Interview with Heidi Curtis, Ph.D. - Program Director for the Doctoral Programs in Educational Leadership at Northwest Nazarene University

About Heidi Curtis, Ph.D.: Heidi Curtis is the Chair of Graduate Education and the Program Director for the Doctoral Programs in Educational Leadership at Northwest Nazarene University (NNU). She also teaches graduate courses in research, pedagogy, and leadership as an Assistant Professor of Education. Dr. Curtis came to Northwest Nazarene University in 2013 after earning her Ph.D. in Educational Leadership at NNU. She also received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from NNU, and her longstanding academic history with this University motivated her to return as a faculty member to cultivate the next generation of academic leaders and researchers across different educational and organizational contexts.

Interview Questions

[] Could you please provide an overview of Northwest Nazarene University’s Online Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) in Educational 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. Curtis] When we first developed our Ed.D. program in Educational Leadership, our aim was to have it primarily serve individuals who were already in educational leadership positions, and who wanted to increase their leadership capacity and research skills by earning their doctorate. Since then, we have evolved into having people from many different professions attend our program. We’ve had counselors and nurses and nurse practitioners, businesspeople and social workers and college professors, as well as educational leaders in the K-12 space. So we have a great amount of diversity within our program, which we feel is also one of the reasons people keep coming to our program as well.

I think the diversity in our program is one of the biggest selling points. Idaho is not a very diverse state, even though we’re getting more diverse in terms of ethnicity, culture, professional and academic backgrounds, etc. as the years go by. But I would say that our online Ed.D. program is a microcosm if you will, of the diversity we’d like to see reflected in our larger communities. Because we draw from students across the country, and sometimes from other parts of the world, we have quite a bit of diversity amongst our students, and in this way our students learn as much from each other as they do from the curriculum.

Students interact extensively in the discussion boards and the summer intensives, as well as through shared office hours, and when you add in the fact that these students come from a wide variety of different professions, it offers a multitude of perspectives that can help one student view educational leadership from many different angles and in many different contexts. For example, one of our students comes from a K-12 educational administration background, and interacts regularly with another student who works at a Department of Defense air force base located in Japan, and each of them has very different perspectives on what constitutes organizational and educational leadership.

Similarly, our students who are social workers and those who are in the health care professions have very rich experiences with patients and clients that translate into informative discussions for the whole class regarding education and leading people through change and growth. Of course, a doctoral program is all about transformation—my research transforms me, my experiences transform me, the things that I learn transform me, and my interactions with my colleagues and classmates transform me. So I feel the diversity of our program is very helpful in that area. It also pushes our dissertation chairs a little bit because they have to come at the dissertation with a different perspective. We want each of our students to conduct research that is helpful in their own profession, and so that often requires that we do some due diligence research of our own to ensure we can advise them properly.

The Ed.D. program is about 36 credits, and it is all online except for a two-week summer residency during one of the summers of the program. Students need to come to us with two master’s degrees or a master’s degree and an educational specialist degree in order to qualify for the program.

Students essentially do their coursework in content areas, which could be in counseling, social work, nursing, or another field that is of interest to them. Then they embark on their dissertation. Our dissertation is embedded, by which I mean that components of the dissertation are embedded into every course that students take in the program, so that by the time students are finished with their 26 months here, they have a completed dissertation that they have defended. Rather than separating the coursework and the dissertation into separate components of the program, we integrate them, which we feel enhances students’ success rate, because they have structured guidance for their dissertation throughout the program. We walk our students through the dissertation process chapter by chapter, piece by piece, throughout the program, throughout all the courses, so that students receive optimal faculty support.

[] Could you please elaborate on the online learning technologies that Northwest Nazarene University’s Online Ed.D. in Educational Leadership uses to deliver course materials and facilitate interactions between students and faculty?

[Dr. Curtis] Canvas is our online learning management system here at NNU. Canvas is robust and highly interactive. A few years back we earned a pretty large Title III Grant to create an online learning undergraduate degree for rural students here in Idaho, as well as other rural states. And as part of that, we researched a large number of learning management systems before deciding to go with Canvas.

Canvas has many helpful resources, including chat lines, 24/7 technical support, and a well organized interface that allows students to access all their course materials and contact their instructors directly. For our live sessions with students, we use a system called Blue Jeans, and we hold office hours regularly depending on the course and its difficulty level. Students are not required to come to the live sessions that we host, as we know that they have professional and personal obligations. However, we do host these live discussion sessions in the evening times so as to give most of our students the opportunity to attend them, and we record them every time so that students who missed the session can listen to them on their own time.

