Interview with Gage Jeter, Ph.D. about the University of Florida's Online Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction - Teachers, Schools, and Society (TSS) Program

About Gage Jeter, Ph.D.: Gage Jeter is a Clinical Assistant Professor and the Program Coordinator for the University of Florida’s Online Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction, which is housed in the University’s Teacher, Schools, and Society program area. As Coordinator, he oversees the development of the program’s curriculum, teaches courses in the program, advises EdD students, and supports faculty in the program.

Dr. Jeter holds a Bachelor’s of Science in Language Arts Education from the University of Oklahoma. After graduating from this program, he taught middle school English Language Arts for several years before returning to school to earn his PhD in Instructional Leadership and Academic Curriculum from the University of Oklahoma. While completing his PhD, Dr. Jeter worked as a Curriculum Specialist at the University of Oklahoma’s K20 Center for Educational and Community Renewal. In this role, he worked with teachers and students across the state of Oklahoma, designing and implementing professional development activities and integrating new technology into classroom settings.

“I’m a former but always at heart middle school English teacher,” Dr. Jeter explained to OnlineEdDPrograms.com in his interview, “And now that I work for our EdD program here at UF, I get to continue working with practicing teachers who are students in our program. I would say that is one of the most meaningful aspects of my work: staying connected to schools and classrooms and the inner workings of teaching and learning that occur in both pre-K through 12 spaces but also in higher education contexts.”

Interview Questions

[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Could you please provide an overview of the University of Florida’s Online Ed.D. In Curriculum & Instruction, 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. Jeter] I would say our big key outcome is for students, both during and after their tenure in our program, to effect change in their local context. We welcome students who are working professionals. Many of our students are teachers in pre-K through 12 school spaces. We also have students who work as school leaders and administrators, as well as students who work in higher education. We even have students who work more broadly in the field—for example, as professional development designers and facilitators. But our big goal is for students to be able to enact change in the spaces in which they operate. And so our coursework for the first two years of the program is designed to scaffold theory, research, and practical experiences so that students can utilize what they’re learning and doing in our courses in their workspaces.

We engage students in several research courses where they actually design and enact practitioner research experiences in their classrooms or context. We ask students to create and implement professional learning experiences in their context through our professional development and adult learning course. The “try it” component of our coursework is really what is most meaningful for students because they are taking their readings, their discussions with their cohort members, and what they are writing about in the classes, and utilizing that in their unique context. Just yesterday I had a student on Twitter, and she is actually a high school English language arts teacher in Washington State. She tweeted me that she was implementing her professional learning experience that she created in a course I taught last year in collaboration with her colleagues as they return to school this year. So a central focus of our program is giving students skills that they can take and apply directly and immediately to their workplace to enact positive change.

Our curriculum is very focused on social justice and social change, and is roughly evenly divided between research courses that help students build those skills for their daily practice and culminating experience and then courses that focus on the issues in education and culture, school reform, and addressing inequalities in the school system. Something we try to do even in the research courses is make equity and social justice an underlying foundational component. So even in the Foundations of Research in Curriculum and Instruction course, the first course students take, we are reading academic literature that centers on issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. From the very beginning, students are applying research methods and skills to projects and discussions that directly connect to supporting equity in the classroom and at the larger community level.

We have been really intentional about aligning our program with what our students need. Even though we’ve been around for a decade, we are constantly making changes based on student feedback. Student feedback was what actually prompted us to develop a research preparation course sequence for our program. Our students take six research courses total throughout our program, and each of these courses serves as scaffolding, if you will, in preparation for their work on their dissertation.

Students begin the program with a Foundations of Research course, which teaches them about how to read academic literature and what educational research looks like. As students start to collect studies and different literature on topics of interest to them, they move into a couple of practitioner inquiry courses, where they learn about conducting research on their own practice. During these classes they create and implement practitioner inquiry projects and share those in their courses with their peers and faculty instructors. They take qualitative and quantitative research courses, and most of our students conduct qualitative projects, so this class really gets them situated around qualitative theory and the theoretical frameworks regarding types of qualitative data and how to analyze it.

In the quantitative course, students are reading more literature about the use of quantitative data to examine and improve upon student learning. For a lot of our students in their practice, data and numbers are useful tools to assess learning outcomes. In this course, students think about, well how do I make sense of this quantitative data? What does this mean for me and my students and my school? In the Conceptualizing in Research and Instruction course, which is the final research course before their dissertation, students get to look ahead toward their dissertation topic and prepare to design their own research project. So as you can see, the research course sequence is really designed to give students all of the necessary tools to embark on their own research projects in their place of work.

