Interview with Mary Alice Varga, Ph.D. - Director of the Online Ed.D. in School Improvement Program at the University of West Georgia

About Mary Alice Varga, Ph.D.: Mary Alice Varga is the Director of the Online Ed.D. in School Improvement Program at the University of West Georgia’s College of Education, where she also teaches courses in research methodologies, program evaluation, and educational assessments as an Associate Professor of Educational Research. As Director Dr. Varga serves as the primary advisor to doctoral students in the School Improvement Program and chairs numerous doctoral dissertation committees for students throughout the College of Education.

Dr. Varga earned her Bachelor of Science in Biology from Shenandoah University, her Master’s of Education with a focus in College Student Personnel from Western Carolina University, and her Ph.D. in Educational Psychology and Research from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Her research foci include student grief, online learning mediums, and computer-based communication.

Interview Questions

[] Could you please provide an overview of the University of West Georgia’s online Ed.D. in School Improvement program, 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. Mary Alice Varga] This year our Ed.D. in School Improvement program just turned 20, and for about half that time we have been online. That has really distinguished us from a lot of programs in the state of Georgia, because our institution is a pioneer in online learning. For example, the e-Core program is a fully online statewide undergraduate curriculum for students in Georgia, that is housed at the University of West Georgia, so we’ve really been ahead of most folks in the online learning realm.

Our program is unique, and there are a number of educational leadership programs out there, but ours is specifically focused on school improvement. We are very purposeful in admitting students who are in leadership positions and who are dealing with actual issues in their learning environments that need to be improved. That encompasses a wide array of different types of issues, which speaks to one of the reasons why we have the different areas of concentration. We have Educational Leadership as an area of concentration, but we also have concentrations in Special Education, Instructional Technology, School Counseling, K-12 Online Teaching, Reading, Media Specialist, ESOL, and Early Childhood Education for leaders who are dealing with issues relating to those specifically. Our in-state Georgia residents can also qualify for certain certificate upgrades through their areas of concentration options. It is part of an agreement that we have worked out with the Georgia Professional Standards Commission (GaPSC), and it has worked very well. GaPSC has been very supportive, and we’ve been very successful in cultivating a lot of leaders, not just in our program but also throughout the state and of course the country.

Students can also customize their area of concentration, so if someone does need to focus on Special Education and Instructional Technology for their job, they have the flexibility to do so and to create that different type of concentration that fits the issues they are battling, and to get a really good perspective on how to tackle those issues.

[] The many different concentrations sound like a great opportunity for students. Who helps guide them through the options that are available to them?

[Dr. Mary Alice Varga] I serve as students’ primary academic guide during their start in the program. During our admissions process, which I’ll mention in detail later, we also ask them to talk about their desired area of concentration. We’ve added that to the application so that we can get an idea of the types of areas of need that students are coming in with and also how to staff courses properly. For example, if we know we have a lot of students interested in instructional technology, I can go to the Instructional Technology faculty and say, “We’re going to have a big group of students who will want to take XYZ courses.” We like to plan ahead so that we are ready to provide the needed course and dissertation support to all of our students.

I serve as students’ primary advisor, but what I find is that very few applicants don’t have an idea of their area of concentration, and that is because of the nature of their position. In fact, they have often very specific issues that they want to examine in their doctoral work. Students are also required to write about a problem or a school improvement initiative that they would like to undertake in their application. So they’re actively thinking about this before they’re even admitted into the program. That is another unique aspect of our program—the level of focus that we expect from our applicants, and the degree of motivation we need them to illustrate in terms of wanting to make a difference in their educational setting.

[] Could you please elaborate on the online learning technologies the University of West Georgia’s online Ed.D. in School Improvement program uses to deliver course materials and facilitate interaction between students and faculty?

[Dr. Mary Alice Varga] We’ve recently had some changes to some aspects of the program, which are super exciting. We utilize CourseDen, which is our name for it but it’s part of BrightSpace, or Desire2Learn. Our program is 100 percent asynchronous, and 100 percent online with the exception of the face-to-face orientation that is mandatory for admitted students when they first start the program. Students are required to attend the orientation, and if they cannot, they cannot be in the program. We really value the face-to-face meeting, and research shows that in-person, face-to-face orientation has statistically significant predictions pertaining to degree completion. So we take that very seriously.

As we have attracted more students from across the country and even internationally, we as a program decided not to require synchronous sessions in our courses or in our program. That is also a University System of Georgia requirement. If you label your program as 100 percent online, or 95 percent online or more, you cannot have required synchronous components, which we found actually made sense. We used to have students in other countries who were having to wake up at 4 am to attend a session with their instructor, and that’s just not feasible or conducive to learning. So we are 100% online and asynchronous, though we do have optional synchronous elements, such as our Virtual Research and Dissertation Development Sessions.