In terms of the ratio of asynchronous to synchronous instruction, all of the essential course content is asynchronous so that students can have access to it whenever and as many times as they need. We do have assignments that have deadlines but outside of that students can access and complete all of their course content asynchronously, at their own pace. The synchronous sessions are offered as a way to solidify students’ learning outcomes, and to also give them a platform for having more in-depth discussions with their instructors. So with the synchronous components of the program, they are regular in the form of those discussion sessions, but they can also be ad hoc in that when a student contacts a professor with a question, they might decide, “It’ll be easier to talk it out so let’s have a meeting,” and they can go ahead and set that up through Blue Jeans and/or Canvas.

[] Students of Northwest Nazarene University’s Online Ed.D. in Educational Leadership are required to attend a two-week, face-to-face summer residency to complete their class in Professional and Ethical Leadership, as well as their Dissertation Proposal class. Could you explain what this residency entails, and how it enhances students’ learning outcomes?

[Dr. Curtis] The residency is a very important part of what we do. Our students sometimes call it “Doctoral Summer Camp.” They come to campus, which is located in Western Idaho close to Boise, and they spend two weeks here concentrating on their own research work. They also take a class in Professional Ethical Leadership, which is for four hours a day for those two weeks, and is a live class where students do presentations, write papers, and complete tests and quizzes. The Chair of our Philosophy Department teaches this course, and it is an excellent class that students benefit a great deal from.

We could have produced this course online but since this class is so discussion oriented, and because ethics is so central to establishing and improving education systems, and because ethics issues in education change every year based on what is going on in the world, we decided to integrate this course into the two week residency, where we could focus on very topical issues.

Students take that class in the mornings, and then in the afternoons they take classes with doctoral faculty, and complete their live dissertation defenses on campus. Each student’s committee comes together during the second week of the intensive for students to do a proposal defense. The proposal is for the first three chapters of their dissertation, which they defend in-person. Once students get approval from their committee, they can start collecting data independently.

A lot of community building occurs when they are here on campus, when they are living together, going to meals together, interacting in classes all day, and really focusing on their studies and giving support to each other.

[] Northwest Nazarene University’s Online Ed.D. in Educational Leadership requires the completion of a Dissertation. What does the Dissertation entail, what process do students undertake to complete it, and what kinds of faculty/peer support do they receive during their work?

[Dr. Curtis] Before they are even assigned a dissertation chair, students take four courses wherein they work extensively on their dissertation under the guidance of myself and another co-professor of those four courses. So by the time they meet their dissertation chair, they have about 80+ pages of their dissertation completed already, because we have given them guidance and support.

We as faculty members match each student to a dissertation chair, according to their selected topic of interest and their chosen methodologies. So if a student is conducting a fully quantitative study, we match him or her with a faculty member who has an expertise in that methodology. And if they are doing a qualitative study, we match them with a chair that really understands this type of research methodology.

In addition to being highly student-focused, we are also committed to supporting our faculty, and in particular we focus a lot on providing mentorship and guidance to our dissertation chairs. We train dissertation chairs, and we also make sure to only assign a maximum of two students at a time to each dissertation chair, which is a unique aspect of our program. We don’t load our dissertation chairs with 15 or 20 students because you can’t read that many dissertations at a time. We want our dissertation chairs to be able to read through a dissertation and submit substantive feedback within a week.

In addition to the chair, we provide one other committee member, and then the student can choose the third committee member, who must be someone with a doctorate who is willing to serve in this capacity. We have found that this creates a very good triad of support for students.

[] What role does faculty mentorship play in Northwest Nazarene University’s Online Ed.D. in Educational Leadership program? 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 Northwest Nazarene University’s College of Adult and Graduate Studies, such as its mission or additional resources that the College offers its online students?

[Dr. Curtis] My job as the Chair and the Director of the Ed.D. program is to serve as one of the primary mentors for students, and in collaboration with another faculty member I teach a lot of the courses. She and I are really the constant faculty members that students have throughout their enrollment in the program. We are part of the committee that interviews students when they are applying to the program.

Faculty and students engage in a number of different ways—by email, phone, and text message, for example. We also have a Facebook page and other social media through which students can connect with instructors and with each other. One of the aspects of our program that is really powerful is that all of our students graduate on time. From the beginning of this program in 2011 to now, our student cohorts start together and finish together on time, and a lot of that is a result of the faculty’s support, but also a great deal is a result of the cohort model in and of itself.

Our students also serve as mentors and support systems to each other. They understand what’s going on in each other’s lives, why they’re up at midnight working on statistics. There is this group mentality that is very helpful for students. While we have a career center here at NNU, a lot of the career development happens between students within a cohort, as they make connections with each other.

