Interview with Radhika Viruru, Ph.D. and Ambyr Rios about Texas A&M University's Online Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) in Curriculum and Instruction (P-12)

About Radhika Viruru, Ph.D.: Radhika Viruru is a Clinical Professor and the Director of the Online Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction (P-12) within Texas A&M University’s Department of Teaching, Learning, and Culture. As Director, she oversees student recruitment and admissions, student advising, curriculum development, study abroad experiences, and student research and internships. Dr. Viruru previously served as the Associate Department Head for Undergraduate Programs for the Department of Teaching, Learning, and Culture, and as the Coordinator of Early Childhood Programs within the same Department. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in English from Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi, India, and both her Master of Science in Educational Curriculum and Instruction and her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from Texas A&M University.

About Ambyr Rios: Ambyr Rios is the Director of Online Education for the Department of Teaching, Learning, and Culture at Texas A&M University. As Director, she oversees the implementation of learning management systems and specialized learning technologies for all of the online programs within the Department of Teaching, Learning and Culture. She has also worked extensively with Dr. Viruru in designing the curriculum, study abroad experience, admissions processes, and other key elements of the Online Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction. Prior to her role at Texas A&M University, Ms. Rios was the Director of Teaching, Learning, and Communications at Richard Milburn Academy, and before that she was a Supervisory Program Specialist for the United States Department of Defense. She is a Pat Tillman Foundation Scholar, and is currently enrolled in the Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction program at Texas A&M University. She received her Bachelor of Arts in English from Texas A&M University and her Master of Arts in Teaching from Johns Hopkins University.

Interview Questions

[] May we have an overview of Texas A&M University’s Online Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction (P-12)? What are the key learning outcomes for this program, and how does it prepare students optimally for roles in academic leadership, curriculum development, and education program improvement in P-12 settings?

[Dr. Viruru] The Online Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction (P-12) aligns with the College of Education & Human Development’s commitment to cultivating students’ leadership skills, helping them learn how to make discoveries that help them improve systems of education and organizational dynamics, and to step into leadership roles in settings such as schools and school districts, corporate management, and community program development. Students take courses that introduce them to quantitative and qualitative research processes and how they can produce insights that are instrumental to the design and improvement of curricula and instruction methods. We teach students the frameworks by which they can identify and examine problems of practice in educational (particularly P-12) settings, and also how to find ways to evaluate the efficacy of education programs. Students also learn the history of American education, the central theories of research in curriculum and instruction, grant writing, data management and analysis in pedagogical contexts, and foundational and advanced concepts in instructional leadership. Students’ culminating experience is the Record of Study (ROS), or ROS, which is our version of the dissertation.

Two of the elements of our program that really make it stand out are our study abroad experience and internship. Students’ internship experience ties into their record of study, and is self-chosen. The one major requirement for the internship is that it helps further clarify what students will research and write about for their record of study. A lot of times, students choose to complete their internship at their place of work, though it requires them to take on responsibilities that are outside of their regular job. There are some situations where a student needs or wants to work in a different setting. For example, a school principal might want to complete research at the school district level, and therefore they may work with an internship supervisor or mentor whom they select at that district, such as a district superintendent, in order to gather preliminary data to try and answer their ROS research question. Students must complete six credits total of internship, during which they submit weekly field logs, complete a midterm reflection, and a final reflection, all of which are reviewed by the chair of their faculty committee.

While we do not require the study abroad component, about one third of our students go each year. We have done two study abroad trips so far, Costa Rica in 2018 and Berlin 2019. We were scheduled to have another international experience this summer of 2020, but obviously it’s not happening with the COVID-19 shelter in place orders. We have seen just an incredible payout from these experiences. We make every effort to ensure the trip is affordable, and also offer scholarships to every student who goes on the trip, to make it even more affordable. And when we study abroad it is not just touring or walking around seeing castles and listening to lectures–we work, we dive right into experiential learning, discussions, and comparative analyses.

