Interview with John C. Gillham, Ed.D. - Chair of the Doctorate of Education program at the University of Findlay

About John C. Gillham, Ed.D.: John C. Gillham is the Chair of the Doctorate of Education program at the University of Findlay, where he also conducts research and teaches courses as an Associate Professor. As Chair, Dr. Gillham oversees the curriculum design and development of the Online Ed.D. program, which has an emphasis in translating research into systems of instruction, supervision, and leadership. He also manages student advising, admissions, and recruitment. He teaches courses in human development, policy analysis, and fostering culturally relevant pedagogy.

Dr. Gillham earned his Bachelor of Arts in History from San Diego State University, his Master of Science in Administration from Pepperdine University, and his Doctor of Education in Organizational Leadership from Pepperdine University. Prior to his career in higher education instruction and administration, Dr. Gillham worked as a social studies teacher and school administrator and an administrator in the Los Angeles County Office of Education and the Orange County Office of Education, developing and improving education programs and improve learning outcomes.

Interview Questions

[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] May we have an overview of the University of Findlay’s Doctor of Education program? What are the key learning outcomes for this program, and how does it prepare students to translate research into designing and improving systems of instruction, supervision, and leadership? May we have more information on the Superintendent and Teaching strands?

[Dr. Gillham] We find that our students are really good practitioners–their practitioner skills are incredibly sharp. If something happens in their classroom, or school site, or school district, they have an excellent sense of what to do. What can we do for them if they are already excellent practitioners?

What we do for our students is help them think differently, to approach education challenges differently. So that if something occurs on their campus or in their classrooms, they’re thinking about the systems that are underlying those situations or events. They’re thinking about the policies that are involved, the different theories that can explain why these challenges or phenomena happen. Most importantly, we empower them to think about and look at these situations through a research lens. When our students encounter a challenge in their work place, we want them to ask, “What does the research say about this, and what do we know about this from the research? Can we trust this research? What theory is it built on?” Our program guides students through the process of understanding how to think about things on a theoretical level, looking at the systems involved and digging down to see the underlying causes of these problems of practice that lie beneath the symptoms.

One of the organizations we’ve become involved with is the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate (CPED). The CPED is a consortium of universities around the United States and abroad that are taking a look at the EdD degree and asking, “What is this degree, and how is it different from a Ph.D.? What is it supposed to do? What should our graduates be able to achieve, once they get this degree, that maybe they cannot do with a Ph.D.?” CPED programs aspire to create scholar-practitioners. We really value and hold to the model of the scholar-practitioner. We want graduates to be able to improve their schools, to improve their teaching and learning. For those who are not in K-12 or higher education and are in other fields, we want them to be able to look at what’s happening in their organizations through research, and then apply what the research says in order to make a real change in their work place and in the field.

An analogy that I like to use when I explain the distinctions between a PhD and an EdD to students comes from medicine. You might have someone who is a Ph.D. in Biochemistry, and let’s suppose that their research is on the liver. They know everything about the liver, how the liver works, the different diseases that the liver is susceptible to, how to care for the liver, and so on. But when you get sick, you don’t go to a Ph.D. in Biochemistry. You go to an MD (or DO). The MD is the scholar-practitioner of medicine. And what do they do? They bring you in. They ask you lots of questions. They run diagnostic tests. They might take samples. They ask you about your health history and family health history. They examine you and analyze what is going on with you based upon the body of research that has occurred in medicine. Ultimately, they come up with a diagnosis, prescribe a treatment, and get you better.

The EdD degree, much like the MD degree, is a practitioner degree. It’s the degree for the scholarly-practitioner. That’s what we want our students to be able to do. Just like the MD who can diagnose and treat a medical condition, we want our students to be able to gather the data, run their own studies, run their own diagnostics, look at the literature, find out what’s really going on, and then prescribe a course of treatment, metaphorically, for their school, or district, or other institution. They use this approach to solve problems of practice in their professional context.

As educators, we’re trying to identify problems and challenges in learning and learning systems. Once we identify them, we investigate what the research says about those problems so we can to understand them and address them properly. So how do we understand it and address it? We dig into the problem using research. We have a policy course, leadership courses, diversity courses, and more. In each of these courses we ask “What are the problems that we see associated with those issues in this field and what does the research say about those things?”