We used to hold a Summer Dissertation Boot Camp, which was our other required face-to-face event in addition to the orientation. Our students who were more advanced in the program would come back to campus to work on their dissertation through an intensive boot camp seminar. But again with a more geographically diverse student population, we felt it wasn’t an event we could justify having them spend thousands of dollars to come for just two days. So we decided to transition the event into an online format and students who lived far away were very grateful for that.

Students also asked that we not limit the dissertation support to the summer. For example, some of them said, “This is great that we’re talking about quantitative data analysis, but this would probably be more helpful when I am actually analyzing my data or about to analyze my data.” So we created a series of events, wherein we talk about everything from academic writing to APA to quantitative data analysis and conducting interviews. These sessions are synchronous, but they are not required. We have faculty and experts from all over the campus facilitating these sessions primarily during the evenings or on weekends when students are not at their full-time professional job.

These sessions enable students to talk to somebody face-to-face, brush up on methods and skills that they forgot from their course about APA, and still get ongoing training and development in a way that fits their needs. Furthermore, instead of going through a whole boot camp where some of it may or may not apply to their dissertation topic, they can pick and choose. Their Dissertation Chair and sometimes I and/or their course instructor(s) will either require or highly recommend that students attend certain sessions if we see an area of development where they could really benefit from that additional training. So we have those going, and they’ve been very well attended. They have been rated very favorably by students, so that is something that we are going to continue doing. We also ask the presenters of these informational sessions to record their presentations and discussions for students who are not able to attend.

At our institution we use Gmail and Google Drive. We have a Google Shared Folder with all of the students and faculty. When the faculty finish recording that presentation, they can drop it into the folder, and then students have access to it all the time, even months down the road. Google Drive is another excellent way for faculty members to share a wealth of materials with our students. They share a lot of manuals, guides, supplemental materials, etc. that they can add in as well.

[] The University of West Georgia’s online Ed.D. in School Improvement program 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. Mary Alice Varga] I’ll start with the dissertation process. We have a pretty standard dissertation process right now, a five-chapter dissertation structure. Part of the area of concentration requirement is that your dissertation has to be within that area of concentration. We have a standard rubric for the dissertation evaluation process that looks at everything from the need for the study, the clear identification of the problem, quality of methods and literature review, and a clear link to school improvement. That’s a big part of our rubric–wanting to know how a student’s chosen topic is linked to school improvement. And of course, we assess grammar, APA formatting, etc.

The dissertation is something that students work on in conjunction with their committee, which they’re assigned to at the end of their first year. In our program, students go through their first year, and then the second summer they take a Doctoral Seminar, which is where we talk about the expectations for the dissertation, and during the seminar they complete a comprehensive dissertation outline that helps them think about their topic, the literature, the types of methodologies that they want to use, etc. They outline all of that, and at the end of the summer, when their committees are formed, they share that outline with their committee. This has been a really good approach for faculty and students. Instead of students trying to write chapters one, two, and three or doing a whole bunch of work or getting their heart set on a certain topic without structured guidance up front, they have an outline that they can talk with their committee about and start tweaking it from there.

I recommend that students try to identify people that they would like to work with on their committee as early as possible. I will send an email out to them and ask them, “Is there anybody you would like to work with? I also ask them for three to five sentences about their topic and preferred methodologies. Then I try to match faculty and students the best I can given their area of research, their preferences, and the methodologies they want to employ.

As mentioned previously, we typically use a traditional five-chapter format, but we are experimenting with alternative dissertation formats right now. For example, we have an Action Research Dissertation format, which is what our program used to do in its infancy. We are also piloting a Program Evaluation Model that is based a lot on the framework of what the College of William and Mary has done.

Regardless of the model used, all dissertations go through an external review process. We have faculty who review the dissertation in a double-blind format so that they don’t know whose dissertation they are reviewing and the committee doesn’t know who the reviewer is. These external reviewers rate the dissertation according to the rubric that I mentioned, because the proposal for the dissertation serves as one of the key assessments for our program and a comprehensive exam. So what we’re really looking for is the emergence of a practitioner-scholar and how students can then demonstrate that they know how to use research to identify and help solve problems in educational settings.

We are a part of the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate, which is essentially a consortium of institutions that offer Ed.D. programs, and its focus is on the Ed.D., which is very different from the Ph.D. The Carnegie Project talks about a lot of different ways that we can work with students who are practitioners, and developing them as practitioner-scholars who do research in their place of work in order to make an impact on educational outcomes.

[] What are the differences between the traditional five-chapter dissertation, and the other two types of dissertation you mentioned—the Action Research and the Program Evaluation dissertations?

