experience in life as well as the great academic formation?

Dalene Fisher:
I think that’s an excellent question, thank you for asking that. I think that that is at the core of what higher education should be but it’s not what higher ed has always been. It’s definitely what we want to do at Oklahoma Wesleyan. And our president spends a lot of time talking about the importance of educating the whole person. So in the past, the reason to go to college has, has shifted a little bit. People used to go to college to grow as an individual, to be transformed, for their heart, to get bigger, to see the world through a different perspective. And that’s shifted a little bit now to I want to make sure I have a career. Well, I think actually both of those things are really important but the ironic thing is that while people used to go to college to grow as a person and to have their heart expanded, the professor during that time wasn’t quite as engaged as the professor now is.
So we’ve sort of shifted in that way. And what I mean by that is probably when you and I went to college, you stepped into a classroom, you sat down, the professor lectured for 55 minutes to an hour and a half depending on the day. And you just sort of sat there, you took notes and you just regurgitated that information to some extent. Well, that’s not necessarily a growth opportunity for students. So the way things are changing for us, and I think this is true of most people in higher-ed is we’re wanting to look at students in a way that we’re seeing them from every aspect and giving them opportunities, not just to hear from us as if we have all the wisdom there could possibly be, but to make sure that they’re engaged in that learning process. So we talk here a lot and it’s actually, this is directly from Dr. Dunn, educating the head, but also the heart, the hands and the habits.

So this is the thought of educating the whole person. And so that can’t just be something that is done outside of the classroom where okay, the professor is in charge of the head and we’ll let other people in the university deal with all these other aspects. It has to be integrated into our pedagogy, integrated into how we’re interacting with the students. And we talk about this a lot. I think that professors are becoming not just somebody to look at and to admire and think, oh I wish I had their wisdom but they’re mentors. They’re people who are walking alongside these students and helping them find their place in the world and that place begins in their classroom. And so it’s an opportunity that we don’t ever want to miss. So I mean I think that’s what drives a good educator is that transformative process that we get to be a part of in the students’ lives.

Rob Reynolds:
Now that’s wonderful Dalene and I appreciate you sharing that kind of perspective, particularly from an OKWU perspective. People who know me understand, they’ve heard me talk about Oklahoma Wesleyan as kind of a model of what I think small Christian liberal arts universities can be. And I love both from president Dunn’s perspective, from you and others on the faculty administration, this intentionality you have about developing the whole student. But also realizing what your strengths are and [inaudible 00:10:00] those. You have a beautiful campus. You have a very intimate environment with your faculty and your students. And if anyone ever visits your campus, they’ll understand how family-oriented it seems to be in terms of when the students interact with students, students with faculty, faculty with students, et cetera, it really is a really vibrant and warm community. And I think that only comes from intentionality.

It doesn’t matter how big you are or small you are to really achieve what you’ve achieved. But I think you have a unique organization or community that allows you to have those interactions with faculty where you can really develop that whole person for the students. And I think it’s a great model. And it’s what education, higher education originally was kind of intended to be. And I think you guys are certainly doing a fantastic job of doing that and having that as a goal and working toward it as an organization.

Dalene Fisher:
Thank you.

Rob Reynolds:
We work together, TEL and Oklahoma Wesleyan and we were introduced and started our partnership around the notion of dual credit, extending your mission on into high schools, into high school students. And so you’re wonderful partners and it’s been a great partnership and we love to watch you grow in that area. But there are a lot of things going on in Oklahoma Wesleyan and now your expansion of dual credit, new doctoral program, et cetera. So why don’t you just tell us a little bit what’s coming, all these great things that come from this small package that people might see?

Dalene Fisher:
Well, thank you. Yeah, I want to first just make sure that I say how great it’s been to work with you guys. It’s a wonderful partnership. And I think dual credit is sort of the beginning of this. We call our concurrent enrollment program, a group prep. So just preparing students to come to college and getting those credits before they come. We’ve recognized that the trend really is that students are earning these credits before they come to university. I know that my children, I have four kids, they’re all in college or graduated and each and every one of them had almost a year under their belt or more before they came to university, that’s just the way it’s going. So I think that that’s on one side of the spectrum. And back to the whole person, the whole person isn’t just for the four years that they’re here.

And so I think that’s been part of the innovation that we’ve tried to think about. So we’re thinking a lot about when the students first encounter us at Oklahoma Wesleyan and then what it’s like to experience a group while you’re here. And then what it means to be an alum and to be one sent into the world from OKWU. And we’re a Christian university and that’s a big part of what we do. So some of our initiatives have to do with just fulfilling that opportunity and giving students as much opportunity as they can. So we have an academic center that has been revitalized and growing over the last couple of years. We have a full-time director. She’s got certification in special-ed and she’s run two different labs in the past and two different master’s degrees. We love that.