Our objective is to build these scholarly practitioner habits in our students, so that when they encounter a situation or a challenge they can say, “Hey, we’ve got this problem, this challenge, this opportunity, in my school, or district, or organization. What do we do about this? Let me look at the literature. Let’s see what the research says. What are things that work and what don’t work? What are the systems that are at play here? What are the practices and organizational and interpersonal dynamics at work?”

That’s what we’re trying to do in every course in our program: we’re trying to inculcate our students with the habit of looking at problems through a research lens. So that they not only have the benefit of on-the-ground experience and tactical measures to address education problems, but also have the ability to zoom out and take a more macro-level and proactive approach to understanding what goes into a quality education on a deeper level. Our students come into the program as highly capable practitioners, and they graduate empowered with knowledge about how to integrate research and research insights into their curricula, the programs they develop, or the changes they make to pedagogical systems or processes.

[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Could you please elaborate on the online learning technologies that the University of Findlay’s Doctor of Education uses to deliver course materials and facilitate interactions between students and faculty?

[Dr. Gillham] Our learning management system is Canvas, which we’ve found to be a very useful tool. There are many things you can do with Canvas aside from posting learning materials. You can have Zoom sessions (group meetings) and we use discussion boards quite extensively, where students have to post work and respond to each other’s work.

Another thing that I think is important to mention is our involvement with an organization called Quality Matters, an international consortium that evaluates and certifies online courses and programs. Quality Matters has eight main standards, and each standard has up to nine sub-standards, all of which are quite rigorous. They include the requirement that the professor develop an online presence, and that students be given guidelines for how they are to interact with each other. Course objectives must be rigorous and measurable, and they must be aligned with your module objectives, your learning tools, your assignments, and your assessments. In other words, all aspects of the course must be aligned to achieve the course objectives and to support students in their achievement of their learning goals. Your courses also need to be accessible to special needs learners.

To get a course Quality Matters certified is a gold star that demonstrates that the course is guaranteed to provide a high quality online experience for students. A couple years ago, my colleagues and I in the College of Education made the decision that we were going to get all of our core and research courses Quality Matters certified. So far, ten of our courses have completed the process and been certified, with the remaining four being up for review this year (2020).

At present, I do not know another doctoral program anywhere that has all their core and research courses Quality Matters certified. I believe that is a real distinction for the program and separates us from the competition. Our online courses are not hands-off, but rather are highly engaging from the beginning of a student’s enrollment. We also conduct many internal assessments and survey our students to see what they are experiencing in this program, what’s working for them and what’s not. When something isn’t working for our students, we address it! As a small institution we are dynamic and flexible and can meet our students’ needs quickly, with empathy and efficacy.

We had a student who graduated this past year, and she said to me, “You know, I went to college on a campus, lived there for four years. I did my master’s face-to-face for two years. Then I came to the University of Findlay, where I did this entire program online. I felt more tied in and more a part of the program and knew my professors and classmates better in my online program than I did in any of my prior experiences.” That, to me, encapsulates what makes the University of Findlay’s Online Ed.D. so special–we work really hard to build those connections. I never taught online until I came to the University of Findlay but now I absolutely love teaching online! I’d be happy to do nothing but teach online for the rest of my career. If online teaching is done well, it’s very robust and is great learning medium for students. It has been incredibly gratifying for faculty to see the growth in each cohort!

[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] May we have more information on the Summer Institute that students are required to attend? What does this Institute entail, and how does it enhance students’ learning outcomes?

[Dr. Gillham] The Summer Institutes are three days long, and they take place on the University of Findlay campus. Students are required to attend three different Summer Institutes to satisfy their residency requirement, each at a key juncture in the program. In other words, once they’ve reached certain milestones, they attend a Summer Institute to connect with faculty and peers and to discuss these milestones. There is one Institute per year, for a total of three Institutes during the course of the program (nine days total) when following a three-year timeline. However, for part-time students who stretch out their enrollment for four to five years or more, they are able to attend more than three Summer Institutes (but this is not required).

These Institutes are highly connected to students’ dissertation work. It’s at the Summer Institutes that students defend their research proposal and discuss their research objectives with their faculty committee. The Institutes are also focused on helping students develop their research skills and networking with fellow students and their professors.