[Dr. Mary Alice Varga] The difference really comes down to how you approach research problems and what problems there are to solve. The initial intent of the Action Research design was to really help students be active change agents during the dissertation process. In an action research dissertation, what we do is gather data about a phenomenon, then we do something to try and initiate a change, and then we collect data on that change. We then go through cycles within our data collection where we implement different changes or different factors, collect data on these iterations, and analyze it. So it is a very active, immersive type of research and practice.

In contrast, the five-chapter dissertation is developed more with the Ph.D. in mind. It has the structure that many doctoral students have come to recognize, and for some students this structure is very important. For Program Evaluation, one thing that we had noticed in talking with our educational leadership faculty who are highly involved in the program is that a lot of what our school leaders do can also be program evaluation—that is, assessing the structure, various players, and ultimate efficacy of an educational program.

Similar to our areas of concentration, our students have to tackle these issues that they’re facing in various ways. Depending on the situation that the student brings to the table to investigate, action research might be more appropriate, or if it’s a program they want to assess, then naturally program evaluation is appropriate. If they are looking at district-wide or state-wide data to investigate an ongoing educational phenomenon or issue, a five-chapter traditional dissertation might be a better fit.

Ultimately, we want to be more flexible with the methodological approaches that students can use, just like we are with their area of concentration. We are not trying to do a one size fits all, but rather allow them the flexibility to investigate in the ways that are going to help them get the solutions that they need.

[] What role does mentorship play in the University of West Georgia’s online Ed.D. in School Improvement 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 University of West Georgia’s College of Education, such as its mission or additional resources that the College offers its online students?

[Dr. Mary Alice Varga] In addition to the dissertation committee and mentorship guidance that we provide students, our faculty are highly involved at every stage of students’ learning. We keep our cohorts very small, and we do that on purpose so that we can have a sense of community even though we’re online. We have been teaching online for a while, and our faculty are very skilled at online learning and with the necessary communication and organization that comes with the medium. When I survey students upon their graduation, where we ask questions about all aspects of the program, they express an overwhelming sense of connectedness to their faculty and a lot of that happens through the courses. I think I am starting to see that happen now with the online research and dissertation development series as well, where students feel like even though they are far away they can connect with faculty directly.

Of course with the dissertation committee, the faculty and the student develop a very close working relationship, and how that relationship develops varies. Some faculty and their students will Skype on a weekly or biweekly basis. Other faculty try to meet up with their students in person to discuss the student’s research. We have had folks who have met halfway in Atlanta. Faculty and students cultivate those connections in ways that are organic, and which align with their research interests, communication styles, etc.

We start that organic process from day one. At our orientation, we have all of our faculty there because we know that it is probably the only time a lot of our students will see their instructors face-to-face. We have a faculty meet-and-greet where they all eat lunch together, and that’s when they can learn about each other, put faces to names, etc.

With my role as director, I mentor students on a daily basis, whether it is through course advising, trying to help students think about work-study-life balance, helping students talk through their dissertation topic, or handle a situation with another student or a faculty member. I try to make it known to them that they always have somebody they can reach out to, even if they are far away. I would say that the main points of contact, mentorship-wise, are the orientation, the courses, the dissertation committee, my advising and support, and then the research and dissertation development series. This offers a diversity of guidance as well, which is great because it means that students can access the mentorship forms that work with them the best.

[] For students interested in the University of West Georgia’s online Ed.D. in School Improvement program, what advice do you have in terms of submitting a competitive application?

[Dr. Mary Alice Varga] Our admissions process is very competitive, we receive about 100 applications a year for about 16 spots. We have rigorous admissions processes that we go through, and it has several tiers, the first being the basic requirements.

We have a basic GRE requirement, and a graduate-level minimum GPA requirement of 3.0 or higher. All of our applicants must take the GRE, and we have recommended minimum scores. Typically people who do not achieve those minimum scores are not admitted into the program. Since we do have so many applicants, we have to use that as a factor in a lot of instances. Our faculty have actually researched whether or not there is a correlation between GRE scores and academic achievement in graduate education, because there is a debate about that. In fact, we have seen a correlation where those who score well on the GRE tend to perform better in our program.

I tell folks that it is about more than just the score. It’s really about the level of dedication that people will put into preparing for those tests, and what that implies about their dedication and motivation to succeed in the program. Qualities such as persistence and dedication are important in a doctoral program because the dissertation process, while scaffolded with support systems, is nevertheless inherently a very individual process. There has to be a high level of self-motivation and self-discipline to make it through the dissertation process, and to me, that is what the GRE can help demonstrate.

We also have a writing sample requirement. It can be a writing sample of academic work from the previous degree or it could be a written sample from one’s professional work. Anything that the applicant feels would demonstrate his or her best writing ability is what we want to see. Applicants are also required to write an essay, and the essay is where we ask them to talk about what school improvement means to them, an issue that they have encountered that they would like to learn how to solve, and how this program is going to help them address some of the issues they are experiencing.