We have just started an honors program which has a specialized gen-ed curriculum within that, the degree, but the students get as in leaders and they take that program alongside another degree within the university. So it’s not just a leadership program like a lot of honors classes are nor is it just about intellect, but it’s about becoming service-oriented, fulfilling their specific calling and learning really to think critically. I think the university as a whole, I know the liberal arts aspect. We want to make sure that our students are able to think critically. This is obviously it’s not hard to look around and see that this is a missing skill set for a lot of people in our society. And we want to make sure that we are doing our best to make that happen. So that’s part of our gen-ed core.
We’re constantly researching and doing program research for possible new degree programs, keeping our eyes on the market. Our president does a great job of directing us to here’s the latest analysis. Do we need to be looking at this? What programs are really thriving and how can we lean into that. But maybe more important than all of that is we’ve reached this point of understanding that we’re moving into this digital age. And so education is moving more and more digital and we want to make sure that we’re part of that. And so TEL has been a big player that for us with the concurrent enrollment classes but we’re also starting initiatives with our faculty where they’re able to get training for developing online courses and delivering course content online as well. In addition to that, we’re making robust use of our LMS, which is Brightspace at this point, and making sure that our students have access to everything they need. COVID has changed things for a lot of educators obviously.

When COVID hit, we really poured into and continued the efforts that were already there of making sure our faculty knew how to really integrate Brightspace or our learning management system for our students. So that students had access to all the course materials that they need. They were able to interact in that space, have a connection in that space. So I think the digital integration is something that we’re focused on, not just now but looking into the future and trying to figure out how can we maximize and give the students the best opportunity to go wherever they’re feeling led in order to continue their education.

So whether they’re on-site, in an internship, and I would say that’s another innovation that we have where we’re placing students in internships all over the nation. Our business school does an especially good job of this obviously. The education department and nursing, our students are in the community. And sometimes to make that really workable, you want to make sure that that doesn’t mean you have to be in class on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, every single day. So we’re not quite where we want to be with that, but we’re making good headway and working that into our curriculum and looking to the future for what that’s going to look like because we think that’s the trend right now and we’re working really hard to make sure that we’re on that train.

Rob Reynolds:
One of the things that’s interesting about Oklahoma Wesleyan and for the people who aren’t familiar with your university, they need to imagine you are a faith-based institution on an incredibly beautiful campus set in, for me, the Northern part of Oklahoma in Bartlesville, but in a pastoral setting. But in a less populated region overall in some senses and you have rural areas around you. And it’s kind of interesting to me, you have kind of the… I see these three communities. You have your traditional faith-based community, that’s always there. But you have your real local area in Bartlesville which is a very happening place because it was one of the big centers of the petroleum development and refining in Oklahoma. But then you have the surrounding areas around that, that are more rural areas. And so you have these different communities to reach out to. And it’s a unique opportunity because I think when I look at what Oklahoma Wesleyan is and what it represents, there are common elements across all of those areas that really allow you to play well and to be valuable to the people in each of those communities.

Dalene Fisher:
Yeah, I think that’s true. And I would even add to that, that we have actually an incredibly diverse campus, not just in term… I mean it’s socioeconomic, in terms of race, gender, people from all around the world end up at OKWU. A lot of our athletes are from Serbia or Spain or England. So it’s a wonderful cross-section of humanity that we have here. So sometimes I feel like students might think, oh, if I’m at a small campus, I’m not going to be getting my world expanded. Actually, because it’s small, you get to know people from all of these different areas of the world. People that may not be exactly like you and may not think exactly like you. And as part of being a faith-based institution and just having the ethos of Christ at the center of what we do, one of the things that we really truly believe is in this the idea of hospitality, to where you’re opening your doors and you’re seating people at that table.

And it’s so exciting to see students get to know each other and to just have their world expanded in this ironically small space in Northern Oklahoma. And so it’s really an ideal community. And I would say that what we try to do is we try to duplicate that ethos with everything that we do at OKWU. Whether it be if you’re on an online class, if you’re taking a GPS class and one of our graduate programs, we want you to feel like you belong. And we don’t just want you to have that feeling, we want you to actually live that out in the way our professors are interacting with our students, in the clarity with which we deliver the course content so that it’s understandable regardless of your background or whether or not you’re a first-gen student or your great-grandpa went to college. It shouldn’t matter.

It needs to be accessible to everybody, regardless of their starting point. We want to get people to the finish line as well. And I think the diversity is a huge benefit that students get when they attend OKWU in any of its forms. And TEL has been great for that I will say. Your course content is just so clear and it’s something that we value because we think it’s the ethical way to approach education. And it shouldn’t be difficult to navigate a course, it should be straightforward. And so that’s where we try to land.

