Interview with Brenda C. Barnes, Ph.D., MT (ASCP)SBB - Director of the Online Ed.D. in Health Professions Education at Allen College

About Brenda C. Barnes, Ph.D., MT (ASCP)SBB: Brenda C. Barnes is Director of the Online Ed.D. in Health Professions Education at Allen College, where she also teaches courses as a Professor and directs the Medical Laboratory Science (MLS) program. As a scholar of and expert in distance education, Dr. Barnes developed the curriculum for the Ed.D., and now oversees the continued growth and evolution of this program’s course offerings, learning technologies, and student support systems. Prior to her role at Allen College, Dr. Barnes was a Transfusion Safety Officer and a Medical Technologist Specialist and Primary Instructor for The Methodist Hospital.

Dr. Barnes received her Bachelor of Science in Medical Technology from the University of Nebraska Medical Center, her Master of Science in Education with a focus on Instructional Technology from the University of Nebraska at Kearney, and her Ph.D. in Educational Technology from Walden University.

Interview Questions

[] May we have an overview of Allen College’s Online Ed.D. in Health Professions Education, including its key learning outcomes and how it prepares medical practitioners with the knowledge and skills to become educational leaders in academic and clinical contexts?

[Dr. Brenda C. Barnes] We created this program for practitioners who are at the top of their game in terms of working in different healthcare environments, and who have also identified that they would be great education leaders. Transitioning to education leadership can be somewhat daunting for these individuals because it kind of feels like starting over from scratch.

Our students are experts in their own regard, but now they want to learn how to teach and develop educational programs. We found that those types of students really needed our support, and we designed our program to be fully online in order to serve this student demographic, as they are often very busy as working professionals in the medical field.

Our goal was to create a program that supported learners regardless of what level of learning they are at. Online learning can be a really lonely learning space for some, with the risk of students ending up on individual islands. We designed this program to ensure that there would not be that loss of community. Students interact regularly with faculty as well as their classmates, and learn how to integrate their coursework into their existing work and to bring insights back into the classroom for discussion.

Regarding our program’s learning outcomes, we have a series of competencies, and corresponding courses that help students meet each of those competencies. Within these competencies we define what the role of the health sciences educator should be as compared to an educator in higher academia or in a K-12 setting. There are unique aspects of health sciences programs, and one of the most important is the fact that nursing and other health professions’ education programs must receive accreditation from an external organization. For nursing, one example of such an accrediting organization is the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE).

Our students range from health care practitioners to current nursing faculty at colleges of health science and institutions of nursing. The courses don’t specifically teach one branch of science health education over another; they are designed so that students can make the assignments work for them in their individual work context.

[] Could you please elaborate on the online learning technologies that Allen College’s Online Ed.D. in Health Professions Education uses to deliver course materials and facilitate interactions between students and faculty?

[Dr. Brenda C. Barnes] We use Blackboard as our learning management system, and we supplement with technologies like Flipgrid, which is a verbal discussion board that allows for a lot of interactivity. We also use Zoom for any synchronous work and advising.

[] Allen College’s Online Ed.D. in Health Professions Education requires the completion of a dissertation. May we have more information on the dissertation, including its structure and purpose, the process students undergo to complete it, and the types of faculty support students receive during their work?

[Dr. Brenda C. Barnes] For the dissertation, students explore a local problem that is meaningful to them, and their dissertation research is a vehicle for them to explore this problem. Students have the flexibility to adapt their dissertation to the problem they wish to investigate and their own professional and academic goals.

In terms of examples of dissertations, we’ve had a student who was a nursing instructor and who wanted to look at the need for emotional intelligence instruction in nursing instruction settings. Another student examined the concept of grit (i.e. courage, resolve, and resilience) and how it affects the learning outcomes of nursing students. One student looked at faculty needs and their perceptions of caring. Recently, we had a student analyze the use of online instructional methods amongst nurse educators, and these educators’ beliefs around the efficacy of these online learning technologies. As we have students in non-nursing fields, we also have dissertation topics that are in areas such as occupational therapy, physical therapy, and other disciplines.

Many of our students complete dissertations that are invested in giving faculty a voice. Something we have noticed more in literature reviews is that the vast majority of research focuses on the student experience, and there is frankly not a great deal of research conducted on the faculty experience, what their needs are, what faculty support should look like for various roles, etc.