We still have students from early cohorts who contact faculty about professional and personal struggles, goals, etc., and we have faculty who still write letters of recommendation for our first student cohort from years ago. So we have longstanding relationships, and that is possible because our cohorts are small, our faculty are highly committed to student success, and as a result we’ve had excellent success in terms of graduation rates and student employment post-graduation. Our students feel that they have advocates in us, and that they can contact us whenever they need us.

Because our program is small, we are able to support each student closely all the way through the program. They hear from us when it’s time for the IRB process or when dissertation proposal defenses are coming up. We also have a graduate assistant who is committed full-time to supporting students in our program, and who helps our students with things such as APA formatting, research and assignment questions, etc. There is also a writing center at NNU that students can access remotely. So there are quite a few avenues for support at NNU that students can leverage throughout their time in the program.

[] For students interested in Northwest Nazarene University’s Online Ed.D. in Educational Leadership program, what advice do you have in terms of submitting a competitive application?

[Dr. Curtis] The admissions process at NNU is competitive. We have around 50 applicants who apply each year, and typically we take 20. We only admit students once a year, so that all students come in as a cohort, and start their classes at the same time. And because the dissertation process is so embedded into each class, it’d be hard for students to jump in at different points in the academic year. The cohort model is also very important to us because the sense of community that students develop we feel is key to their success in the program.

So in terms of my recommendations for submitting a competitive application—I recommend that students pay a lot of attention to their writing samples. Writing samples are super important, because they give us a sense of students’ preparedness for intensive, graduate-level work, as well as their ability to write APA citations and form well-supported arguments. Doctoral writing is not about reflections or even your opinion—it’s about well-substantiated arguments that also illustrate a strong understanding of existing literature on a subject, and so the writing samples should reflect that. We’ve had students submit published work, which is always excellent. If you have published something in a peer-reviewed journal, either independently or as part of a past master’s program, that is really great and we enjoy seeing that. Students will also give us their master’s thesis, in some cases, which can also work very well.

The statement of purpose also serves as a writing sample, and so students should pay a great deal of attention to their statement of purpose, how they articulate themselves, and how they explain their motivations for applying to the program.

The interview is also really important. Because our program moves so quickly, and students embark on their dissertation work almost immediately upon their enrollment, we do expect students to already have an idea about what they would like to study in the program, what kinds of research questions they have and wish to investigate. While students can change these questions during their tenure in the program, we expect them to have put a lot of thought into their objectives for the program before they apply. Inquisitive students who are invested in something happening in the world of education, and who are curious about making improvements to their education environment, really appeal to us. Students who have also taken the initiative to read the literature on their topic of interest will also have a substantial leg up in the interview process.

So I would say the writing sample, statement of purpose, and interview are extremely important. As are, of course, transcripts and other metrics by which we measure a student’s preparedness for doctorate-level work.

Something that is not directly related to admissions, but is another prerequisite for applying to our program, is establishing a good support system, both personally and professionally. NNU’s EdD program is intense, requiring 25 to 35 hours of work a week. It is a fast-paced program, which is one of its really great selling points, but also means that prospective students need to understand that to succeed in this program, there will be times when you might have to give up something that you really want to do in order to get your homework turned in on time, or to study for an important examination.

Having that support system around you for a couple of years—for example, a commitment from your boss and your family that you can go to Idaho for two weeks during one summer, that you can concentrate on studying in the evenings when normally you’d be spending time with family—those things are very important for students and their success.

[] What makes Northwest Nazarene University’s Online Ed.D. in Educational Leadership program unique and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students? How does the program prepare students for advanced careers in education leadership, including identifying, investigating, and addressing systemic challenges in a variety of education environments?

[Dr. Curtis] While we discussed this previously, it bears mentioning again that faculty and chair support for our students is huge. Our dissertation chairs are never over loaded, and therefore you will never find a chair in our program who is too busy to sit down with you and discuss your research. No dissertation chair in our program has to contend with a pile of 15 or more dissertations, and as a result they can devote substantial time and attention to each of their students.

NNU is also unique in the fact that we intentionally keep our cohorts small. We could take on more students per year but we keep each cohort small so that we can provide truly individualized support. As a result, none of our students have timed out of our program or are ABD. We have a really good support system, and every single one of our students has graduated and successfully earned their doctorate degree. Four of our students from the past eight cohorts were in fact ABD students from another university, and each of them finished our program successfully and on time. That’s a dream that many people have—to earn their doctorate degree and to contribute substantive research to the field—and because our program is so small and supportive, we can help our students achieve it.

