Interview with Fern Aefsky, Ed.D. - Director of Graduate Studies in Education at Saint Leo University

About Fern Aefsky, Ed.D.: Fern Aefsky is the Director of Graduate Studies in Education at Saint Leo University, where she manages the Online Ed.D. in Education Leadership. As Director, Dr. Aefsky oversees curriculum development, advises students, and oversees recruitment, admissions, and graduate dissertation advising. In addition to her leadership of the Education graduate programs at Saint Leo University, Dr. Aefsky teaches courses in curriculum leadership, education politics, applied educational statistics, learning culture development and leadership, values and ethics in education, and curriculum development for special populations as an Associate Professor.

Dr. Aefsky’s research, publications, and presentations focus on collaborative work within interdisciplinary teams to increase student success through proactive interventions and leadership amongst academic stakeholders. She is passionate about developing programs in education that meet the needs of school practitioners and improve educational environments. She earned her Bachelor of Science in Elementary and Special Education from the University of Maryland, her Master of Education with a specialization in Students with Disabilities from Marymount University of Virginia, and her Ed.D. in Educational Leadership from Nova Southeastern University.

Interview Questions

[] Could you please provide an overview of Saint Leo University’s Online EdD in Education Leadership, and how it is structured? What are the key learning outcomes for this program, and what types of careers does it prepare students for?

[Dr. Aefsky] Our doctoral program was launched just a year ago and is a very practitioner-focused program. It is geared towards those who are interested in advancing their career in education, growing their knowledge base, and enhancing their own professional practice. It is a 57-credit-hour program with one residency requirement here on campus that takes place during the summer to accommodate education practitioners. There are people in our program who are in the K-12 arena and higher education, as well as people who are organizational leaders of non-profits, administrators at child-care centers, and leaders of mental health organizations.

Our program was built on standards for leadership that include but also extend beyond the requirements for school leadership. The skills that we teach our students focus on creating and sustaining partnerships, using critical thinking skills to analyze and solve problems, and identifying and applying various components of research using change theory, strategic planning, and collaborative decision-making. We really want people to be able to use their job site as a platform for working through the concepts and skills they build through their coursework. Leadership is leadership, whether it is at educational institutions, non-profit organizations, or corporations.

We’ve had students from the military apply our coursework in leadership to their training programs, and students with backgrounds in criminal justice who are facilitating leadership in social justice organizations and legal institutions. In our curriculum, we use language that makes sense for leaders across all types of industries, based on national standards of business leadership. Our faculty members are also quite adept at helping individual students tailor their course content to their specific job setting, so that their learning outcomes are customized to their goals.

Our program is online, with students taking one course every eight-week term. In terms of learning outcomes for the program, we prepare our graduates to use research strategies, manage change through data-informed instruction, and develop research-based organizational cultures that support desired goals and outcomes. And we teach them the various components that are involved in leadership. Those components include human resources, school finance, operations, grant development, and other elements. Leaders don’t have to know everything, but they do have to know how to facilitate and manage everything. So we give them the skills in navigating these different moving pieces.

[] Could you please elaborate on the online learning technologies that Saint Leo University’s Online EdD in Education Leadership uses to deliver course materials and facilitate interaction between students and faculty?

[Dr. Aefsky] In our program we use components of both asynchronous and synchronous instruction. We hold live weekly sessions for each instructor in each course. Students are not required to attend them, but we find most of our doctoral students really value these sessions, and attend them regularly. We also record these sessions, because again most of our students are working professionals so they have to be able to fit life and work into their school schedule. We try to be as accommodating as possible for that. We currently use Brightspace, which was Desire2Learn before they changed the name. And we also hold additional meetings if needed via the collaborative technologies that are built into the courses, such as Zoom. In addition, several of our courses integrate the use of Avatars through Mursion, which allows students to interact situationally through different scenarios. Mursion allows for a more immersive learning experience, using instructional role-playing scenarios.

One of the distinctive aspects of our program is the fact that we meet students where they are at whenever possible, and always look to support them in ways that are tailored to their needs, and which therefore serve them the best. For example, when there is a group of students in one district, we have the capacity to do a blended program so that even though the instruction is online, we hold quarterly face-to-face meetings if it makes sense for students and helps support their learning. The whole program is really about what makes sense from the students’ perspective and how we can accommodate that. We are dynamic enough to be able to accommodate different students’ needs as they arise within the program.

[] Saint Leo University’s Online EdD in Education Leadership requires the completion of a dissertation, consisting of an in-depth research project that is relevant to their current or desired professional work. Could you elaborate on this requirement and what it entails?

[Dr. Aefsky] By the end of the second year in the program, before they start a group of research courses, students have an opportunity to meet faculty members through the residency program, and these faculty members will be the people whom they can ultimately choose from for their committee. The chair of the committee has an expertise in what the student is working on, and then there are two additional committee members who support the student through the process. Through the courses that students subsequently take in Action Research, Qualitative and Quantitative Research, a Doctoral Dissertation Seminar, and a course on measuring key Benchmarks, students develop key skills that lead to an improved proposal and dissertation.

All of the courses are built to align with each other so that in completing their courses students also get a lot of their preparation and writing done, including their proposal, completion of the IRB approval, etc. Students receive support through their instructors and their dissertation chair long before the final product is due. Topics that students explore in their dissertation have included teacher retention, mentoring programs, aspects of organizational change, strategies to improve student success, and increasing the success rate of online courses, which came as an idea from a K-12 practitioner for an online school. We also had someone who works at a business that does training for online certificates explore how to increase the success rate of online education. So same topic, very different stakeholder base.

[] What role does faculty mentorship play in Saint Leo University’s Online EdD in Education Leadership? How can students make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems while in the program? More broadly, is there anything you would like students to know about Saint Leo University’s College of Education and Social Services, such as its mission or additional resources that the College offers its online students?

[Dr. Aefsky] Students are assigned a faculty advisor when they start, and this advisor supports them throughout the program. Our instructors are a team of highly qualified and very dedicated people who are invested in seeing students succeed. We also make sure that within the courses we have resources that are integrated into students’ class experience so that there are multiple places where they can access help and support. To give you one example for this online program, we have students from all over the country, and potentially some from out of the country as well. And we’ve actually had students want to meet us on campus, which tells you the relationship that has been formed is very strong. They want to come from Tennessee or California to meet us, and we’ve had those meetings several times a year. We’ve also had some students who felt a bit stuck, and our faculty offered to meet with them in person to help them get over the hump and really start working on their dissertation proposal. So the fact that we have that kind of flexibility and people have responded well to that is a unique component of our program.

Because we all have practitioner backgrounds, and we know the power of collaboration when working to improve educational systems and outcomes, we’ve taken that philosophy and the good practices we’ve learned over the years and applied them to our Doctoral Cohort program. If there is a district that has a cohort of people interested in working together on earning their Ed.D. in Education Leadership, we go to them to help build those relationships.

Moreover, all of the resources that are available to our campus students are also available for our online students. We have a very extensive library that is available, and a librarian who is specific to Ed.D. and other doctorate programs and offers students guidance on their research endeavors. Students also have access to webinars and trainings where we bring in people to host collaborative sessions. Something we just launched this year is online research references. We have a Center for Teaching and Learning that offers faculty support that they in turn offer to our students and we have a research hub that has been on campus for just a couple of years that also helps our doctoral students with many different resources.

[] For students interested in Saint Leo University’s Online EdD in Education Leadership, what advice do you have in terms of submitting a competitive application?

[Dr. Aefsky] The traditional things that you’d expect to be important definitely are: statement of interest, letters of recommendation, and we also require an essay about ethical leadership and what it means to them because that is very important to us, and therefore we want that to be important to our students. This essay gives us an opportunity to see what their writing style is and if they’re able to get their points across. In all of our courses, we want to help students achieve their professional goals. You can have a student who has been working for a while and been out of school for a long time, and a class load on top of their regular work. We know this can be overwhelming, and we also don’t expect students to necessarily be doctorate-level writers and researchers to start. We scaffold our curriculum with classes that teach them those things. Our expectations for APA and writing evolve from their orientation class online to the components of each of their courses. And as students develop and go forward in the program, what we require of them is expanded gradually, again another way of keeping students well prepared for their ultimate writing of the dissertation.

[] What makes Saint Leo University’s Online EdD in Education Leadership unique and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students? How does the program prepare students for advanced careers in organizational leadership, education policy and program development, and fostering effective learning environments?

[Dr. Aefsky] We have excellent and incredibly supportive faculty, who have the flexibility to really create a customized learning experience for each student. Faculty are really invested in interacting with and even meeting students in person to support them through the learning process. Our Doctoral Cohort program is also a unique element of our Ed.D., because it has enabled us to create communities of educators who are empowered to use their expertise in education leadership to collaboratively improve their district. Also, as mentioned previously, we are really intentional about how we crafted our curriculum, guiding students through every step of the practitioner research process so that they have the time, space, and support to absorb what they are learning and apply it in impactful ways to their work environment. The residency in July also makes our program stand out. It really focuses on immersing students in the library and the research process, and also interacting with and learning from each other.

Students of our Ed.D. program are also able to get their EDS while in the program, which is really helpful, especially here in Florida where all school districts provide educators with additional pay for post-graduate work. Almost all school districts in the country—not just here in Florida, but also all school districts in New York, for example—provide a bump in salary when educators get their EDS degree. And once our students have earned that, they can keep going in the doctoral program or choose to stop. Having that built in is a real plus.

We’re approved by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, otherwise known as SACS, and this means that we maintain our integrity and commitment to students to provide programs and services that have met high standards for quality and impact. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges is the regional body for the accreditation of degree-granting higher education institutions in the Southern states. We also have all of our coursework matrices aligned with national standards set by the National Policy Board for Educational Administrators, which have professional standards that are not only applicable to educational settings, but also highly relevant to all organizational contexts.

Thank you, Dr. Aefsky, for your excellent insight into Saint Leo University’s Online Ed.D. in Education Leadership!