We host workshops during the Summer Institutes which are designed to meet specific student needs. So if they are having issues with completing their IRB proposal, for example, we have a workshop on that. In the past, some students have said, “I’m finishing my degree, and I want to look for work. Can you do a workshop on looking for work in the education field?” So we had a variety of workshops about life and career after the Ed.D. We’ve done seminars on things like APA formatting and other academic topics students want to know more about.

The main thrust of the Summer Institutes is students sharing their research plan, wherever they are in that process, from the very beginning to graduation. The Summer Institutes are their chance to connect with professors and say, “Here is what I want to study. Here’s what I learned from the literature. What advice can you give me? What feedback can you give me? Can you connect me with certain resources?” Students also connect with their fellow students so that they can engage in meaningful discussions and offer feedback. Many of our students have found it extremely helpful and it has really helped shape their studies.

In the last class students take, EDUC 790 Dissemination of Research, students take their completed dissertation and they prepare a manuscript suitable for publication, as well as a presentation suitable for a professional conference. They use the final Summer Institute to deliver this presentation to their colleagues and professors and receive feedback on it.

[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] The University of Findlay’s Doctor of Education requires the completion of a Dissertation. What does the Dissertation involve, what process do students take to complete it, and what kinds of faculty/peer support do they receive during their work?

[Dr. Gillham] Our dissertation process is one of the things that makes this program unique. In a traditional doctoral program, students do their introductory courses, core courses, research courses, and electives. They take the comprehensive exams and only then do they start on their dissertation. That’s a very difficult model because you’re starting this dissertation after already doing several years in the program, and all of a sudden you’re on your own. Even though you have a committee and a chair to work with, the structure of weekly classes is gone, and in many programs, the sense of community evaporates too. What we do in this program to prevent this from happening is embed our dissertation into our program’s courses. At every key juncture in the dissertation process, we work with students to help them gather literature, refine their topic, edit their writing, and deepen their analysis.

This means that from the very first semester, students start working on their dissertation. For example, I teach a class called EDUC 701 Orientation to Doctoral Study, which is one of the introductory courses that students take. In that course, we’re already helping pair students with a Dissertation Chair. Once students have a chair, they collaborate with them to start populating their Dissertation Committees. Whenever possible, we want students to have a research methodologist on the committee, as well as a content expert if their topic is not an area of expertise of the Chair. This committee will follow them through the program all the way towards graduation.

In the other introductory course, EDUC 700 Writing as a Doctoral Scholar, students start building the pieces of chapter one of their dissertation. So already in the first semester, they’re getting started on the writing of their dissertation. Once they progress past those introductory courses and get into the research courses, we focus on particular chapters of the dissertation in certain courses. For example, we have a course called EDUC 750 Literature Review. In that course, students review the body of literature on their topic and write up a summary, which then becomes the foundation of chapter two of their dissertation. Students typically will go back and augment this draft for their final defense, but this course gives them the structure they need to get started, and the support to get a significant portion of the chapter done.

These classes help ensure that by the time they finish their classes they are more at the refining stage with their dissertation, rather than starting from scratch. As students’ studies evolve and become a little more nuanced, they may need to add some things in or take some things out, but the foundation of their chapter two is written.

As they progress through the program, they write the foundations of chapter three in one of the other research courses, and finally chapters four and five in another research course. Our research courses are very student-focused. It’s very much about the professor working with the student to design their study, and later to work with them on their data analysis. In addition, we also try to make our core courses useful for the dissertation. For example, in the policy course, students do a semester-long deep dive on either a state or national policy and they write an analysis of their chosen policy, examining it through many different lenses. Many of our students are able to pull pieces from their policy analysis paper and insert them into chapter one of their dissertation. When they’re talking about the Background of the Problem they’ve chosen to investigate, they can describe the policy context, which enriches their discussion of the root of their problem. They can lay out the social and political structures that are perpetuating this problem, and describe what policymakers have done about it so far, what has been effective, and what has not. So in a way all the courses have been built to support students’ work on their dissertation.

[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in The University of Findlay’s Doctor of Education? How can students make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems while they are enrolled?

[Dr. Gillham] One of the things that really sets the University of Findlay apart is our personal commitment to students. Many graduate institutions will say, “‘We’re student-focused.’” That’s the right thing to say and it’s true of some institutions, but not all. However, you will find that it is very true at the University of Findlay. In talking to our students, you will find many stories of students who called their advisor, panicking, at 9:30 on a Friday night (for example), or they’ve e-mailed them a request for a letter of recommendation or feedback on a paper that they need same-day. Our faculty are very available and very accessible. We take a personal interest in our students. We get to know them and we get to know their work.

