Faculty members in the College of Education at the University of Florida in Gainesville, which offers an online Masters program and an on-campus PhD in Curriculum and Instruction, developed an online Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction with an emphasis on Educational Technology to serve professionals already in the workforce. The students are those with a strong interest in research as part of their professional responsibilities, whether in higher education, the K-12 system, or non-profit organizations. The first cohort entered the program in 2008; the fifth is starting in September 2016.
The online Ed.D. program offers two years of online coursework, supplemented with on-campus summer sessions, followed by qualifying exams and a dissertation. Dr. Swapna Kumar, the Program Coordinator and Clinical Associate Professor in the College of Education, describes the program design as a “fusion of learning theory, doing research and applying this to professional practice so that the benefits of the program go beyond the students”. Students simultaneously following the doctoral program and working in their professional contexts allows for this immediacy of analysis, reflection, and application.
The choice of technologies for synchronous and asynchronous online interactions changes in response to technological advances and student input concerning their choices and what software and systems they can access. The key factor is that students are comfortable with the technologies so their focus is on content and interactions.
Beyond the links of theory, practice and research, the essential characteristic of the program is building an academic community of practice for learning and support throughout and even after the program. This is based on the Community of Inquiry framework that incorporates faculty presence, social presence, and cognitive presence, with the addition of learner presence as a support for student completion and success. Students in each new cohort are given articles explaining how the program is structured and why, so they are aware of the importance of creating this virtual academic presence in their studies.
Faculty Presence: Extensive research with students in the online program shows faculty presence is necessary beyond instructional design and course instruction and facilitation, extending to communication about all aspects of the program, student support, and management of the online environment. During dissertation preparation, faculty use e-mail and other technologies to connect with students, with synchronous communication (e.g. Skype, phone. Google Hangout) found to be most useful.
Social Presence: Synchronous and asynchronous interactions are integrated into the University of Florida Ed Tech program for student communication, as well as for teaching. Students use Facebook, Twitter, Google Hangouts, in addition to meetings at live and online events, to talk about resources they found, academic content, their research and their job challenges. Although students appreciate and use online social media, the two on-campus meetings were rated as the most important facet of social presence by the first two program cohorts, and an additional face-to-face orientation session was added. Facebook was rated as the second key component of social presence, contributing to both learning and building community.
Building social presence and community in the first two years of the program, while students are taking online courses, contributes significantly to completion of dissertations, as students continue to interact, advise, review drafts, and motivate each other throughout the entire program.
Cognitive Presence: Reflection and interaction are integrated into the program with learning activities in which students apply what they are learning to their practice, through identifying and researching topics related to their own environments. This process is linked across various courses in the program, and students share their progress with faculty and peers through multiple online tools. Small groups also work together online in areas of shared interest and students.
Learning Presence: Learning presence encompasses students’ sense of self-responsibility in all aspects of their learning – planning, implementing, reflecting, assessing, and modifying. This aspect has particular importance in an online doctoral program where students often need guidance and advice on the self-direction and self-monitoring essential to successful completion.
Research across cohorts shows introducing the necessity of, and strategies for, learning presence in first year of the program has a positive impact. Graduates are very willing to share their experiences with current students, and components on creating a strong, independent learning presence are incorporated in the program.
Outcomes and Benefits
The input of current and former students is essential to maintaining the quality of the program and they are very willing to share their time, ideas, and expertise with faculty and other students. Students know they are heard and their opinions are respected and so they speak up.
Dr. Kumar describes an example of how student input shaped the program, illustrating the importance and influence of the input, while also indicating the complexity of its implementation. Students in early cohorts recommended the value of the community building integral to the program be explained in advance and linked to learning objectives – as they only recognized its importance in retrospect. This information was then added to orientation; in later evaluations, students reported they tended to disregard or not believe this perspective (coming from faculty) – and only recognized the value later. Now new students are told about the crucial nature of community building by former students. This message is now also communicated more strongly in various courses and activities.
Challenges and Enhancements
Faculty cohesion is essential to success of students, with a common philosophy for advising and support.
It requires constant attention and time to keep the program current, in terms of technologies but more importantly in terms of student needs and input. Faculty work at this as a team, in conjunction with their other teaching, research and service responsibilities.
Time management is the biggest challenge for most students as they are working professionals. They also have high expectations for the program and of themselves.
The fifth cohort is starting the program in 2016; the program is a constant work in progress with adaptations to the current group of students and their particular needs for new content or different approaches.
For Further Information
Dr. Swapna Kumar
Clinical Associate Professor
School of Teaching and Learning
College of Education
University of Florida
Gainesville, FL, USA
S. Kumar, (2014), Quality considerations in the design and implementation of an online doctoral program. The Journal of Online Doctoral Education, 1 (1) 6-22.