Rob Reynolds:
All right. No, I appreciate that. Something you said there just really resonated with me Dalene, and it’s this fact that you have lots of diversity but because of that kind of communal spirit in the smaller size and intimacy, it’s not as optional for a student who hasn’t been exposed to much diversity to kind of wall themselves off and not really interact with it. It becomes an integral part of their experience. Now, one of my alma maters is the University of Texas, that’s where I did my PhD. And I grew up in Austin, loved being on campus and an incredibly diverse student population in many ways. However, because you have 50,000 students or however many there are there, it’s easy to be like in a city. You just live in your little neighborhood and really don’t interact with other people. And one of the things I love about a smaller size community like you have is it really does encourage, I wouldn’t say force, that’s a bad word, but it just kind of naturally integrates people so that they do learn from one another.
And that’s really powerful about a small institution. That is a powerful thing. And I’ll just say it again, I think OKWU does a fantastic job of embracing that, taking advantage of it and using it to your advantage. So as we kind of get to the end here, I do want to get some thoughts from you about where you see, you’ve talked about digital, et cetera. And I know you look out at trends, but all you’re very focused on what you’re doing there. Where do you see innovation going, things you need to pay attention to and what are some ideas maybe that are going on in OKWU or around the other colleagues you talk to about where the future can go?

Dalene Fisher:
I think that considering this, I kind of love where things are right now. We attended, it was digital this spring, the HLC Conference, but a lot of the presentations just were coming back to the student centric focus. And I absolutely resonated with that, loved it. The idea that the student really needs to be at the center. So I think it kind of goes back to what I was saying at the beginning of this podcast which is in the past, classrooms were professor centric and now classrooms are shifting to be student centric. And I love that. And I think that that’s the innovation that we’re going to have to continue to do to think about, hey, how can this project be less fill in the blank and more, hey, apply your critical thinking, apply your history, apply your worldview and what you know and what you’re bringing to the table to still completing these objectives.

And so I think there’s a couple of things going on here. On one hand, I think there’s a big push to be very outcomes-based. And what I mean by that is very clear here’s what we’re going to learn in the course and here’s exactly what we’re going to do to make sure you get there. But even within that sort of prescriptive outline of what a course is supposed to look like, how can the student then apply their experiences to that? I think that this is something as an English professor, it’s hard not to do this because you’re asking students often to write their thoughts on a book or to synthesize from multiple sources.

I don’t know that in every discipline that’s quite been that way. And maybe I don’t know enough about the other disciplines, but I think we’re moving more and more toward not just do you know this information, which is a key aspect, and we need to make sure students do know it, but also what does that mean to me as a student and how can that transform me as a person? Giving students as much as possible an individualized experience within those boundaries of the course objectives. I love that we’re moving to where we’re… and I just call it seeing the students. You’re here. We see you, you matter to us.

And this isn’t about me as a professor, this isn’t about us as a university. This is about you as a student and how we can make sure that you’re getting what you need from this course content. And that we’re delivering it in a way that you can understand it. And I just love that. That’s where I’m seeing things go. This excitement about first-gen students and making sure that we’re making things accessible is I think a great stride in higher-ed right now. And I’m really happy that where I’m at this point because it’s a great trend in my opinion.

Rob Reynolds:
No and it’s a great time to be in education overall, in higher education I think in particular Dalene. And what you’re saying is exactly right, our mission is always is as educational organizations and institutions to help students grow up and grow out to gain wisdom, but wisdom that will benefit them in their personal lives. And I think traditionally we had more of a centripetal model where students came in and we were kind of this repository, like a dictionary and they were the encyclopedia, they got the knowledge and then they went out and figured it out.
Whereas now, as you were describing, they come in and they get this information but we give them the ability to start making it relevant, even while they’re with us and being able to see how to make it valuable and more valuable and then what they’re going to do with it when they go out. Much better prepared, with a much deeper understanding of how this enriches their lives both personally as well as professionally. And I think that’s a big step forward for higher education. And it’s one that as you point, many are embracing. And back to the theme I’ve been hitting all along, I think Oklahoma Wesleyan is uniquely positioned to embrace that trend.

Dalene Fisher:
Well it’s exciting. And we love being a part of that because we really do care about the students and so it’s a good place to be.

Rob Reynolds:
Yeah. And that’s what it’s all about, caring about the student. And so with that, we’ll bring it to a close here. Again, I’m Rob Reynolds, Executive Director here at TEL Education and I’ve been joined by a very special guest, Dr. Dalene Fisher from Oklahoma Wesleyan. Hope everybody has a great day. Thank you for tuning in.

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