Traits of Great Online Graduate Programs (Part 1 of 6)

I am a University administrator and professor of education who has been involved with online learning in one way or another for over twenty years. As part of my ongoing professional development in this area, I review online programs around the world. I am constantly looking for new ways to structure programs so that they provide effective and engaging learning experiences for students. Much of my time is spent working with graduate online programs, so please keep that in context as you read the rest of this post.

Each day my convictions are growing and my vision is becoming clearer. It may come off as cliche or pie-in-the-sky, but I believe in the power of blended and online learning to transform education. However, I am under no delusion that this transformation is always good. In fact, I join others who express concern about some trends:

  • diploma mills,
  • students run through programs like they are a product going through a factory production line,
  • programs with no sense of social presence or student-student / student-instructor relationships,
  • schools building online programs without adequate intellectual capitol or real-work expertise,
  • schools letting dollar signs or student numbers impair their vision and blur their ability to focus on their historic mission,
  • and schools providing online learning experiences that are void to true intellectual mentoring.

Out of all of the the items in this list of concerns, the last is my focus right now.

I believe that excellent and intentional mentoring is near the center of a great graduate educational experience. This is true whether it is a hybrid program, fully online, or a full-time residential experience. This explains why graduate students in some of the “top” graduate schools in the world come out of programs with mediocre teachers, but they have still learned a ton, and they often go on to have a huge impact on society. Teaching has never been the only or even the central attribute of the best graduate programs. The community, the culture of that community, and the mentoring relationships in that community (often in the form of assistantships, research projects, etc.) also help make(s) these programs great.. That is the first step toward my manifesto of online learning.. Excellent graduate online programs must be more than a series of courses (no matter how well they are designed).

They entail an immersive learning community that extends the span of the program. They have a culture that drips of the core values and mission of the University. They have faculty/mentors who are passionately and continually investing in the lives of the students. And they engage students in individual and community scholarship. These are the attributes of an excellent online graduate program.

3 Replies to “Traits of Great Online Graduate Programs (Part 1 of 6)”

  1. Bayard “By” Baylis

    DrEvel1, If you were to ask faculty in PhD programs directly, most will deny your charge. However, I have a theory as to why “too many current PhDs don’t” seem to “share that ethic.” The faculty don’t realize what they are doing. They are acting naturally, out of instinct. Faculty are living organisms. The primary function of living organisms is to consume resources, grow, and reproduce. To survive graduate programs must produce more faculty candidates that will reproduce PhD candidates that will feed graduate programs.

  2. Teresa Hamra

    Your comments are very interesting. I teach online, and I am working on a Doctorate degree in Education. I am a nurse, who began teaching in 2008, after about 15 years of clinical practice. I began teaching in the classroom to undergrad students, and I now teach online in a Hybrid program. I have always been interested in interactive learning and found ways to make that happen in the classroom. Now I teach online course for nurses continuing education for higher degrees, and I find teaching online is more challenging, and more time consuming. I respond at length, on a weekly basis to every student. There are less students in my online courses, however, it takes as much time as teaching a large group of face to face students. There is a definite difference between face to face and online learning – each with its own challenges, but I believe as you state, there needs to be quality in the education process.
    One of the reasons I came to this site, is because of the topics related to online teaching and learning. I am very excited to take online learning in any direction, and to learn about ways to make it interactive, fun, exciting, challenging, so that students get the best experience, and that learning takes place.
    I am amazed at the number of choices I have to use for interactive learning online, but I see a balance must exist, so the online course is not overwhelming.
    I have begun using Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) in the online courses, and having fun using them. I have used them in face to face classes and wasn’t sure they would work in online courses. I have found that they actually work well, I just need to let students know what I am doing, and include them as part of the course, otherwise they are not looked at as a priority, and students tend to ignore them if they are not mandatory, or have no points associated with the interaction.

  3. DrEvel1

    I’ve likewise been involved with online doctoral education for 14 years, following 15 years in FTF universities. When I joined what was then Touro University International in 2001, there were virtually no other all-online PhD programs in business. However, our small cadre of experienced doctoral educators managed over the next few years to organize a sound core of courses mixing innovative research methods and data analysis with organizational content, to establish policies and procedures for qualifying exams and dissertation advising, and to see the first students effectively through their dissertations. A number of them were even able to secure tenure-track faculty positions (back then when there were still such positions to be had) on the basis of the quality of their research.

    It was a little strange realizing that I had guided someone through a degree without ever having seen them directly. But then I realized that I actually had in my head a very firm picture of what the student looked like, which always came up as an anchor whenever we interacted, which was a lot. The fact that it didn’t necessarily have anything to do with how the student actually looked was irrelevant – what mattered was that it kept our interactions direct and personal.

    The development of our program was significantly set back when TUI was acquired by a VC firm, turned into a for-profit venture, and eventually damaged by faculty layoffs, myself included. Teaching suffered some from the changes, but up to the point I left we never compromised our insistence on research quality. In the last 2.5 years, I’ve taught as an adjunct in three different PhD programs – two for-profit,one non-profit. It’s not been a positive experience. One of the programs simply didn’t have the curriculum necessary to support quality research by students. They thought that they could still maintain quality by setting dissertation standards high – but all this did was to make the job of the adjunct committee chair unmanageable. Another program just didn’t have a sufficient critical mass of students to sustain a community; the result was excessive leverage in the hands of the few students that there were.

    I still believe that quality online PhD education is possible; we were getting close to it eight years ago. Although we’d just begun serious community building, we’d finally figured out how to do it – just at the point when resource cutbacks put an end to our initiatives. But I’ve also seen enough poor implementations of the concept to be seriously worried about a Gresham’s Law of Dissertations – “poor quality drives out good quality”. We have only ourselves to blame. The PhD degree can only be awarded upon the recommendation of current holders of the degree. Lowering standards for research quality damages the value of the degree for all its holders. Yet there are plenty of PhDs who apparently have voluntarily collaborated in awarding the degree to unqualified people. If we only would respect our degree in the way that those who awarded it to us respected it, we wouldn’t have a problem. The problem is that too many current PhDs don’t share that ethic.

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