Online Credentials: A State of Wariness

Survey of personnel directors says school leaders completing graduate work online will find skeptical employers by JAYSON W. RICHARDSON

As a first-year superintendent, Nick Polyak has yet to conduct a search for a principal to lead one of his four schools in the Illinois Valley Central School District in Chillicothe, Ill. When that opportunity does come, Polyak is quite sure he’ll be skeptical of any candidate whose curriculum vitae lists courses or entire degrees completed in online graduate programs.

Polyak’s school district marginally accepts online credits among school employees. While the district partially reimburses staff for up to 12 credit hours per year for professional development, only three of the credits may be completed in online classes.

Jayson RichardsonJayson Richardson studied how school district personnel directors treat administrator candidates with online academic credentials. Photo by Lisa Hunt.

Being the superintendent of a small school district, Polyak also is the point person for giving thumbs up or thumbs down to graduate courses requested by his building-level leaders. Referencing television commercials touting how an individual can earn a graduate degree in 16 months, all in the comfort of pajamas at home, he says, “I see what their marketing angle is, but they have to stop and think about the message this sends to a school district or school board.”

Polyak, who completed an Ed.D. in educational administration and supervision in 2007 at Loyola University Chicago, believes formal online instruction for educators, while improving, remains uneven in quality and demands close scrutiny today.

Contentious Topic
In a 2009 report, “K-12 Online Learning,” the Sloan Consortium reported that more than 4.6 million students in the United States took an online course during fall 2008, a 17 percent increase over the previous year. The numbers are clear: Online learning and online degrees are here to stay — for educators as well as their students. But in the field of educational leadership, the acceptability of credentials earned online remains highly suspect.

Jean Sophie is the superintendent of the 1,200-student Westchester Public Schools, located west of Chicago. She hasn’t yet received an application from a principal candidate holding a degree earned fully online, but she knows whether she’d consider someone with such a credential. “Absolutely not,” she says, because online credentials and online universities are not highly regarded.

For current school leaders, the contentious issue revolves around the acceptability of online course work and whether online courses can be counted toward a lane change for salary increases. For aspiring school leaders, the key issue is whether the pursuit of a job is hurt or helped if all or part of the course work toward a school administrator license is completed online. Understanding how online credentials earned by school leaders will be perceived by potential employers often requires one to read between the lines while differentiating the benefits and limitations.

“Online learning is gaining popularity,” Polyak says. “It is our responsibility as gatekeepers … to look at the curriculum, to look at the delivery models, and make informed decisions. That is why I accept online courses and online programs on a case-by-case basis.”

Current Feelings
Along with Scott McLeod, a professor of educational administration at Iowa State University, and Amy Garrett Dikkers, an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, I recently completed a study to understand how school districts view credentials earned in online degree programs and how they treat their principals who want to take online graduate classes. Through a survey of 107 human resources directors in school districts nationwide, the study captured the current feel of this debate.

We identified five main findings:

Asking Hard Questions About Online Preparation by RALPH L. MARSHALL

What would you do as a superintendent if your personnel assistant informed you that a teacher in the school district had submitted a request for tuition reimbursement and salary schedule advancement for 18 hours of graduate college credit earned during the summer at an out-of-state university?

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•  Districts are reluctant to hire principals with online credentials. The most common theme to emerge was that school districts would avoid hiring a principal candidate with online credentials. Said Sophie, whose own doctorate in educational leadership came from Northern Illinois University in 2005: “I will always stick with my traditionally trained school leaders unless the federal government tells me I can’t. … If I knew a principal candidate had an online degree, I would not even interview them.”

For Polyak, the issue is not so cut and dry. “If somebody grew up in rural Illinois, I would not rule them out because they have an online degree. That may be the only way they can get a degree. But if I see the program is questionable or if I don’t like the content or how it is delivered, then I would be biased away from that person.”

•  Principal candidates with online credentials are viewed as being less qualified. The national survey indicated that online-prepared school leaders would be given less consideration in the job search. All things being equal, a traditional brick-and-mortar, face-to-face education would be the tiebreaker among candidates.

“You put a lot of time in and get lots out of it or you can get nothing out of it in either format. It is up to the individual,” Polyak says. “I have a fear that people who are not inclined to work hard in their programs will be attracted to online programs. They will view earning credentials online as an easier, quicker and less expensive way.”

This is not always the case, as Mary Paul Beall, a principal at Williston Middle School in Wilmington, N.C., attests. No stranger to the hiring process, she has participated in numerous interviewing panels for her district and recently hired an assistant principal who completed his licensure requirements through a hybrid program that mixed traditional classes with online study.

