Interview with Kathleen A. O’Connell, Ph.D., RN, FAAN - Director of the Online Ed.D. in Nursing Education at Teachers College, Columbia University

About Kathleen A. O’Connell, Ph.D., RN, FAAN: Kathleen A. O’Connell is the Isabel Maitland Stewart Professor of Nursing Education at Teachers College Columbia University, where she also serves as the Director of the Online Ed.D. in Nursing Education program. In addition to her leadership role in the Ed.D. program, and her responsibilities in online program development and administration (including an online master’s program in Diabetes Education and Management at Teachers College), Dr. O’Connell is an active scholar with particular interest in how nursing care intersects with patient choices and health behaviors, such as smoking cessation, diabetes care, and the application of self-control strength to lifestyle changes. She earned her Bachelor of Science in Nursing from the College of Mount St. Joseph-on-the-Ohio, her M.A. and Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Kansas. She also completed a post-doctoral fellowship in psychology at Purdue University.

Interview Questions

[] Could you please provide an overview of Teachers College Columbia University’s Online Ed.D. in Nursing Education program? What are the key learning outcomes for this program, and what kinds of advanced roles in nursing education does this program prepare students for?

[Dr. O’Connell] The nursing program at Teachers College Columbia has been here since 1899, and the Ed.D. has been here since 1930s, and has had various iterations. In 2016, we decided that we needed to go online because that was what the nursing profession was demanding increasingly–the flexibility of online education. Many doctoral programs were establishing online versions, and so to be competitive we also developed an online program that would meet the specific needs of today’s nursing educators.

For our Online Ed.D. in Nursing Education, we aligned our curriculum’s learning outcomes with the core competencies set forth by the National League of Nursing (NLN). Our courses are designed to teach students how to apply higher education theories to the creation and management of effective learning environments in health care contexts. We have students who want to teach in an academic, higher education setting, as well as students who are interested in staff development at hospitals, medical centers, and community health centers. We expect our graduates to be able to apply theories and innovative teaching strategies from nursing and higher education to enact an effective nurse educator role.

We also want our graduates to pursue lifelong learning, and that entails pursuing intellectual inquiry and scholarly endeavors, especially to advance nursing education. We want our graduates to serve as scholars, leaders and advocates in nursing, nursing education, and higher education. While the NLN core competencies undergird our program, we also go beyond those competencies.

The Ed.D. in Nursing Education includes seven classes on nursing education per se: Nursing Knowledge in Nursing Education, Curriculum Development in Nursing Education, Teaching and Learning Strategies in Nursing Education, Clinical Teaching in Nursing Education, Innovations in Nursing Education, Assessment and Evaluation in Nursing Education, and Simulation in Nursing Education. Students also take two practicum courses: The Nurse Educator Role and Leadership in Nursing Education. The Nursing Knowledge in Nursing Education course gives students an overview of how the core theories of student learning and nursing practice can be combined to develop effective nursing education programs, guide relevant education policy, and advocate for nursing students.

Curriculum Development in Nursing Education focuses specifically on how to design and develop an effective nursing curriculum, while Teaching and Learning Strategies in Nursing Education covers aspects of learning and teaching and their applications to higher education programs and interventions. In Clinical Teaching in Nursing Education, students examine and discuss the best practices around clinical activities for nursing students–how to plan clinical training sessions, create them, implement them, and evaluate them. Assessment and Evaluation in Nursing Education has students learning about, discussing, and applying evaluation methodologies for nursing education contexts, which includes how to conduct testing and measure learning outcomes. In addition to the courses on Nursing Education per se, the students take four courses on research methods and statistics, and they also take several electives from different departments around the college.

The concepts in the courses described above parallel in many ways other Ed.D. programs in higher education, though the context of application is different, as for our program it is healthcare education focused. However, we also have courses that focus specifically on innovations in nursing education. For example, one of the teaching strategies that has increased in nursing education is simulation. We have a course on how to use simulation to teach students. Simulation laboratories include a lot of very high-tech equipment that allows students to try out various psychomotor skills like starting an IV, inserting a catheter, or being involved in cardiopulmonary resuscitation. There are usually very elaborate teaching goals that involve setting up scenarios, assigning students to roles, and debriefing them afterwards. Simulations are used in academic nursing programs and staff development programs. In our course we discuss how to integrate simulation technologies into nursing curricula using the best available research and evidence.

