Feature

Online Doctorates for Administrators

Convenience, flexibility and loosening skepticism contribute to growth in virtual degrees in educational leadership by KATE BEEM

Ron Dickson knew he needed a terminal degree. In the early 2000s, he was toiling away as an assistant superintendent in a suburban Phoenix school district, but he had higher aspirations — a superintendency.

Yet with a family and a demanding job, he wasn’t sure how he could swing a doctoral degree. He diligently checked out the traditional Ed.D. and Ph.D. programs at Arizona State University in Tempe and Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, which seemed like logical choices to someone with a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University and a master’s in educational leadership from Arizona State.

Rosemary PapaRosemary Papa of Northern Arizona University, where she teaches educational leadership courses, with former colleagues.



Nothing clicked. Then he met an assistant principal who was earning his advanced degree online through a place called Capella University. Dickson was curious: Was it legitimate? How did it work? And would that degree be as universally accepted as one from Arizona State?

Once Dickson figured the cost didn’t differ much from a traditional program, he enrolled in March 2004 in Capella’s Ph.D. program for leadership in educational administration. And thus began, he says, the most rigorous, challenging, intellectually stimulating experience of his adult life.

Successful Pursuit
Dickson quickly discovered his active participation in online classes was expected, and he found himself engaged in lively discussions of education policy and school finance. “I never was more actively involved in my own education as I was at Capella,” he says.

Nearing the conclusion of his formal studies, he applied for a job as superintendent of the 4,900-student Laveen Elementary School District in a suburb southwest of Phoenix. His pending degree opened the door, and Dickson sailed through it.

That was five years ago. In March, Dickson was named a 2009-2010 All-Arizona Superintendent of the Year by the Arizona School Administrators and Arizona School Boards Association. Dickson was honored for “moving his district from a rote-learning, lecture-based instructional philosophy to an approach in which active involvement in the learning process is key to student achievement,” according to the award announcement.

Dickson credits his doctoral degree for his career’s advancement. “Without the degree, I could never have gotten the job” as superintendent, he says.

Gaining Acceptance
Dickson’s online degree, which required three weeklong face-to-face residencies at colloquia in different locations around the country, proved the stepping stone that many teachers and midlevel school administrators yearn for. The Ph.D. or Ed.D. has become a requirement for admittance into the upper echelon of school administration.

And Dickson’s path — through an accredited online university rather than the traditional brick-and-mortar, graduate school model — is becoming a more popular player in the school administration world, say experts and practitioners.

Universities Offering Online Doctorates


The School Administrator has identified 14 higher education programs nationwide that run doctoral programs leading to degrees in education. As the summary below indicates, some of the Ph.D. and Ed.D. programs require short residencies.

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It’s difficult to isolate the numbers of online master’s and doctoral students in educational leadership and administration, but other evidence illustrates the growing trend. Consider:

•  A review of all dissertations posted online nationally from 2006 through 2008 by Rosemary Papa, a Northern Arizona University professor of educational leadership and author of Restoring Human Agency to Educational Administration, found just under 20 percent of all Ph.D.’s in educational leadership are being awarded by online universities.

•  Doctoral- and master’s-level students accounted for some of the largest growth rates in online course taking nationwide — at 21.7 percent and 19.6 percent, respectively — between 2002 and 2006 (the most recent years available), according to the Sloan Consortium.

Most experts, even those who eschew online learning, agree there’s no shutting the barn door now. Taking classes online whenever and wherever it works for the learner has increased access to higher education for millions, says Michael Lambert, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Distance Education and Training Council, which accredits online programs. The average online student is 40 years old, has been to college and is looking for a degree to help with career advancement. They’re goal-oriented self-starters, according to Lambert.

“Basically, we’re dealing with a mature student,” Lambert says. “The older student is driven by goals.”

Lingering Doubts
Despite accolades from doctoral graduates like Dickson and endorsements from others, some doubt lingers over the merits of online graduate work. How can an online delivery model possibly be as rigorous as one that requires face-to-face dialogue and discussion among peers and has stood the test of time as the traditional doctorate has?

That’s what Richard Flanary isn’t so sure about. As senior director of leadership programs and services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, he chairs the Educational Leadership Constituent Council, which develops program standards for the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.

Because the number of administrators possessing online degrees are few, Flanary concedes it’s difficult to assess whether they’re as prepared to lead as those from more proven programs. Only one completely online school — Western Govern-ors University in Salt Lake City, Utah — has achieved the rigorous NCATE accreditation. Capella University has applied but not yet completed the process.

Beyond the relative infancy of the practice, Flanary and others have concerns about learning in isolation. The very nature of school administration demands the ability to work well with others, building coalitions and seeking consensus among school board members. Educational administration doctoral programs typically place students in cohorts and encourage abundant face-to-face time as part of the preparation to lead, Flanary says.

“It’s about people, it’s about relationships, it’s about face-to-face,” Flanary says. “Ensuring that there is an opportunity to engage the full spectrum of reality that administrators are going to face in their practice is important.”