When we went to Berlin, for example, we got to go visit some of the local schools, as well as a state agency, and in between those experiences we visited historical sites. And it was amazing to be able to draw so many parallels between our school system and the Berlin school system. In particular, we talked a lot about how Germany has taken so many institutionalized steps to account for or to deal with the troubled parts of its history, and how our students could bring insights from those conversations back home to enhance the teaching in their classrooms. The ways in which our schools and other institutions deal with American history, American citizenship, and the diversity and inequalities that are inherent to our nation’s story are extremely important when fostering civic responsibility, critical thinking, empathy, and ethics in our classrooms.

[] Could you please elaborate on the online learning technologies that Texas A&M University’s Online Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction (P-12) uses to deliver course materials and facilitate interactions between students and faculty?

[Ambyr Rios] Our learning management system is currently eLearn through Blackboard, but starting in 2021 we will be moving to Canvas. Within our learning management system, we use a lot of different technologies and plugins to facilitate student and faculty discussions. For example, we have FlipGrid, Voice Thread, and the entire Google suite of technologies. Some of our faculty also make use of Wikis as hubs of information and student discussion. What makes us unique amongst our peers is that we don’t just implement advanced and interactive online learning–we are also continually studying the ways in which technology can enhance student learning, and incorporating our findings back into our program to improve it.

In terms of how students and their faculty advisors connect to discuss students’ internship, work on their ROS, or talk out a problem or a challenge encountered in an assignment, all of our faculty are very high-touch and readily accessible to chat with students in both synchronous and asynchronous formats.

[] Students of Texas A&M University’s Online Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction (P-12) are required to complete a Record of Study. What does the Record of Study entail?

[Ambyr Rios] While the ROS is very similar in structure to a dissertation, and generally follows the same five-chapter structure with an introduction, literature review, research methodologies, results, and discussion, the objective of the ROS is inherently different than a traditional dissertation in that it is much more action-research focused. And students must also produce an artifact outcome.

The structure and objective of the ROS are guided by the Carnegie Project for the Educational Doctorate, or CPED. We are members of that organization, and the need for the ROS really came from the need for action research that catered toward practitioners rather than just research for the sake of publishing unique content within the scholarly community. Our students endeavor to find a problem within their school setting, their district setting, or their educational setting at large that they wish to address within their record of study.

For example, an associate superintendent of a particular school district wanted to look at mental health of Latino males within his school district. He worked with 18 different high schools. His ROS involved helping one school within his district to increase mental health access for their Latino students. And he saw it did make a difference in those students’ outcomes: in their retention and graduation rates, etc. The superintendent then developed a plan for implementing this mental health accessibility initiative across all of the high schools in his district, which he has since done. And it illustrated how access to mental health, and specifically addressing inequalities in the mental health support structures at schools, can improve educational outcomes for diverse student groups. Dr. Viruru works closely with a lot of students on their ROS, so I believe she can provide additional insight and examples.

[Dr. Viruru] The thing to remember with the Record of Study, is that it is individual. Everybody chooses what they are passionate about, and so no two Records of Study are the same. In general, students choose a practical problem for their ROS. For example, one of our students worked with an organization that was providing a professional development program online to P-12 teachers. Our student wanted to conduct an assessment of this program. One of the things she found was that the online program was a big struggle for many teachers because it is based on this assumption that everyone has great internet access, particularly on their phones, and that they can participate and use Google Docs with ease, or log into other collaborative technologies. Some teachers weren’t comfortable with expressing their ideas and engaging in professional development exercises using the shared Google Docs format, and they often were concerned that they were being evaluated solely or primarily through their engagement on Google Docs and other online media. So our student’s findings actually helped the program to better serve its teachers and facilitate better discussions in the program that could support professional development.

