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Q&A with AVP Tim Petty

Associate Vice Provost for Online and Distance Education Tim Petty. Photo by Thomas Crocker.

DELTA welcomed Associate Vice Provost for Online and Distance Education Tim Petty to our team in November 2017. Entering his 28th year at NC State, Petty joins DELTA from the Department of Biological Sciences housed in the College of Sciences, where he has served since 2013. Previously, he was in the former Department of Microbiology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. We caught up with Petty to learn more about his new role and goals for the future of Online and Distance Education at NC State.

What brought you to NC State?

While completing his postdoctoral work at the University of California, Berkeley, Petty’s labmates began applying for faculty positions, so he decided to apply for positions, too. “I interviewed at a couple of places and one was NC State,” says Petty.

He didn’t chart his course to end up in North Carolina but as luck would have it, North Carolina would play an important part in his future. Petty tells us he interviewed at two universities and NC State made him an offer first and he accepted.

Petty knew people who worked at NC State already, so that helped him ease into Southern life.

Originally from England, Petty earned his B.S. in biochemistry from the University of Manchester and a Ph.D. from Imperial College in London.

After coming to NC State in 1990 as an assistant professor, Petty established his own research program and moved through the ranks to become full professor in 2002.

When did your interest and involvement in Online and Distance Education begin?

“I was interested in online before I started doing it because in high school I was a computer geek. I was in the computer club and learned to program before it was cool.” Petty decided not to study computer science when he went to college even though he had an interest in it.

“First, I wanted to study chemistry but when I looked at biology, it appealed to me as well because new stuff was happening, so I chose biochemistry,” added Petty.

“I have an interest in understanding things in general so that is what draws me to science. I became aware of online teaching while here at NC State. I actually got into it pretty late,” he said. In 2009, Petty said his department head inquired if he may be able to offer a course online, so he agreed to teach a section of Medical Microbiology online in parallel with his usual seated section.

Petty applied for an IDEA Grant [now called DELTA Grant]. His proposal wasn’t chosen for funding, but he got a consultation as a consolation prize, he remembered.

He met with now-retired instructional designer Lee Ann Gillen. “She was very encouraging,” Petty said. He recalls explaining his idea to have learning objectives, chunked material, etc., and meeting with her enthusiastic approval.

A few days into the course, he became overwhelmed because there was so much to do to prepare content for an online course. Petty indicated it was too late to cancel the online section. So he ended up giving his lecture each morning to the seated section and then going to Centennial Campus to record in the mini-studio for about three hours….he got through the semester, he said, but it was very hard work.

Petty taught the course online again the following spring, which he found a much more pleasant experience. “I had time to fix the bits that weren’t good. So I polished the course but the basic organization of it stayed the same,” said Petty.

In 2016, he created another course online, Molecular Virology. It was a small course, so he used a recording classroom and delivered his lecture in blocks so he could edit the video to create chunked content. Petty used what he had learned from developing his first online course, which made the second experience much easier.

When the College of Sciences (COS) was formed, Petty’s department was dissolved and he moved from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Around the same time in 2013, the Microbiology Undergraduate Certificate was approved and Petty became its director.

Prior to that, he was a DE coordinator in the Department of Microbiology, and persuaded his new department head in COS to use him as DE coordinator, too.

How did you know you wanted to be in higher education administration?

“When I started doing the DE coordinator and program director roles, I found I enjoyed administration more than I expected I would,” Petty said. He mentioned getting involved in curriculum committees and learning what was happening behind the scenes.

Petty recalled, “I decided I should try to explore what it would take to be a full-time administrator. So I decided the best way to do that would be to ask the Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs, who at the time was Betsy Brown.”

He introduced himself at a general faculty meeting and let her know his interest in finding out more about entering an administrative role. “She responded with something to the effect of ‘do I have a deal for you?’,” laughed Petty. She was recruiting for a campus-wide program, a workshop series called Leadership for a Diverse Campus.

“I was in the program the last year it ran. I was in a class of about 15 faculty in different career stages and all, except me, were female,” said Petty. It was a great experience for him he added.

“The workshops covered a whole lot of different aspects of leadership for a diverse campus, so it was partly to encourage diversity but also to understand how to lead diverse groups of people. It was very practically oriented. We learned about jobs on campus from different administrators and what they did, tips they had and practical advice. It was a great experience. I learned a lot,” Petty said.

Petty shadowed Senior Vice Provost and Chief of Staff Duane Larick as part of the program. “That was a great experience too and he is a wonderful mentor,” said Petty.