Sandra Harris, the director of the Center for Doctoral Studies in Educational Leadership at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, questions how professors in online programs will get to know their students well enough to write the recommendations needed in employment searches.

Further, she sees online graduate students disadvantaged in other ways. One purpose of face-to-face class time is to challenge students, nudge them out of their comfort zones, Harris says. Educational leaders need to learn how to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations, to have difficult conversations with people who might not be like them.

Moreover, Harris says, a strong bias often exists in higher education circles against faculty candidates with online credentials. “As of right now, if I were talking to a prospective student who wanted to go into higher education, I would tell that person that you are more likely to get a university faculty teaching job in educational leadership if you have a degree from a traditional program,” she says.

An Early Adherent
While that might be the case currently, says Lambert of the Distance Education and Training Council, the winds of change are blowing, and they’re picking up speed.

He cites the 2009 U.S. Department of Education meta-analysis that found online learners perform better than those in traditional settings. Although more than a thousand exist on the benefits or downsides of online learning, the education department considered only 51 independent studies that met strict research design criteria.

Gauging Legitimacy of Online Degrees by Kate Beem


How can you tell if that online degree program you’re eyeing is the real deal?

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The report spoke favorably of the way online class delivery encourages and requires student interaction and reflection but cites time as the main reason online learning is successful. “Studies in which learners in the online condition spent more time on task than students in the face-to-face condition found a greater benefit for online learning,” the report says.

That’s what appeals to students, Lambert says. It’s the main reason people choose online courses over the traditional sort, he says. Once proponents of traditional delivery methods appreciate that, resistance will lessen, Lambert says. “It’s really a function of, do people understand it? If not, they reject or fear it.”

Faced with a choice of a job candidate with a degree from a traditional university and another with a degree from an online school, many employers still will pick the graduate with the traditional degree, says Phil DiSalvio, dean of continuing education and professional studies at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.

But with educators at Harvard, Stanford and the University of California system now embracing online learning, wholesale change isn’t far behind. “The terrain is changing, and it’s changing quickly,” DiSalvio says.

An early adopter of online learning, DiSalvio is a member of the Sloan Consortium Online and Blended Teaching Oversight Board. In the mid-1990s, he was tapped to develop an online master’s in health care administration for Seton Hall. Skeptical at first, DiSalvio quickly realized Internet class delivery could help mid-career professionals access higher education.

The university launched its first online graduate program in 1998 and today offers more than a dozen online degree options, including a master’s in education leadership, management and policy.

Seton Hall’s program stands on four legs. It’s asynchronous, so students can access it at any time and at any place; it uses a cohort system; it’s interactive; and it requires an on-campus residency of three weekends. Most faculty members teach full time at Seton Hall, DiSalvio says.

At Northern Arizona University, Rosemary Papa embraces the use of online learning with her doctoral students, many of whom are educators in rural areas of the state. Papa says it’s absolutely feasible to offer degree programs that are as rigorous as the traditional sort, as long as the course work is full of up-to-date knowledge and content, students are screened and accepted based on their potential to manage the workload, and the program contains experiential learning built into each course.

Convenience Factor
Online master’s and doctoral students aren’t learning in a vacuum, advocates say. Most are working in the field, which gives them real-world experiences to bring to the virtual classroom.

That’s what Tom Smith learned when he found himself faced with the opportunity to hire a job candidate for an administrative post with an online master’s degree from the University of Phoenix, one of the leading proprietary online universities.

Smith, superintendent at the time of the 2,800-student Escanaba Area Public Schools on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, knew of the University of Phoenix but had no personal experience with the university or its education school. That didn’t really matter, he says, adding, “I looked more at the person’s proven abilities and skills as opposed to the location of where he got the degree.”

He understood the draw of an online degree program, especially in his district 75 miles from Northern Michigan University in Marquette and about two hours north of Green Bay, Wis. Teachers and administrators wanting to work in Escanaba while pursuing advanced degrees faced a daunting commute, made worse in the winter months. Most also had after-school responsibilities and young families. The online programs offered convenience and opportunity.

He hired the online graduate as an assistant principal and never looked back. In 2008, Smith began teaching classes for the University of Phoenix, and since retiring from Escanaba a year ago has devoted a lot of time to the two online courses he teaches in school finance and curriculum and instruction. Although his three degrees come from brick-and-mortar universities, Smith believes online classes are just as rigorous as any he ever took as a graduate student.

While students in traditional classes can sometimes get by just by showing up, “you can’t hide online,” Smith says, echoing the mantra shared by many who teach online learners.

Three Varieties
Here’s a look at three different online programs that award advanced degrees to professionals in K-12 education: a for-profit proprietary school, a nonprofit university and a traditional brick-and-mortar program that’s developed a hybrid approach.

•  Capella University. Based in Minneapolis, Capella is state-approved in Minnesota and Arizona and accredited by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. Capella also is undergoing the NCATE accreditation process and is awaiting word on the outcome, says Phil Corkill, faculty chair of educational leadership in the Capella School of Education. More than 1,000 students worldwide have taken education courses through Capella.