Simulation is more than just an education technology–it is also a teaching environment, and one that is greatly needed. Hospitals nowadays are less able and/or willing to allow nursing students who have few clinical skills to practice with their patients. Simulation can give students access to a variety of different clinical areas and it can also allow practice with a variety of different types of patients and comorbidities. One of the big nursing organizations conducted a study that found that simulation could replace 50 percent of clinical experiences. This research has allowed and encouraged nursing programs to really go big with simulation. Our course on Innovations in Nursing Education also builds upon the idea that education technologies can be used to great advantage in the fostering of an effective learning culture in nursing education and professional development programs.

I believe that nursing is one of the most difficult tasks in academia, particularly at the undergraduate level, because you are taking students who are sometimes just out of high school and turning them into a competent healthcare professional. That entails instilling not only clinical knowledge and training but also maturity and emotional resilience. In addition to students straight out of high school, there are a lot of non-traditional students who go back to school, so there is a wide range of students with a wide range of needs, all of whom ultimately need to pass the NCLEX examination to become a registered nurse. This test is not only a test of students’ abilities, but also a test of their programs. If a lot of people from a particular program do not pass the test, that program stands to lose its accreditation. This is why our program emphasizes all of the important elements of a strong nursing curriculum, and how to optimize learning outcomes for students utilizing different strategies, technologies, and evidence-based principles.

[] What inspired the creation of the Ed.D. in Nursing Education? How was this program designed and developed, and how is it different from a DNP in Nursing Education?

[Dr. O’Connell] The major difference between the DNP and the Ed.D. is that the DNP was established to be a clinical degree, the highest clinical degree in nursing that you could get. At the same time, however, there was a shortage of faculty in nursing higher education. Schools of nursing initially came up with the DNP in nursing education, which still had a clinical emphasis with a smattering of education courses to teach students how to create a syllabus and teach a class.

In contrast, the Ed.D. in Nursing Education is specifically about nursing education. It requires people to do research in areas of nursing education and how to improve it. While there are people who have DNPs and are in faculty positions, the majority of DNP programs prepare students for advanced clinical work and non-pedagogical nursing leadership. The Ed.D. in Nursing Education is specifically for those individuals who want to be leaders in nursing education.

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

[Dr. O’Connell] We have been using Canvas and utilize mainly asynchronous instruction. Some of the courses might have a synchronous session or two, but as we have students from all over the country and even worldwide, it’s really hard to make any synchronous sessions required because of the time zone differences.

For our simulation course, students learn to develop scenarios in line with course objectives, such as performing debriefings and evaluations. Although much of simulation takes place in laboratories, some involves standardized patients, who are professional actors with whom nursing students interact. Our nursing education students learn how to include standardized patients in their courses and assessments.

Virtual simulations came into the fore here in the COVID-19 era when a lot of undergraduate programs all of a sudden couldn’t take any of their students into the hospital because the hospitals only had COVID patients, or even into the simulation laboratories. As a result, there was a lot of switching to virtual simulations for students to be able to safely train and hone their clinical skills online.

With respect to online teaching, I find that I know my online students better than I know students in my in-person courses. As I always say, you’re in class with 25 students and you ask a question and the student in the first row, who always answers the questions, will answer your question. And you have no idea whether the rest of the people have read the material or know the answer to the question. But in online learning, where everybody has to respond and everybody has to be on the discussion board, I get a much better feel for the students’ grasp of the material. And I can see how they can write, which is key because writing is really important in doctoral education.

[] Teachers College Columbia University’s Online Ed.D. in Nursing Education program requires students to complete two practicums–Practicum I: The Nurse Educator Role and Practicum II: Leadership in Nursing Education. May we have more information on these practicum experiences?

[Dr. O’Connell] For the first practicum, it is teaching-focused, which means that students must fulfill the nurse educator role. They have to go and teach part of a course, or design some learning modules in an actual environment in their location of residence. Students are responsible for finding the site at which they would like to complete their practicum, though we can provide suggestions and support them in their search. We establish agreements with the places where students complete their practicums so that we know students are achieving the correct learning outcomes through their work with their chosen organization. Teachers College also vets the preceptors to make sure that students have somebody who we think can be helpful and supportive throughout students’ practicum.