He is grateful for the many hours of advice Larick has given him. During his shadowing experience, Petty worked on special projects such as the joint biomedical engineering program between NC State and UNC Chapel Hill.

“Conceptually, it was a great idea, and I helped with the implementation and it was a good crash course on administration. It included all the various departments from transportation to Registration and Records, etc. It is a challenge to provide services for students on two different campuses and trying to integrate them as seamlessly as possible. That was fabulous,” Petty recalled.

Encouraged by his experience with Leadership for a Diverse Campus, Petty competed successfully for an administrative fellowship in the University of North Carolina System Office. From 2016-2017, Petty gained additional online and distance education administrative experience while he served as support staff for a task force to review the current and future state of online education in the UNC System.

What attracted you to DELTA’s Associate Vice Provost position?

Petty quickly responded, “Almost everything about it! Ever since I started working in online education, since 2009, I have interacted with people at DELTA. I have always had positive interactions. So of any administrative unit on campus, DELTA would be my first choice of where I would like to work. It is a great unit with a really good culture. Tom sets a leadership standard that comes down through the whole organization.”

In short, Petty said he coveted a job at DELTA. “That would be my dream job, but I didn’t think there was any prospect for that so I wasn’t planning on it specifically,” he said. “I have always admired DELTA and thought it would be a great place to work.”

During his Leadership for a Diverse Campus shadowing and his fellowship at the UNC System Office, he gained a lot of knowledge of planning and administration of academic programs and a view of where online education fits in the larger scheme of things.

His primary focus is not on the technology side, but Petty gets to help think through how he can provide software tools for program directors to make things happen. He can help implement more effective administration of the programs and he looks forward to this opportunity to employ his self-proclaimed geek side.

What is your first project and/or goal for Online and Distance Education as Associate Vice Provost? Your primary focus for the first year?

Petty aims to “figure out what this job is all about. There are so many facets to it. Rebecca has been doing it so long that it is second nature to her. But if you ask her to describe it, there are so many things,” said Petty.

“I am on a steep learning curve. I am not going to be able to replace Rebecca and know everything she knows, and have that history, but there is information I have to know and data to assimilate. Getting to grips with all the different facets of this role is the goal for my first year,” he said enthusiastically.

Describing some of the ideas already in motion, “I can think more about things like web-based software tools to help directors or ways to make the program planning process more efficient. We will try to lower the barriers so they can get their ideas out there and we can start talking about them. I am thinking about what we can do to help that process,” Petty said.

Asking about a comment from Senior Vice Provost Tom Miller who said, “We are focusing on how we continuously improve our program offerings and maintain a strong position nationally and internationally.” What are your plans for reaching this goal? Any specific plans? SARA helps, but other plans? Are you trying to grow and expand programs? What are your goals?

“I am certainly very aware of the need to be conscious of the market situation for graduates and the demand for programs, and the idea that just getting a degree may not be the most important thing. We need to make sure we are adding value for the student. Not just in the student’s perception but in reality. We need to make our programs a good ROI and look externally in the workplace, asking what is happening with the students who have graduated and what is the likely demand for this credential,” said Petty.

“That is not to say that we just need to offer things that are trendy right now. There are niche markets that happen to fall within our purview as a land-grant university. We need to understand what programs are being successful and what new programs may be successful.”

Petty added, “We don’t think it is realistic to think that just because we are NC State, people will enroll. When there are new program proposals put forward we need to do an assessment of the workplace need for this credential. Historically, we have done feasibility studies for new programs but it tends to be further along in the process. We are wondering if we can move that earlier in the process. Can we see an advantage we would have where we can offer at a better price, or a better quality program, or if we have better connections in industry that would make sense to help place our graduates or help recruit students?”

“We are trying to help faculty develop new programs with all of this in mind instead of building it first and having to go back and tweak it. To apply our resources earlier to the ideas to help refine them before they move forward,” he said.

“So, our role is to provide support, a lot of which is data and information, for the faculty who are going to create these programs to help inform the type of program, how it should be marketed and so on….where they should be looking for students. So that is my philosophy of how we are going to improve our program offerings and maintain a strong position nationally and internationally.”

Are you confident in your choice to lead NC State’s Online and Distance Education program?

“I have no regrets about taking the job. I have enjoyed every moment that I have been here. I am really excited about it. It is a dream come true. It is a great unit. I have great colleagues and a great boss. I have projects that really interest me that I am invested in. I am loving it. It is really great. I hope I always love it!,” Petty said enthusiastically.