Letters of recommendation and previous transcripts are also required. A master’s degree is also necessary for admission—it can be in an education-related field, but it does not have to be. We also have an interview process.

We prioritize leadership experience when assessing applicants. What we want to do is prepare educational leaders who are in positions where they can make substantial change in their environment. There is a certain level of influence that individuals need to have in order to have access to making those decisions, and also being privy to those issues in the first place. So this isn’t a program that would be appropriate for new educational professionals, but more so for folks who are in leadership positions or have leadership experience where they can really use the school improvement skills, concepts, and methods that they are learning to do something in their school.

Applicants have to make it through all these different rounds, the first round being the basic requirements of the GRE, their minimum GPA, a master’s degree from an accredited institution, and leadership experience. Students who pass these standards make it to the next round, and in this round we have another group of faculty. Three more faculty review each application and rate it on another rubric I put together. I then run inter-rater reliability and look at those scores. Applicants who are selected out of that pool are the ones who are interviewed by me and other faculty members.

We actually complete two interviews—we do a behavioral structural assessment, which is very different from a standard interview where you just ask, “Tell me about your experience with X, Y, and Z.” It’s much more of an, “You’re in this experience—what would be your approach to solving the issue?” Or “Tell me about a time that a project didn’t go the way you planned it would go; how did you react to that? What did you do?” and the applicants have two minutes to answer each question.

After this first interview, I conduct a supplemental interview with the applicant that is much more informal and conversational, where I seek to learn about the student’s interests in the program, his or her desired concentration, etc. I will ask questions like, “What are your goals in this program? How much time will you be able to devote to your schoolwork? What areas of concentration are you considering?”

We are very fortunate that we have students come into our program who are strong practitioners and strong leaders, and many of them get promoted during the program. They have demanding work and life schedules, so I talk with them candidly about how they can and should progress through the program. I have conversations with them about the flexibility within our program for them to take one class a semester if they need, or to take a semester off so that they can learn their new position, things like that. We have the very real conversations about the rigor and realities of being a doctoral student plus a full-time professional and a human being. These two interviews really help us assess applicants’ attributes and predict their success as a doctoral student and as an online learner.

Once students have gone through the admissions process and we accept them, we invite them to campus. If they are not able to come to campus for the mandatory orientation, then they have the option to defer their admission for a year, and if they cannot do that then they cannot attend the program. But we have never had that happen. By the time students get through the application process, they are committed enough that they have planned in advance to attend the orientation.

We also keep very detailed records of our admissions process, and we make sure that we have lots of people involved in it. We have lots of faculty input, and for each applicant who chooses an area of concentration, we have a faculty member from that department review his or her application. For example, if we have an applicant who wants to concentrate in Special Education, we have a Special Education faculty member on the application review committee. We are very intentional, and very thorough.

[] What the University of West Georgia’s online Ed.D. in School Improvement program 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. Mary Alice Varga] I would say one of the strongest parts of our program is that we are innovative in a lot of different ways. As far as online learning goes, we have got it. We know what we are doing because we have been doing this a long time. The University of West Georgia has an online faculty development center that is dedicated to helping faculty learn how to be good online teachers. Therefore, we don’t have faculty who are just throwing PowerPoints online and calling it a day. We make sure that our faculty are going through trainings, whether it is Quality Matters or our own University Evaluation System.

We have all of our courses peer-reviewed and reviewed by the institution to ensure that they are high quality courses. We also take a lot of steps to ensure that we don’t have static, outdated curricula. So even just this past year, we have been working with our core faculty in educational leadership and educational research to revise the core curriculum of the School Improvement Program to ensure that it is current and relevant, especially as education has an ever-changing landscape and the issues that leaders are dealing with right now are very different from the issues they were dealing with five or ten years ago.

So part of that is being responsible to make sure that we’re doing what we’re saying that we’re going to do. We’re saying that we’re preparing educational leaders to address issues needed in school improvement. So we have to make sure that we’re doing that. We intentionally became members of the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate, so we could ensure we were training practitioner scholars in the right way. And that has been a lot of seeing what other institutions are doing and utilizing a lot of frameworks that are most relevant to practitioner scholars.

The interdisciplinary nature of our program is another innovative aspect of our program, in that it’s developing leaders in the capacities that they need to implement change. Our flexibility with students regarding the areas of concentration, with their courses, and even with their dissertation to help make sure that they’re getting the experiences they need to tackle the problems they wish to solve and develop themselves as leaders in their educational settings.

Thank you, Dr. Varga, for your excellent insight into the University of West Georgia’s Online Ed.D. in School Improvement program!