The second practicum is about leadership, finding out what leaders in nursing education do. What makes this second practicum distinct is that students are expected to go beyond teaching and curriculum development. It is about more than being in a faculty role–in this practicum we want students to explore what a dean of a school of nursing does. How do academic administrators and education leaders operate in nursing and nursing education contexts? Students are also expected to engage in and learn about the accreditation process. Nursing programs are required to complete all kinds of accreditation activities–it is an ongoing process. Hospitals as well are required to abide by certain standards and apply for accreditation to operate. So we ask our students to find people who work in nursing accreditation at the practice and pedagogical levels, and to find out how they can help them. For example, one of our students last year got involved in getting the simulation lab at a particular school of nursing accredited, and she learned invaluable things about that process.

Students also have to carve out a role wherein they help a nursing leader to complete an important task. That can take a variety of forms, depending on what the leader’s job is, what students’ interests are, etc. I had a student who was in Practicum II: Leadership in Nursing Education and worked at a hospital that this spring got an influx of COVID patients. He decided to complete his leadership project specifically on the processes and procedures of converting units that had never taken care of COVID-19 patients, or even infectious patients in general before, to sufficiently equipped COVID-19 care units. At first he had to convert one unit, and before it was all over I believe he had to convert 11 units to taking care of COVID patients specifically. This was in New York, where the infection rate was skyrocketing at the time. It was fascinating to read his report, how he started out with very lofty goals about how to teach nurses, use personalized protective equipment, how to take care of patients, and so forth. And then he had to scale up the rate of teaching exponentially because of the situation–to teach health care workers in larger groups, and so forth. It was a fascinating and impactful project.

[] For their final graduation requirement, students of Teachers College Columbia University’s Online Ed.D. in Nursing Education program must complete a Dissertation. May we have more information on the Dissertation, and what it entails?

[Dr. O’Connell] The Dissertation is an in-depth research project that is distinct from students’ previous coursework and their two practicums. We encourage students to collaborate on their dissertations. We have three students who are doing a dissertation on academic integrity and academic honesty, and they are collecting data from three different schools of nursing around the country.

Another one of our students is in staff development and is interested in looking at whether learning something in the simulation lab is better than an in-person lecture setting. His plan was to teach working nurses a task that they need to carry out in the hospital but which they might not necessarily have learned in nursing school. His study entailed giving half of his subjects a simulation to learn that task, and half of them a traditional, didactic in-person lecture. Then he followed these people into their medical units to see how they actually were able to apply what they had learned, and how they conducted this procedure out in the real world. The key idea he wanted to investigate was whether knowledge transfer is better from a simulation, or better from an in-person didactic lecture.

We have also had students conduct other studies investigating the quality and nature of simulation education, such as how simulation is set up, whether there are ways to set up simulations that result in better learning outcomes, and so forth. We have one student who is conducting a study that is investigating how to instill empathy in student nurses for their patients through simulation training. Her concern was that taking care of people or avatars in simulated settings might result in students missing out on the crucial empathy piece of nursing, so her goal with her project is trying to optimize or increase this empathy even in remote/simulation contexts.

Another group of students who are working on their proposals right now are very interested in undergraduate nursing student anxiety, which is a big problem. Through their research, they’re hoping to figure out ways to help students deal with their anxiety. As you can see, the topics that students select are directly relevant to improving nursing pedagogy, professional training, and program development and leadership in medical settings.

When it comes to the dissertation, students get a great deal of faculty support. First of all, we have a course called “Dissertation Design and Development,” and in that course we take a step-by-step approach with students in terms of coming up with a dissertation proposal. It is structured so that by the time students complete the course they will have a full dissertation proposal ready for review. And before they even start thinking about their dissertation idea, our other research courses teach them about the research process so that they are prepared. For their proposal hearing, two faculty members listen to students’ proposal presentation and also provide questions and support. Once a student’s proposal is accepted and approved by the Human Subjects Committee, he or she can start the work on their dissertation.