Corkill, a former superintendent who retired from the 4,000-student Flowing Wells Unified School District in Tucson, Ariz., first taught as an adjunct professor at the University of Arizona and at Northern Arizona University before joining Capella’s faculty. He, too, sees the advantage of online learning for working professionals trying to move to the next level.

Asynchronous programs like Capella’s fit better into some graduate students’ lives, Corkill say, but it’s still not easy. Instead of a full-time residency, students must spend three nonconsecutive weeks at a colloquium held in different locations around the country, giving them the chance to interact in person with the faculty who’ve been teaching the online courses. At the end of their course work, they must complete a traditional 320-hour, six-month internship as required by Minnesota, where the university is chartered.

Ron Dickson, the Capella graduate who assumed the Laveen, Ariz., superintendency in 2005, quickly discovered the rigor during his time as a doctoral student. He’d receive weekly assignments in his online classroom on Sundays, usually an assignment to read and respond to. Then he’d have to respond to a minimum of two other learners’ comments and keep up on responses made to his own, all in the course of a week. Not doing so would adversely affect his grade.

For Glenn Fortmayer, Capella offered a concrete way to attain his doctorate in educational administration while working in a western Kansas school district. Driving to a traditional campus would have meant a five-hour round-trip commute on class days.

Though Fortmayer, now superintendent of the 727-student Southeast Unified School District in Cherokee, Kan., was concerned an online degree might be looked down upon as inferior in quality, he hasn’t experienced that attitude at all, he says. His instructors were practitioners mostly from large school districts, which he aspires to work in, and they were full of practical, not theoretical, advice, Fortmayer says.

“They know what you’re seeking,” Fortmayer says. “They’re there to make sure you’re prepared for the world.”

•  Fielding Graduate University. What sets this program apart from others in the growing online field is the choices it offers students, says Judy Witt, dean of the Fielding School of Educational Leadership and Change.

With a relatively small enrollment in the education school — 1,500 total with 300 in the doctoral program — students study in programs customized for their learning style and life situation, Witt says. They can study independently with faculty members one on one, take online classes or enroll in the program with a local cohort.

Students are required to attend a one-week orientation at the Santa Barbara, Calif.-based university, but most maintain more frequent face-to-face contact with their teachers, who come from all over the United States, Canada and Mexico, Witt says.

The university is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, a regional accrediting body.

Dallas Jackson went through the Fielding doctoral program in a cohort with two other colleagues in the same Ohio school district. “It was very, very nice,” says Jackson, superintendent of the 7,500-student Forest Hills Local Schools in suburban Cincinnati. “You had each other’s camaraderie, you had others pushing you.”

Jackson sought an online program — distance education, Witt calls it — because a traditional program wasn’t flexible enough. His Fielding experience meshed perfectly with his work life.

The Fielding program is competency-based, Witt says, which means students must prove they understand the material before they move on. For Jackson, that meant his advisers built his classes and independent study around the work he was doing and the issues he was dealing with in his school district. He communicated constantly with his professors and often traveled to California or elsewhere to meet with them.

“Fielding isn’t really an online college,” Jackson says. “It was guided study.”

•  Northern Arizona University. The university’s main campus is in Flagstaff in northern Arizona, but satellite campuses abound, including sites in Tucson and many high schools and community college — and now, the Internet.

Students can take many doctoral classes online and find them as rigorous, or even, more so than the traditional sort, says Papa, who teaches educational leadership courses in the graduate program.

Lynette Francis, a doctoral student and assistant vice president for student affairs at the University of Arizona, has taken four online courses. The principles of good scholarship are the same as in a traditional classroom, but the freedoms are fewer, she says. Students must make comments, and professors can tell who’s checked out the course syllabus and who’s participating, Francis says.

“I’ve been in traditional classes where we shoot the breeze rather than stay on topic,” she says. “You can’t do that in an online environment.”

Papa, herself a former teacher and principal, sees as essential the need to get students off the computer and into the world during their graduate studies to discover real-world applications of the concepts they’re learning and to become exposed to potential employers. She frequently sends her principals-in-training to school board meetings to observe educational politics firsthand. They record their experiences, sharing them with classmates, before interviewing board members or administrators about the issues. “So they get a sense of what local governance is all about,” Papa says.

Northern Arizona also offers distance classes, synchronous experiences where students sit in a classroom in one part of the state while a professor in another city teaches by videoconference. Francis has taken those sorts of classes, too. However, the university still requires a residency. Doctoral candidates must spend four to eight weekends a summer for two years on the Flagstaff campus with their cohort group.

Francis, who is not on a superintendent track, remembers when she would have turned up her nose at someone with a degree from Capella or the University of Phoenix. Not anymore. “There’s only just going to be more of this,” she says. “The terminal degree has become such a club card now to get you into the next level of administration.”

Too true, parrots Lambert of the Distance Training and Education Council. Online degrees are a way of the future.

“There’ll come a time, and very soon, when we won’t have to have this conversation,” he says. “It will be accepted.”

Kate Beem is a freelance education writer in Independence, Mo. E-mail: ksbeem@sbcglobal.net