Our program is designed for working professionals, and we support people with a full-time job through every step of their professional transformation that is part and parcel of their time in our program. In addition, for students who need some additional coursework or training before they embark on their doctorate degree, we also have our highly successful Ed.S. program and students can take online classes from this program to prepare for their future Ed.D. work.

[] Northwest Nazarene University also offers an Online Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Educational Leadership program and Online Education Specialist (Ed.S.) programs in several specializations, could you explain how these programs are distinct from the Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership?

[Dr. Curtis] Good question. I will address each program separately. Our PhD program is also in Educational Leadership, and like the Ed.D. program it also culminates in a dissertation. The difference between the two programs is the scope of the dissertation in the Ed.D. versus the Ph.D. In an Ed.D. dissertation, I might be able to study a phenomenon in one educational setting. For example, I can examine one school or one school district, or focus on one grade level within a given school setting, to arrive at research insights that are directly applicable to improving the setting I am studying.

For a Ph.D. dissertation, the scope of my research study is generally much broader—in keeping with that previous example, I would need to conduct studies of third grade classes in multiple districts, or have a study that had a state-wide or national focus. So the scope and the sample population of a Ph.D. dissertation is very different, and as a result the applicability of the research insights from a Ph.D. dissertation is also different. Furthermore, the Ph.D. also has an additional component of a theoretical framework that students need to articulate in their dissertation.

The Ph.D. is five more credits than the Ed.D., and I’ll tell you where those credits come in. There is a course about theoretical frameworks in the Ph.D. program that students of the Ed.D. program do not have to take. And then there is also a course at the end of the Ph.D. program where students not only finish their degree and present their dissertation, but also submit their dissertation to a peer review journal. The manuscript does not have to be accepted, but it has to be submitted, and this last course in the Ph.D. program walks students through the process of preparing their dissertation for submission, and actually submitting their work. It is taught by a professor who publishes prolifically and who also reviews submissions for a peer review journal.

Students who are looking to go into higher education later on should get a Ph.D. rather than an Ed.D. if they have the opportunity to do so. This is because some universities, not necessarily regional universities like we are, but some universities are more specific on what they require for their faculty members. The Ed.D. degree is more suitable for leadership positions at the primary and secondary academic levels, though there are of course exceptions. So that’s the difference between the Ed.D. and the Ph.D.—they have the same kind of cohort model and the same courses (except for the additional courses in the Ph.D. program that I described earlier). Furthermore, students can switch degrees even mid-stream if they decide that they have different goals. And that happens sometimes, depending on students’ career trajectory and whether it changes during their time in the program.

As for the Ed.S. degree, we have numerous Ed.S. programs that result in the Education Specialist Certification, so that students can tailor their training and certification to the type of position that interests them. The Ed.S. in Leadership and Organizational Development includes an internship in higher education, so students who are looking to go into higher education would go that track. This program also has a cognate in it where students can choose to take courses in religion, or business, or counseling—they have nine credits that they can apply to different areas that interest them and which intersect with their training in education.

We also have an Ed.S. program in Curriculum Instruction and Innovation. Often people who want to enter the business world or higher education, and who want to learn about instruction will enroll in this degree. All of our EDS degrees have research components, which help students to prepare for the doctoral program if they decide to do one. They are standalone degrees, so you have to apply to the doctoral program even if you finish your Ed.S. at NNU. This is actually a good system because it encourages students to really evaluate whether they want to continue on to get their doctorate degree. I’d say we take up to 50 percent of our own Ed.S. alumni in some cohorts for the doctorate program—and it can range from 35 and 50 percent depending on the pool of applicants.

All of our Ed.S. degrees could help prepare you for a doctoral program, because they all include research, as well as rich content on educational improvement, leadership, and innovation. NNU is also pretty generous in transferring credits in, so students who are interested in our programs should bring their transcripts and see what kinds of courses could transfer in from their previous degrees into their Ed.S. program. These programs have the same faculty support, small faculty to student ratio, and level of interaction with peers who are in the field. As with our Ed.D. and Ph.D. programs, our Ed.S. programs also have a great deal of diversity: we have school superintendents, people from state departments of education, policy makers, community college teachers, and people in employee training and development.

The people who built NNU’s programs had a mission: “To create programs we wish we could have attended.” That philosophy has informed all of our decisions in designing and continuing to build upon our graduate programs in Educational Leadership. And our efforts have paid off in the form of really excellent student outcomes—our students graduate on time, with substantial research experience and transformative experiences that help them advance their careers and the academic and organizational environments in which they work. Happy and empowered students—that is always the best outcome, and one we will continue to achieve for years to come.

Thank you, Dr. Curtis, for your excellent insight into Northwest Nazarene University’s Online Ed.D. in Educational Leadership!