One of the best things about our program is the professors. We take an interest in you. There are big state schools in Ohio that have great resources and can do amazing things: they can have 5 sections for every course, they can do big nationwide research projects. As a small private university, we don’t have the resources to do those things. Our bread and butter is being in tune with our students and their needs. That’s the big thing for us. We take a personal interest in our students’ success.

[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] For students interested in The University of Findlay’s Doctor of Education, what advice do you have in terms of submitting a competitive application?

[Dr. Gillham] That’s a great question and the answer is complex because there is diversity in our cohorts. We aren’t looking for one type of applicant. However, there are certain qualities that we’re looking for. One of the most important is a curious mind and an ability to question. Such a person might say, “Okay, I know this is what most people say or this is what most people believe, but is that really true? How can we test it to find out if it’s true?” I think that is an important quality. A curiosity and a propensity for questioning is so important to the research piece of an Ed.D. degree.

We also look for practical things–people who are determined, people who have goals. We want students who will take what they’ve learned and apply it to their professional context and make a difference. The desire to use their knowledge to change the world is something that we’re always looking for.

We request transcripts from applicants’ previous undergraduate and graduate work and we ask for two letters of recommendation. We’re looking for recommendations that say, “I believe that this person has the potential to successfully complete this program.” For example, they are tenacious, or diligent, or have a very sharp intellect. There isn’t a single marker that we are looking for, as we look at the applicant holistically.

[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] What makes the University of Findlay’s Doctor of Education unique and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students? How does this program prepare students for advanced careers in educational leadership, curriculum design and improvement, and research-informed change management?

[Dr. Gillham] One of the first things is that we really do care what our students think and we listen to what they have to say. We try to involve our students in a variety of professional activities. For example, I’m always looking for program graduates who can share their expertise on our students’ dissertation committees.

Our program is also extremely flexible, which is really ideal for our student demographic. We have students who push to complete their program in three years. Other students have professional and personal obligations that require them to spread their enrollment out over four, five, or even six years. There are no extra fees for extending the program beyond the three year design. We want students to do what is best for them, and we give them the flexibility and support to earn their doctorate on their terms.

You will find that our tuition rate is very competitive with institutions across the country. The faculty find their work meaningful, our students are happy, and we get a lot of referrals from our alumni.

It’s not just that our students enjoy our program–they’re enjoying it and benefiting from it enough to tell their friends, and in most cases, they are strong advocates for our program. They’re rallying their colleagues in their districts and saying, “Hey, we need to do this.” In fact, we just had a large urban district that has sent us seven students this semester alone, and there’s a potential for another 15 or more. That originated with graduates who are working in that district and are really happy with their experiences in our program. They are really excited about how it can help their district improve outcomes for their students.

The fact that our alumni are so invested in our program is also a standout. We work really hard to build those connections with students while they are in our program, and after they leave we work hard to remain connected with them. For example, I just wrote a letter of recommendation for one of our alumni last night. We are definitely in touch with them, and this is an area in which we will continue to grow.

Something else we’ve done really well is striking a balance between being very research-focused and very practitioner-focused. We have found a way to tie both of those things together in the scholar-practitioner model, which is in line with the CPED framework.

We work hard to help our students get involved in research, and we encourage and support them in applying to and attending conferences. This past year, we were at the Midwestern Educational Research Association’s annual meeting, where we had about 15 students and faculty members presenting their research. That was a tremendous showing for a small Ed.D. Program. We are seeing our alumni conducting research, presenting at research conferences, and even taking leadership positions in research organizations. That’s a testament to our research professors who nurture those relationships, take a personal interest in their students’ success, and help them find research conferences and publications to submit proposals to.

Another characteristic of this program is that we are always trying to improve. We’re constantly asking students about their experiences and how we can be better. We send them surveys and then incorporate their feedback into our program design. We’ve committed to making all of our courses consistent with Quality Matters principles and are actively working with CPED to ensure our program meets the needs of today’s scholar-practitioners.

Thank you, Dr. Gillham, for your excellent insight into the University of Findlay’s Online Doctor of Education program!