Another one of our students wanted to examine the invisible tax levied on black male special education teachers. He conducted a qualitative study of eight black male special education teachers from across the country and looked into their unique experiences. He found that these teachers were often the ones who were expected to control the more physical or aggressive children in a classroom, as well as the children who exhibited the most severe behavioral problems. He drew a great analogy to the comparison between Superman versus Clark Kent: in the classroom these teachers had to be Superman with superpowers, but outside they had to be like Clark Kent and be really calm, to show that everything was under control because that was the only way that they could gain acceptance within their community of fellow teachers. As his artifact, he took the experiences of the teachers he consulted and developed an excellent bridge program for black male teachers seeking support in working with their students. He is currently the Director of Inclusion and Diversity at a university in Utah, and he’s using those insights to recruit, advise, and support individuals, particularly individuals of color, into the teaching profession. A core objective of our program is to help students transfer the insights they gain from their ROS to counteracting a real problem or challenge in education that they have encountered.

When students progress to their ROS, we have another checkpoint or “examination” milestone, which is what we call a proposal examination, which is when students complete a draft of the first three chapters of their ROS and present it to their committee members. This stage of proposal submission is very much a back and forth between students and their faculty committee, who discuss the draft, suggest revisions, and review subsequent drafts. Faculty give feedback to potentially help students narrow or tweak their research question, or modify their research methodologies. Once a student’s committee approves his or her proposal, that student is considered a candidate.

Once students have completed their study and their writing up and discussion of results, they are ready for their final examination, which is a defense of their ROS before their committee. To reach that point, students and the faculty committee go through several rounds of drafting, editing, and discussion. All of these discussions can be conducted online, though a lot of our students like to come to campus to meet up with faculty in-person.

[] Students of Texas A&M University’s Online Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction (P-12) are also required to complete both a Preliminary Examination and a Final Examination as part of their ROS. What does each of these requirements involve, and what kinds of support do students receive while the prepare for or work on each?

[Ambyr Rios] Once our students complete the majority of their coursework, in-between the transition between their coursework and their record of study writing, we have preliminary exams. Preliminary exams are called comprehensive exams at other institutions. In our program, the preliminary exams serve as the gateway between taking structured classes and embarking on an independent research journey. During classes, faculty are giving students information that they absorb, and while the courses are highly interactive and student-led, and students are incorporating what they learn into their own contexts, there is still a large faculty push of information.

At the end of the formal curriculum, students transition to being think leaders, putting that leadership into practice through their record of study. And faculty transition into more of a supportive role for the rest of students’ learning journey in the program. The gateway of this transition is the preliminary examination, which is structured like three mini comprehensive exams where students get questions from their different committee members–three or four questions at most–which ask them about the broad range of what they have studied, including research methods, education theories, historical and contemporary perspectives in P-12 education, and instructional leadership. The exam questions also include questions around what students hope to investigate in their Record of Study.

The students write many pages about each question and submit them. And then the faculty on their committee review these responses. If the questions are deemed acceptable, the faculty hold an oral examination. Once students pass this oral examination and discussion, they can proceed to their ROS.

[] What role does faculty mentorship play in Texas A&M University’s Online Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction (P-12)? How can students make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems while they are enrolled?

[Dr. Viruru] As Program Director, I typically serve as the initial advisor for all the students in the program. I advise them and help guide them through the first year of the program, until they choose a faculty chair with whom to work on their ROS. We also require students to submit an annual portfolio so that their faculty mentors can see what they have been working on and their progress.

While students have their formal advisors, all of the faculty who teach them serve as mentors in many ways. The faculty members have been wonderful about scheduling conferences with students and working with them individually. We have faculty who spend hours working with students to help them formulate their Record of Study and define a problem they want to investigate more specifically. It has been incredible seeing how these relationships persist and continue to develop even after students’ graduate. Our faculty don’t simply reach out to students, but rather actively work to form and strengthen relationships with them, as they are really our colleagues–they are educators and education leaders seeking to better serve the communities they teach, just as we are.

[] For students interested in Texas A&M University’s Online Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction (P-12), what advice do you have in terms of submitting a competitive application?

[Ambyr Rios] In looking at applicants, I always tell them that our committee evaluates every applicant holistically. We look for five years of teaching experience or five years of work within education in some way. And we want to see a progression in terms of students’ professional trajectory, and to understand what has motivated them to return to school. An example is somebody who maybe only taught in the classroom for two or three years but now they’re running the school as a curriculum instructor. We take many different things into account, but in general our ideal applicants are mid-level education professionals who are really charged with the mission to improve education in some way and advance their education in order to impact students and their educational settings in a bigger way through their enhanced skills.