“I am not looking at where or how they got their degree,” Beall says. “It is more whether they can handle the job.”

•  Candidates with online credentials would be interviewed differently than traditionally prepared candidates. Human resource directors indicated if they were to interview a principal candidate who was wholly or partially trained in an online program, the school district hiring official would ask more in-depth questions about handling interpersonal issues and ask for specific examples of accomplishments in a number of areas.

When they interviewed candidates holding online graduate degrees, the personnel directors said they would ask more probing questions about courses and ask questions that reflect the depth of the candidates’ understanding of important subjects, such as budgeting, conflict management and public relations. Interviews might focus more on administrative scenarios to determine whether the online degree recipient was prepared for the job.

Beall has interviewed plenty of assistant principal applicants, many of them graduates of the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where the master’s of school administration is offered as a hybrid program and where the principal licensure program may soon be totally online. Beall has no hesitations about hiring these online-trained candidates. When she interviews, she focuses primarily on the internship, the person’s career experiences and the course work completed. As a UNC Wilmington graduate herself, Beall has complete faith in the university’s ability to produce quality school leaders in either format.

•  The school district would research the online program if interested in the candidate. Prior to interviewing a candidate trained partially or wholly online, many human resources directors noted they would research the creditability of the online program. They would check on the course work, academic rigor and institutional reputation.

Again and again, a major concern expressed by human resources directors was the importance of the school leader having a quality internship and getting the needed content from course work. 

•  Once hired, a school leader with online credentials may be required to complete supplemental tasks. If a principal candidate trained partially or wholly online secured a school leadership position, districts often reported they would require additional on-the-job training. These districts said they would require attendance at state-level school leadership association meetings and might even require mentoring beyond the normal routine.

Sophie, the suburban Chicago superintendent, sees the advantage of these professional requirements for someone whose graduate work has been completed in an online setting. “You can never replicate the value of being with colleagues in the classroom,” she says. “You just cannot replace that.”

Moving Forward
Our study explored what personnel directors thought online graduate programs in educational leadership can do to ensure high quality.

First, human resources directors were concerned by the presumed lack of face-to-face contact in online programs. Technology, however, allows for virtual, synchronous meeting spaces at little to no cost. Videoconferencing in an online environment was cited as a way to overcome this limitation.

To build camaraderie among cohorts of graduate students in a virtual classroom, program providers need to establish professional networks that allow close interaction among peers. Personal connections sometimes are more valuable in the long run than the course content.

The need for an internship cannot be overlooked. It is hard to imagine any internship being successful that is not face-to-face and doesn’t allow for significant experience in the school leadership role. Online school leadership programs must clearly detail how they are meeting this need and how they are monitoring internships to ensure they are robust, engaging and assessed.

Second, these online programs and courses must involve mentoring. The study found a need to establish professional learning communities where students engage with and learn from current school leaders in their local areas. Mentoring also is a way to incorporate more face-to-face components into an online environment.

Third, universities that offer online degrees and online courses for school administrators must include high-quality content and interactions. These should foster in-depth discussions and interactions with school leaders and be led by quality instructors. How this is achieved needs to be made explicit. To satisfy skeptics, these questions should be addressed: Who are the instructors? How are they selected? What content does each course/program cover specifically? What is the structure of the course/program?

Fourth, the study found online preparation needs to include the essential skills of being a building leader. These include content knowledge, research abilities, strong interpersonal communication skills, technology skills and effective networking skills.

Additionally, online programs need mechanisms to ensure students have mastered these skills while also understanding state education laws and regulations. One way to do this is through portfolio assessments based on national standards such as the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium.

Fifth, the study found a need to ensure quality in online learning. This finding is much harder to achieve but perhaps the most important for those universities who want to prepare school leaders online to serve effectively. Regional accreditation was suggested as a starting point. The process should be publicized and described for outsiders.

Proactive Measures
Educators also can take steps to better position themselves should they enroll in online course work or an online degree designed for school administrators. At the outset, educators should realize that school districts may be hesitant to hire online-credentialed administrators and prejudiced against online preparation. Understanding this will better prepare a candidate to diffuse potential concerns.

An educator pursuing an online degree ought to remain involved in state-level issues. Participating in state professional associations is a must. Membership in professional groups is also a great way to network and form in-person relationships that are pivotal to the success of a building leader.

Lastly, school leaders in training should do their homework to ensure the online course work focuses on developing the important skills needed for administrative positions. Determining if the school district where one hopes to apply has an open attitude about online credentials would be a wise pro-active measure.

Jayson Richardson is an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Kentucky and an associate director of the Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education. E-mail: jayson.richardson@uky.edu