We actually have what we call a three-paper dissertation. Students write three journal article-length chapters that are meant to be submitted to journals after the dissertation is complete. We are very interested in getting people to publish their work and we remain involved in that process even after students complete their dissertations and graduate.

[] What role does faculty mentorship play in Teachers College Columbia University’s Online Ed.D. in Nursing Education program? How can students make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems while in the program? In addition, what are some support systems within the Teachers College that are uniquely helpful to individuals interested in nursing pedagogy?

[Dr. O’Connell] Every student is assigned an advisor at the beginning of their enrollment. This initial advisor is there to support students as they navigate the course enrollment process, and through discussions they help students to better establish what their interests are and what their potential dissertation topic could be about. As time goes on, and students get closer to working on their dissertation, we connect them with a faculty member in our program who is an expert in their area of interest. For example, one of our faculty members has studied simulation nursing technologies extensively, and as a result our students who are studying simulation in nursing education will be working with her.

In addition to their faculty dissertation advisor, students in the first two years of the program have journal clubs, which are sub-groups of three or four students who meet with a faculty member three times each semester to discuss a selection of journal articles. We encourage them to pick journal articles about things that they might want to do a dissertation on, or journal articles that at least pique their interest. These groups are put together by interest area, as far as they can figure out what their interest area is during orientation, and they can always change groups if their interests shift over time. These journal clubs are also a great opportunity for students to connect with people with whom they might want to collaborate on their dissertation.

[] For students interested in Teachers College Columbia University’s Online Ed.D. in Nursing Education program, what advice do you have in terms of submitting a competitive application?

[Dr. O’Connell] We have very specific requirements around the personal statement. Specifically, we want students to address their various strengths by answering specific questions: What is their clinical background? What is their experience with research? What is their experience with online learning? We ask very specific questions because we want to be able to compare all students fairly in terms of their relevant experience and qualifications for the program.

In terms of recommendations, we prefer letters from people who know the applicant as a student or as a scholar. Professional references are less helpful to us, because while you may do great work as a nurse in a hospital, we also need to know that you are a strong writer, a good communicator, and a good researcher. And to that point, we ask all applicants to submit a writing sample, and if it is a published article then that’s terrific, and if not we want a paper you have completed in your master’s program.

[] What makes Teachers College Columbia University’s Online Ed.D. in Nursing Education program unique and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students? How does the program prepare students for advanced careers in nursing and health care instruction and leadership?

[Dr. O’Connell] In talking about how this program distinguishes itself from others, it is important to stress the history of Teachers College with respect to nursing education. Teachers College had the first collegiate program for nurses way back in 1899. At that time, most nurses were taught in hospital schools by doctors, and over time there became a recognition that there needed to be programs specifically for nurses, taught by nurses. Teachers College has a legacy of preparing some of the greatest leaders in nursing education, who came to the school and then continued on to start their own nursing programs. That history is the foundation of everything we do here at Teachers College and it formed the basis of our online Ed.D. in Nursing Education.

With regards to what makes the online program unique, I would say that its focus on education and research as opposed to the clinical side of nursing leadership is something that makes us distinctive. We want people to know how to teach, to find and interpret evidence that what they are doing and how they are teaching is working. We teach our students to take a science-based approach to curriculum development and learning facilitation.

Collaboration is also a strong theme in our program. That is why from the beginning of every course we encourage and sometimes require students to collaborate with each other. The journal clubs that students must participate in are also consistent with that culture of collegiality, and not only expands their network but also helps them clarify and deepen their own interests and ideas in nursing pedagogy and nursing research.

One of the things I often tell students is that the people they meet in graduate school are the people they will know for the rest of their lives. They are the beginning of your new network and they are all experts in their own right–you need to be able to take advantage of that. And on that note, while this online program is relatively new, one of the strongest assets we have to offer our students is access to our incredibly strong alumni association for nurses–the Teachers College Nursing Education Alumni Association. This Association is very active in getting alumni to gather, to discuss important ideas in nursing education, and to push the discipline forward. They actually run an annual research conference every year. So many Teachers College alumni have a strong desire to give back to their institution–it goes back to that culture of collaboration, of nurses supporting nurses to advance the discipline.

Thank you, Dr. O’Connell, for your excellent insight into Teachers College Columbia University’s Online Ed.D. in Nursing Education!