We do require the GRE, and that’s something that our faculty and our college actually are really committed to upholding because we believe that, while the GRE is not a perfect test, it does give us a baseline measure to determine whether a student has the writing skills to handle the rigorous research papers and examinations they must complete throughout the program. This is because writing is the one thing that we see as a program that’s very difficult to teach.

I also tell applicants that it is supremely important that they spend a lot of time getting quality recommendations and drafting really strong answers to the questions that we ask them in their application. And that’s because we know the quality of recommendations from specific individuals tells us a lot about a candidate. An applicant who spent the time getting a recommendation from a supervisor who then invests a lot of time and effort into writing about the applicant’s stellar skills and how he or she would fit in our program–when that happens, it is clear and it is compelling.

The writing that students put forth in their application is of paramount importance. We ask them several essay prompts in the application, and I ask students to devote a lot of time to each question, and to make sure that their writing voice comes through so that we can get a good sense of it. We need to make sure that their writing abilities are at a level that is appropriate for a doctoral program that is one of the top ten in the country.

I have a lot of calls and talks with prospective students, and I do stress to them that they do not have to be a perfect applicant. For example, if you are 40 or 50 years old and you didn’t do the best during your undergraduate experience, but now you’ve gone on and you’re an assistant principal of a school and turned your career around and done exceptional things, we are going to weigh those more recent experiences as being far more important than your undergraduate grades from 1990. What we are really looking for is this story of impact. We are looking for diverse individuals who seek to solve the educational issues of today and more effectively meet the needs of the people they serve.

Our online EdD program is more diverse than any of our other graduate programs in our college, and we are really proud of that. We want to keep pushing that kind of diversity, and to give access to diverse voices that otherwise may not be in doctoral education around the country. So we make sure to voice that to some of our candidates or applicants who may be concerned that they didn’t go to this exceptional school first off because they’re a first-generation college student, and they had to work during their undergraduate career. We look at what applicants are doing now and what their continued path of success is going to look like. That’s very important to us.

[Dr. Viruru] Our application process is unique in that it is a two-step process. We have a faculty committee that reads these applications, reviewing the recommendations, the essays, etc. Then, for the individuals we feel would be a good fit, we invite them to submit a video. We give them prompts for what needs to be in the video, and through this video submission we can get a sense of their technology skills as well as how they present themselves. The video itself doesn’t have to be professional quality, and it doesn’t have to have an editor. It could be something that you make on your phone, and a lot of our students do that. The video is another way for students to show their investment in the program. If you are invested in doing the program, then you will make the effort to put together a good product. And this video assignment is also a great way for students to demonstrate their strengths and professional goals: we get to see their schools, we get to see their classrooms, we get to see firsthand how the applicants work, and what they want to improve in their specific educational setting.

[Ambyr Rios] I agree. The video gives students this opportunity to show us in a really robust medium the way in which they view the world, and that has spoken volumes to some of our faculty when making admissions decisions.

[] What makes Texas A&M University’s Online Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction (P-12) unique and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students? How does this program prepare students for advanced careers in P-12 education leadership and education systems improvement?

[Ambyr Rios] The two things I think of immediately are that it’s cohorted and we only admit once a year. And that may seem like a negative instead of a positive, but I promise for our students, it is a positive. Dr. Viruru’s heard me say this many times, but it’s like a boutique program in a really large university, and what that allows for is something really special, where students get individualized attention like they would at a tiny school, but they have all the resources of a very large institution. This also means that tuition is lower because we are a public institution, but the support is higher because we keep our cohort numbers so small. We only admit between 15 and 20 students every cohort, so we’re not looking to be the biggest program to make the most money. We’re really looking to do something special in education with a select group of folks that truly want to make a difference. It is like a little family in this big school, and that is really cool.

Thank you, Dr. Viruru and Ms. Rios, for your excellent insight into Texas A&M University’s Online Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction!