The Online Doctorate: Flexible, But Credible?

It’s a popular new option for aspiring school system leaders, though questions linger among traditional providers by Patti Ghezzi

Tom Ward wanted to continue his education, but the rural Missouri superintendent faced obstacles. He lived an hour and a half away from the closest university with a doctoral program in educational administration.

His job gobbled up much of his day, leaving little time for a long commute. Plus Ward realized he might make a career move to another locale during the years it would take him to earn the doctor title.

He found a solution in Capella University, an accredited higher education institution run by a publicly traded, for-profit company that offers Ph.D. and Ed.D. degrees through online coursework. When he finished the program in February, his colleagues in the 378-student La Plata R-II school district held a reception in his honor. But Ward says the degree wasn’t about recognition.

“I needed to do it for myself,” he says. “I needed to go to the next level.”

Question of Rigor
Administrators like Ward are finding flexible opportunities to pursue doctoral degrees online. Cyber institutions such as Walden University, University of Phoenix and Argosy University — as well as a few traditional universities that have forged into the electronic arena — can accommodate time-strapped educators no matter where they live, as long as they have a computer with high-speed Internet access and the self-discipline to learn on their own.

Programs typically require students to appear in occasional in-person seminars held at locations around the country. Or students may take courses scheduled on weekends and during the summer. The vast majority of the work can be done over the Internet.

Yet there’s a downside to this online pursuit. While more K-12 educators have easier access to earn the credential they need to open doors to higher administrative posts, some educators remain skeptical that online degrees require the same rigor and offer the valuable collegial experiences of doctoral degrees earned at conventional universities.

One critic, Thomas Glass, a professor of educational leadership at University of Memphis who tracks superintendent trends, believes online programs run by online colleges cannot prepare educators for executive-level positions in a school district. “They are definitely second class or third class,” says Glass, lead author of AASA’s latest “Study of the American School Superintendency,” which is being released this fall. “Is someone going to learn data disaggregation online?”

Leaders at the institutions now offering online doctoral degrees say their programs are as rigorous, if not more so, than programs at bricks-and-mortar universities. They contend their electronic classes emphasize practical skills and applicable research over education theory and say their instructors are practitioners who understand the public education landscape better than tenured professors who may be decades removed from working in school settings.

Those enrolled in graduate degree programs contend the online colleges are selling exactly what they want. Other students concede while they might prefer a more traditional academic experience on a university campus, the factors of time, distance and transportation gridlock make it almost impossible to do so.

A Demanding Path
Ward, 53, earned his master’s and specialist degrees at Truman State and Lindenwood universities, traditional campuses in his home state. He insists he worked much harder at Capella, where he enrolled in the doctoral program for K-12 educational leadership in 2002.

“The classwork was rigorous,” he says. “It required a lot of research. I had a hard time adjusting to the scholarly writing they required.”

Ward had the benefit of sharing cyber classes with graduate students who were full-time educators in school communities across the country. They shared ideas on common problems such as putting Section 504 plans in place for educating special education students. In his earlier graduate work, classrooms were populated mostly with individuals from the local area.

An educator for 33 years, Ward spent 18 months on his dissertation on the impact of embedded credits — courses that combine content from two subjects into a single course and allow the student to earn credits for both — on vocational students in Missouri. He defended his dissertation on a conference call with a three-member committee. Throughout his studies at Capella, Ward appeared in person only three times for required seminars, though he logged many miles doing his dissertation research.

Ward subsequently applied his research findings to the vocational curriculum in his northern Missouri school district, embedding math credits in a vocational course. The move will enable voc-ed students to meet the academic requirements for a high school diploma and graduate on time, while learning a vocation.

“Anybody who thinks the online route is an easy route, they can give me a call,” Ward says. “I beg to differ with them.”

Bill Brown, a former superintendent in Kentucky who serves as interim co-chair of Capella University’s K-12 leadership department, says the online graduate program requires that all instructors hold a doctorate from an accredited university and have several years of experience in school administration. Brown counts among the 423 doctoral students enrolled in the K-12 leadership program, superintendents, principals and assistant principals, as well as teachers who have no desire to ever lead a school or district. More than 2,700 students are enrolled in Capella’s doctoral programs for educators.

“They don’t just want the respect,” Brown says. “They want the knowledge.” Many also want the contractual pay increase that comes with an advanced degree.

Capella’s coursework, Brown contends, is designed for administrators who are being held accountable under No Child Left Behind to close the achievement gap among student subgroups, a priority for educators whether they work in rural Missouri or the Bronx.

He says the online format creates an environment where every student critiques every classmate’s work. “If you were in a classroom with 20 people and 19 were going to review a proposal, you would want your proposal to be up to par,” he says. “Everybody is trying to help that person be successful.”

Students in online doctoral programs often refer to this issue of personal accountability. In a traditional graduate school classroom, sometimes a handful of students will dominate the public discussions. In a cyber classroom, students sitting in their living rooms with a laptop may feel more inclined to express their genuine feelings. And they do so in writing, which enables participants to find their voice and better articulate their views.

“Capella forces you to be an excellent student,” says Dolly Adams, a lead teacher for gifted education in Richmond, Texas, who is working on her Ed.D. in educational leadership. “You’re not sitting in a lecture listening to a professor who likes the sound of his voice.”

Blended Delivery
The idea of distance learning in higher education took root long before the Internet revolution, when college leaders began to realize potential enrollees were too entrenched in their careers and their families to spend three years or more on campus to pursue a degree.

Some universities began by setting up off-site classrooms in their states, offering videotaped lectures or delivering instruction via satellite. The Internet expanded the options for distance learning, allowing “maverick universities” to forge ahead, says Paul Borthwick, who heads the graduate teacher education program at Nova Southeastern University in south Florida.

Just as traditional university leaders once scoffed at distance learning, they now criticize online programs. Some of those same schools will eventually jump in with web-based courses, Borthwick predicts. “This online delivery has come a long ways. There was a lot of fear. People didn’t grow up with online delivery.”

Nova Southeastern offers the doctorate of education in a blended format. Most courses are available online, and students can take courses on the weekends or during the week on the campus in Fort Lauderdale or locations around the country.

A 2005 study of online college courses found 18 percent growth from 2003 to 2004, with 2.35 million students enrolled in at least one online course at the post-secondary level. The study, “Growing by Degrees,” published by the Sloan Consortium, a group of colleges aimed at providing quality online programs, found online courses most popular among students seeking master’s degrees.

Yet in the health professions, online instruction at the doctorate level has taken off with a 59 percent penetration of online courses in doctoral programs, meaning for every 100 classroom courses, there are 59 online courses. Education ranks second in online doctoral courses, with 39 percent penetration.

Cautionary Counsel
One significant problem that may stem the growth of online doctoral programs is the matter of state certification. Some online doctoral programs are not recognized. At Nova Southeastern, the course catalog notes its doctorate is not a path to superintendent certification in Florida, which instead recognizes Nova’s leadership certificate.

“States are funny,” Borthwick says. “There’s no consistency.”

Educators thinking about earning a doctorate online also should make sure their school district — and any other district they might be inclined to work for — recognizes the degree. The 263,000-student Broward County, Fla., district has seen an increase in the number of applicants with degrees earned online and does consider them viable applicants “as long as the institution is accredited by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation,” said district spokeswoman Nadine Drew.

Nova Southeastern, Capella, Walden, Argosy, University of Phoenix and other universities popular with educators for their online class offerings are listed on the CHEA website www.chea.org as accredited. The organization warns students about unaccredited “diploma mills” that sell degrees, promise a degree in less than a year and offer credit for so-called “life experiences.”

Other warnings are sounded by Bill Attea, a leading superintendent search consultant, who says any school leader aspiring to land a superintendency, especially in a suburban school district, should think twice about investing in a degree from an online university. Attea, managing partner in the Illinois executive search firm Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, says a school board paying more than $170,000 a year for its superintendent would be unlikely to consider a candidate with a degree from an online school.

“Sophisticated school districts place a high premium on pedigree,” he says.

If a board has viable candidates from Harvard, University of Illinois and Walden, the candidates from traditional schools would have the edge, he adds. “If Harvard started giving an online degree, that’s going to change the perception.”

Still, a doctorate from Capella or Argosy is better than no doctorate because school boards “like to introduce their superintendent as doctor,” says Attea, a former superintendent. And an educational leader with a record of raising student test scores always will be in demand, regardless of educational background.

Of course, the debate over the value of doctorates in school system leadership has simmered for years. It has gained new currency since the release of a stinging 2005 report authored by Arthur Levine, former president of Columbia University’s Teachers College, that sharply criticized the quality of doctoral programs in educational administration and called for the elimination of the Ed.D.

Some value a Ph.D., which is more research-oriented, over an Ed.D, a doctorate for practitioners that emphasizes the nuts and bolts of school administration. Though some superintendents today have Ph.D.s, the Ed.D is now widely recognized by school boards. Still, some superintendents rose through the ranks of their districts and have no doctorate. Others are nontraditional candidates, trained most prominently by the Broad Foundation, with backgrounds in law, the military or business.

A 2006 nationwide survey conducted by AASA found 50.7 percent of sitting superintendents had earned a doctorate, though the study did not differentiate between the Ph.D. and the Ed.D. Most of the doctorates were in educational administration or educational leadership.

The increasing diversity in the professional backgrounds of those filling superintendencies leaves room for online degrees to gain credibility as more school leaders who hold them make names for themselves in the field.

“Things change over time,” Attea says. “My hunch is that reputable schools with credible programs would be OK as long as they maintained the rigor.”

Advantages Online
The overseers of the online graduate programs are well aware of the criticism confronting schools of education over the quality of their leadership preparation programs.

At Argosy University, a not-for-profit, Chicago-based school with campuses around the country and extensive online programs, doctoral students are required to spend some of their time meeting in classes that take place on the weekends. “It is beneficial to have some face time,” says Ed Bouie, head of Argosy’s education doctorate program in Atlanta.

To be successful in online courses, students have to treat them differently than typical courses, Bouie says. “It’s a whole lot more work. It takes a lot more thought to put a response in writing than to say it in class. They have to go out and react to comments. It’s not easy.”

Bouie, like most administrators and faculty in online programs, earned his doctorate from a traditional source, Clark Atlanta University, yet he maintains the preparation of educators through online programs can be high quality.

Joe Ann Hinrichs, director of the K-12 Ph.D. program and chair of the Ed.D. program at Walden University, which is owned by the for-profit company Laureate Education, says she would not risk her reputation working for a program that wasn’t credible. Like Argosy and Capella, Walden requires some classroom work, often in university settings. Most of the work can be done online.

The online courses are in sync with a 21st-century lifestyle, she says. Students don’t have to worry about when their professor’s office hours are. They can send an e-mail or post a question, prompting other students to jump in with the answer.

“Students get a fast turnaround,” Hinrichs says. “I answer a student’s question, and everyone can see it online. When you get to this level in education, you have become a self-actualized learner. You need interaction with colleagues.”

Hinrichs enjoys reading online conversations among students from different backgrounds facing similar problems in their schools. All share a desire to be “social change agents,” she says. Educators studying online especially want to “bolster their ability to conduct research, understand it and communicate it to parents,” she says.

Martha Richardson, a recently retired middle school principal in rural LaGrange, Ga., went the online route for her doctorate because her full-time job left her no time to commute to a campus. “I saw nothing a bricks-and-mortar would bring me,” says Richardson, who has degrees from Vanderbilt and Georgia State universities. “Just because I sat in a building did not make my education any more valid.”

She researched Capella’s credibility before enrolling. “I had degrees from rigorous universities,” she says. “I didn’t want to go down.”

Richardson saw names of educators she had long admired among the faculty at Capella. And she liked the occasional face-to-face seminars. In one seminar, educators were paired with business leaders pursuing their doctorates. She appreciated the recognition that schools must be run like businesses.

Richardson enrolled in 1999 and finished her Ph.D. with Capella four years later. Because she has the advanced degree, she can keep a foot in the classroom by teaching education courses at the college level. The degree has helped her get grant-writing work for school districts.

Still Reluctant
At traditional universities, leaders acknowledge the need to adapt to a marketplace where consumers are demanding convenience and flexibility. But they stop short of predicting an escalation in the number of programs offering doctoral degrees online anytime soon.

At the University of Georgia, Ronald Cervero, who heads the department of lifelong education, administration and policy, appointed a committee this year to look at ways to make courses more accessible. Yet he has no plans to make the entire doctoral program for educators available through online instruction. Instead, he is looking to bring the face-to-face classes closer to students who cannot commute to Athens.

“The University of Georgia has strong programs and credibility,” he says. “We have that advantage some of the other providers don’t have at this point.”

Cervero says he wouldn’t want to compromise the “intensity of the teacher-student relationship at the doctoral level.”

At the University of South Dakota, students can complete their master’s and specialist degrees online but not the doctorate. “Those we really don’t feel are appropriate for online instruction,” says Marc Baron, chair of educational administration. “They’re geared toward research.”

His university markets itself nationally, pointing out that its online courses are taught by the same professors who teach traditional classes on campus. “When you’re here,” he says, “you’re with an adviser who is working and doing research and teaching the same course online as face-to-face.”

Baron calls some of the online-only programs “veneer without substance.” But he understands why educators are attracted. “Administrators have been at work since 7 a.m. Then after being in the car two hours, they’re not in any place to get anything out of a class. ... They’re cooked.”

He acknowledges some old-school professors are reluctant to embrace online learning because they believe current students should make the sacrifices they did. “We look at our experience and say, ‘Gee, we shouldn’t make it so easy.’”

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which has a track record of long-distance learning that dates back to the early 1990s, had all but a few of its graduate education courses online by 2004. The program started so administrators in higher education could earn doctorates. It has attracted K-12 educators from around the country.

Even so, once graduate students get into their research, they often find they want to put in face time at the university, says Miles Bryant, a professor of educational administration. “It’s the rare student who doesn’t spend time on campus. We have had students do it all online.”

Like others at colleges of education, he believes it’s important to meet the students being served at the master’s and doctoral levels, and he was initially resistant to putting so many courses online.

“We’re still not convinced it’s the best practice,” he says. “But it’s a practice.”

Patti Ghezzi, a former education reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is a free-lance writer in Atlanta. E-mail: pattighezzi@hotmail.com

Go to "Where to Find Online Doctorates"

Go to "My Cyber Route to Higher Learning"