Students receive ample faculty support and feedback during their work on their dissertation. All students are assigned a dissertation chair and a committee comprised of the chair, another faculty member, and an external reviewer.

[] What role does faculty mentorship play in Allen College’s Online Ed.D. in Health Professions Education? How can students make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems while they are enrolled?

[Dr. Brenda C. Barnes] When developing this program, it was important to us that we encourage collegial relationships between faculty and students, and between students themselves. Mentorship is as important for educators as it is for students.

As a result we recently created a new elective that is geared towards students who do not have any experience as faculty. This elective is essentially a dedicated mentorship course. The faculty member who teaches the course (right now it is myself) focuses on helping students navigate the academic institution. In the class we cover the formal structure of an institution of higher learning, the committees and communities that are in place, how tenure and faculty support work in these environments. For our students who are already faculty members, they can apply for credit for that elective on the grounds of their prior experience.

Another great source of mentorship that I have recently integrated into the program is support from our alumni network. Currently I have been reaching out to some of our past graduates and asking them to serve as committee members for students’ dissertations. That has proven to be extremely effective; our graduates have so much empathy and a great understanding of 1) what a good dissertation should look like and 2) our students’ experience as they work through the challenges of their independent research project.

As Director of the Ed.D. program, I would also add that we work very hard to tailor our program’s curriculum and extracurricular support systems to match what our students need. For example, a predominant area of weakness for our students is the academic writing piece. Many of our students have a master’s degree that is specific to their role–a master of science in nursing, or a master of science in occupational or respiratory therapy–but these focused graduate programs don’t typically require students to write a thesis or dissertation. In response to this, I am working on an academic writing support course that is geared towards students who are not as comfortable with academic writing and research as they would like to be.

We are very responsive to students’ needs–we not only make the coursework adaptable to students’ current workplaces, but we also adapt constantly as a program in order to ensure we are offering the most timely and relevant support and knowledge that can help our students succeed.

[] For students interested in Allen College’s Online Ed.D. in Health Professions Education, what advice do you have in terms of submitting a competitive application?

[Dr. Brenda C. Barnes] If students are interested in this program, I highly recommend that they reach out to our recruiters with questions, and to set up a time to talk to me, prior to applying. Doing so ensures that this program is a good fit for them. In their personal statement, candidates should explain what drew them to teaching and what they want to accomplish as a faculty member. It is challenging to transition from a clinical expert to a faculty member because the two environments are very different. So we encourage applicants to show us that they are up for the challenge by exploring in their personal statement what teaching means to them.

With regards to letters of recommendation, usually the best letters come from a supervisor or someone who has seen the applicant in a teaching or training capacity. So if possible students should seek out recommenders who have supervised them in a training or preceptor role.

[] What makes Allen College’s Online Ed.D. in Health Professions Education unique and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students? How does this program prepare students particularly well for careers in medical professions education, medical administration and leadership, and medical education systems improvement?

[Dr. Brenda C. Barnes] This is a timely question. We designed the curriculum for this program before the COVID-19 pandemic, yet the students who were enrolled in our program during the pandemic found that what they learned in our program served them very well–as both novice and veteran instructors in health care higher education.

The courses students take in this program show them how technology opens up so many pedagogical possibilities in the health care space. For example, while students in our program aren’t required to complete clinical simulations (as this is not a clinical program), we have an elective that allows students to explore and work with the kinds of clinical simulation technologies that they might want to integrate into their programs as curriculum developers, professors, or education administrators.

Our program’s curriculum focuses on preparing health care practitioners to step into effective teaching positions, and also helps propel current health care instructors into higher positions of strategic education leadership, both in nursing and other health-related arenas. Students learn about program and departmental finance and budgeting, curricular assessment/evaluation, the mentorship element that is key to any learning environment, and the wealth of tools that they can use to create an effective yet flexible learning experience for students of nursing and other health/medical disciplines. We aim to give our students a well-rounded picture of what a faculty member’s role looks like, and how they can excel in this role.

Thank you, Dr. Barnes, for your excellent insight into Allen College UnityPoint Health’s Online Ed.D. in Health Professions Education!