By the time they get to their dissertation, they have had practice in developing research questions and selecting data to answer those questions, which includes going to the literature, analyzing data they collect, presenting findings and their significance, and designing the action steps that follow from their insights. Our goal is for students to have had practice and experience with these different stages in the research process before they embark on their own final research project.

We also have courses that we intentionally designed to help students examine challenges in the classroom. For example, we have a required course, Critical Pedagogy, where students really look at cultural issues and issues around race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability and how those play out in their spaces and beyond. We have a course that focuses on Teacher Learning and Socialization in Poverty Schools, because a lot of our teachers work in spaces where unique opportunities exist. We expose our students to theoretical and practical ways to navigate those issues. We have a course about Issues in School Reform and how to enact change at the local level at school sites.

Students also take a Professional Development and Teacher Learning course, and a course in Teacher Leadership for School Change. And so I would say beyond embedding tenets around education and its connection to social justice, equity, and positive social change into our research courses, we pull in courses that are content-specific that ask students to read about, talk about, write about and really grapple with these thorny issues which affect all of them because of the spaces in which they operate and the students whom they serve.

Our program operates as a cohort model. We accept a new cohort of students every two years into our program. So our fourth cohort is currently working on their dissertation projects. Our fifth cohort is currently in coursework, and we hope to admit our sixth cohort next summer. And just with our fifth cohort this past year, we admitted a dual cohort for the first time, almost 40 students.

[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Could you please elaborate on the online learning technologies the University of Florida’s Online Ed.D. In Curriculum & Instruction uses to deliver course materials and facilitate interaction between students and faculty?

[Dr. Jeter] We operate mostly in an asynchronous format via Canvas, so all of our courses are online and students engage in reading and writing and multimodal discussions in the online space. We also host synchronous sessions in Zoom for students and faculty to discuss course concepts and research projects. We attempt as much as possible to break away from traditional written discussions and we ask students to post video responses, post audio responses, and create multimedia projects that extend beyond just a traditional writing component so that students are able to engage with both faculty who are teaching courses and with their cohort members in those online spaces.

A highlight of our program is our annual Summer Institute where we have students come to the University of Florida’s campus in Gainesville. These Institutes are weeklong summer experiences where we meet face-to-face. The cohort is there together, the faculty is there together, and we engage in meetings for current coursework, preview future coursework, and work through professional learning community activities and community-building activities.

Our students report that the face-to-face experience they have every summer of the program is one of the most meaningful aspects of our program because that really allows those relationships to not only be built but also to extend into future courses. Putting a name to a face and putting a personality to a name. We are really proud of our Summer Institute component. And our students know when they apply–we have students all over the country and from all over the world, in fact–that it is non-negotiable that students are present each summer for the institute because of the really meaningful personal and professional experiences that occur there.

[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] The Summer Institutes sound like an excellent component of the program. How do the Institutes progress in terms of content and the learning activities in which students engage?

[Dr. Jeter] Our students come to us for the first time in the summer of their first year. When they enter the program, students start two summer courses in mid-May and then they are here on campus with us at the end of June. So only about six weeks into their program students get to meet their fellow cohort members and meet the faculty. And that first summer is really designed to build our learning community face-to-face, and so we are doing a lot of team-building activities and a lot of professional learning community activities where we are getting to know one another personally and professionally. And of course students are getting to engage in their current courses. Though they are online, they are spending face-to-face time with their current course peers and instructors. They’re getting to preview face-to-face their fall courses, and meet the faculty who will be teaching the fall courses. That first Summer Institute is designed to build that professional community and to acquaint students with the tenets of the program.

As we come together in our second summer, it really becomes more student-led. Just this past summer with our fifth cohort, we had students leading sessions in our first EdD symposium. They were presenting work that they did in their courses that transferred to their context. We engage more intentionally in conversations centered on social justice and equity. We allow students to practice data collection strategies in which they will engage for their dissertation work. So it is much more intentional in Year Two, and is focused on preparing them for what is to come.

And then Year Three is designed to launch them into both their qualifying exams and their dissertation experience. They engage in work around dissertation proposals, wherein we pull back the curtain around what it means to go through a qualifying exam, both written and oral. So in addition to being a space in which students can connect, exchange ideas, and consult their faculty instructors, these Summer Institutes serve as additional scaffolding or support for students prior to their dissertation work.

[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] The University of Florida’s Online Ed.D. In Curriculum & Instruction requires the completion of a Capstone Dissertation and Qualifying Examination. What do these two requirements entail, what process do students undertake to fulfill them, and what kinds of faculty/peer support do they receive during their work?

[Dr. Jeter] Our qualifying exams occur after students complete their coursework. Usually this is during the fall semester of Year Three in their program. There are three components to the written qualifying exam. Students write a biographical statement, they craft a “shift in thinking” essay, and then the third and perhaps most important part of the qualifying exam is a proposal for their dissertation of practice (work which they began in their final summer course). I am the advisor for students during the coursework stage of their program. However, once they finish coursework, other faculty take on research groups of students and chair their dissertation committees, and so students get to work more individually with particular faculty members, depending on their research interest.

During the qualifying exam, they write about those three components, but then they come to defend their written exam by sharing the information that they wrote about in those three questions. They also share with their committee a presentation that demonstrates their skills and knowledge as practitioner scholars. So a lot of times we have students sharing about a professional learning experience they designed and facilitated in their schools, or about an inquiry cycle they implemented with their students in their classrooms. And so even beyond the written portion of the exam, we have our students sharing how they have applied what they learned in the coursework stage of the program to their own context.

When students come to campus they meet with their committee, defend their written exams orally, and share with us their demonstration of their work as a practitioner scholar. Once they pass their written and oral exams, students move on to the dissertation and practice, which is designed for students to take everything they have learned about research, theory, and practice in their coursework, and craft a research project that they implement in their context. They share their problem of practice that they have identified. They connect their problem to relevant literature, explain how they are going to answer their research questions, talk about the data they will collect and analyze, and share their findings. They discuss what they learned from the study of their problem. And I think most important is the final chapter of their dissertation, which is dedicated to an action plan or an explanation of the actions they have taken relating to what they have learned about their problem of practice. This action-oriented approach is something that we really value and encourage as part of our students’ dissertation work.

We have a student now in our fourth cohort, and she was noticing that her fellow teachers were struggling with authentically and meaningfully integrating technology into their lessons and into their students’ learning. So she designed a professional learning community that focused on authentic and meaningful technology integration. She studied that professional learning community and her colleagues who participated, and she looked at how that learning community influenced their practice in terms of incorporating technology to enhance students’ learning experiences.

As equity and social justice are key parts of our curriculum, and are areas with which our students routinely interact in their own practice, we have a lot of students whose dissertations focus on these topics. One of our students was a reading coach in her school, and she noticed that her colleagues were struggling because they lacked foundational knowledge in culturally responsive teaching. She designed a semester of professional learning supports within a PLC, a professional learning community, and she focused on working with students grappling with poverty. Her dissertation-in-practice outlined the design of her supports and her analysis of what worked and what still needed work. And then of course the last chapter included action steps and recommendations for how future support can be refined in her district as teachers engage in culturally responsive teaching.

We had a student who was an administrator at a high-minority school, and there was an evaluation system in place at that school that really removed teachers from the process of the ratings. This resulted in some defensiveness and really impeded teachers’ opportunities to learn. Our student modified the evaluation system and he added video observation and collaborative analysis and discussion of evaluation ratings, and he recommended changes to his district that might produce more teacher buy-in. His revised evaluation system focused on a growth model rather than evaluation model. His dissertation is an example of how we are seeing our students effect change not only at an individual school level but also at a district level as well.

[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] What role does mentorship play in the University of Florida’s Online Ed.D. In Curriculum & Instruction? 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 the University of Florida’s School of Teaching and Learning, such as its mission or additional resources that the School offers its online students?

[Dr. Jeter] As of this year, we are nine faculty strong in our program, so we have added two new faculty this academic year. All of us work in the program, teaching courses and also supporting students in their coursework and dissertation experiences. That in conjunction with our Summer Institutes means that in students’ first two years of coursework, they have opportunities to connect with all of the faculty in our program.

As program coordinator, I advise students during their coursework stage. It’s a bit more about logistics at that point where we look at their program of study and map out things like transfer credits and the courses they will take. But as students move from coursework to their qualifying exams and dissertation experience, we strategically form research groups where a small number of students are assigned to a faculty member who will chair their exam and dissertation work. This faculty member works both individually and collectively with students in their research support groups for the second half of the program.

We match students up with faculty chairs who have similar research interests, who have similar backgrounds and work, so that they can optimally advise students on their problem of practice and research processes. We also have faculty outside of our program and even outside of our school in the College of Education at the University of Florida who serve as external members on committees, to ensure that students get the guidance and support they need. By the time students start their work on their dissertation, we as a faculty team have gotten to know them for a couple of years. We know their interests, goals, and professional contexts, and that results in us being really strategic about who their chair is and who their committee members are.

Students also benefit from their peer research support group after they finish coursework. A lot of times in traditional doctoral programs, perhaps especially in PhD programs, it can become really isolated when you enter the dissertation stage of your experience. We hope to avoid that by having students engage with those support groups so they are not just communicating with their faculty chair but also sharing, giving and receiving feedback, and oftentimes commiserating with their fellow research support group members. And so we try to maintain that connection, throughout the qualifying exam and dissertation experience.

[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] For students interested in the University of Florida’s Online Ed.D. In Curriculum & Instruction, what advice do you have in terms of submitting a competitive application?

[Dr. Jeter] This is an excellent time for this question because we are accepting applications now for our sixth cohort. Applications are due December 15th, 2019, and so we have been getting a lot of inquiries about our program. We are reviewing applications for students who want to begin next summer. Admission to our program is selective, particularly as our program has grown in popularity over the years. We require a few pieces of evidence that students must submit, including prior transcripts from undergraduate and graduate coursework, GRE scores for verbal and quantitative sections, a personal statement/admissions essay, a resume/CV, and letters of recommendation.

We look at a couple of things in particular that tell us a lot about who our potential students are. One is the admissions essay. We ask students to write about problems of practice that they have identified in their context and ways in which they might or hope to address those with the help of our program. We really look for students who can be critical about pointing out issues they see, but most importantly thinking about how to navigate those issues and ways in which they might engage in problem-solving processes to enact change.

We also value recommendation letters highly. We want to know what others think about our students, their drive and work ethic, and the ways in which they have engaged in complex and critical work in their spaces. The most effective letters of recommendation clearly articulate how students have demonstrated that they can thrive in our program due to the work in which they have previously engaged.

And we really value students who are working professionals, people who have been or are still in the field, and people who remain in the field while in the program. We are an EdD program, and are therefore a practice-oriented program. We do not necessarily prepare students to become researchers or faculty members at research-heavy institutions. Our students, for the most part, stay in school systems, and are returning to graduate school to figure out how they can improve these systems. And they might grow and move up to leadership positions or engage in instructional coaching positions, but they are students who want to remain doing that work in that space with students and colleagues. We really look for people who want to improve their own practice, their students’ learning, and the larger systems in which they operate, which affects a variety of stakeholders.

[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] What makes the University of Florida’s Online Ed.D. In Curriculum & Instruction unique and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students? How does the program prepare students for advanced careers in education leadership, both in the classroom and in identifying, investigating, and addressing systemic challenges to education?

[Dr. Jeter] One of the things that is most attractive about our program is the relationship building between students and between students and faculty, and how those relationships enhance the work that occurs in our program. And I think that goes back to our face-to-face Summer Institutes where we get to know one another personally and professionally. These institutes really sustain all of us–students and faculty alike–as we then engage in the online spaces.

The online space can be difficult to navigate. It can be difficult to engage in meaningful and authentic work. But because we get to meet one another for three summers face-to-face, and because we get to engage in video chats via Zoom and through synchronous meetings where students are presenting their work to the class, it allows those relationships to blossom. And it is these relationships that propel all of us, every student to every faculty member, to engage in important work. And so I would say the fact that we are not just people behind a screen in an online space, that we humanize our work, is what makes our program stand out by making the work students complete extremely meaningful.

The high regard in which our students hold our program long after they graduate is seen in the fact that more and more of our applicants are applying to our program due to recommendations from past students. It has become one of the most common ways for people to learn about and want to enroll in our program: they have taught with someone from our program or they’ve worked with someone who went through the program, and so our graduates are promoting our program as well and sharing their insights with colleagues who are then motivated to apply to the program.

At our Summer Institutes, we invite our alumni back and we always have a session where graduates come and talk about their experience in the program. They talk about their dissertation work. And so current students are getting to see the other side and getting to engage with students who have gone through the program and been where they are, and so I think that really helps make that connection as well.

Thank you, Dr. Jeter, for your excellent insight into the University of Florida’s online Ed.D. in Curriculum & Instruction program!