Interview with Ryan Longnecker, Ed.D. - Program Director for the Online Ed.D. in Leadership and Professional Practice Program at Trevecca Nazarene University

About Ryan Longnecker, Ed.D.: Ryan Longnecker is an Associate Professor of Leadership Studies and the Program Director for the online delivery of Trevecca Nazarene University’s Ed.D. in Leadership and Professional Practice. As Director, Dr. Longnecker worked to redesign the Online Ed.D. delivery to reflect the learning needs and expectations of advanced education professionals as well as organizational leaders across different industries. Using his experiences as an alumnus of Trevecca Nazarene University’s Ed.D. program, he created and continues to hone this program, which serves a diverse and international student body. In addition, Dr. Longnecker serves as students’ dissertation coordinator in the Ed.D. program, and has created comprehensive resources for students’ work on their dissertation, including a Dissertation Hub and monthly Dissertation Digests.

Prior to his position at Trevecca Nazarene University, Dr. Longnecker spent over a decade in public education as a teacher, principal, and supervisor of secondary schools. He earned his Bachelor of Arts from Belmont University and his MAT and Ed.D. from Trevecca Nazarene University.

Interview Questions

[] Could you please provide an overview of Trevecca Nazarene University’s Online Ed.D. in Leadership and Professional Practice? What are the key learning outcomes for this program, and how does the curriculum combine advanced leadership concepts and research methodologies in education to prepare students for a wide variety of leadership roles?

[Dr. Longnecker] Our program is divided into three main elements: Leadership, Research, and Professional Practice. The Leadership track we build across students’ entire doctoral journey, starting with the class that I teach called Interpersonal Effectiveness. This class was developed from the idea that you cannot lead others until you learn to lead yourself. Students in this class really dig into who they are as people, what kind of leader they are, what their strengths are and what their areas for improvement are and how to work on them. Students learn what leadership approaches resonate the most with them, and are encouraged to challenge themselves to try new ways of leading themselves and conducting themselves as leaders. These concepts and discussions are then built upon further throughout the program, where in Leadership 2 we talk about leading groups, and then in Leadership 3 we talk about leading across different teams or leading an entire organization. Finally, in the last class, Applied Leadership, we take all of these skills and all of these concepts that students have learned and apply them to an idea, a problem, or a challenge that students have encountered in their profession.

The Research component of the program is highly applied, prioritizing research insights that have direct relevance to students’ work as educators and organizational leaders. Students take three research courses in Scientifically Based Practice: Research I & II and Research Based Technology, and two courses in applied and technology based statistics in order to prepare them for their dissertation. We follow an embedded dissertation model, which means that from the beginning of the program students are learning how to build the methodology of their dissertation. When students finish their last class in the program, they should be about two steps away from defending their dissertation, and we help them accomplish that by integrating a lot of assignments in the first three to four semesters that speak directly to students’ personal and professional areas of interest, and which feed into their dissertation work. We have them write a statement of a problem of practice in one of their first research classes, and we also have them complete a literature review where they look at their chosen topic through various scholarly lenses.

I often tell my students that their dissertation is grounded in their stakeholders–their students, their colleagues, the people under their management or leadership, etc.–and so you need to know where your stakeholders come from, where they are right now, where they want to be, and be able to speak to that through your research. We prioritize highly efficient work, where a large collection of our assignments effectively do double duty–students not only get grades and feedback on their assignments, but also get the guided opportunity to start building the foundation of their dissertation from the very beginning of the program.

One of the major focus points of our degree is the Professional Practice aspect, because – in my mind – the Ed.D. is fundamentally a practitioner’s doctorate. I like to frame it as the Ed.D. is the “Doctorate of Doers.” It is the doctorate of those who want to go out and practice leadership, not just study it or analyze it. We integrate that philosophy into all of our classes. In each of our classes, there is always an assignment, a discussion, or an element where students take a concept and apply it to their Monday through Friday. And after they apply it, they come back to class to discuss how it went, so their coursework is always tightly integrated with their professional experience.

We also have courses that cover cultural influences, ethical leadership, and strategic policy and planning. Underpinning all of our classes is teaching our students how to be adaptable, how to be culturally intelligent, how to be ethically and emotionally intelligent leaders who can build strategies, build policies, and put them into effect. In our most recent redesign of the curriculum, we also sought to broaden the audience for our Ed.D., to make it not only applicable to K-12 educators but also any professional who wants to lead and educate within their organization. This includes HR executives, law enforcement and health care leaders, and entrepreneurs. Most of our assignments have students think about their specific organization, whether that is a school, a school district, a hospital, a corporation, or a small company. We provide them with the content and the theory, but then we always direct them to shine that light through the lens of their own professional reality, if you will. This has led to more diversity within each of our program cohorts, which is something I really value about our program.

The K-12 principal learns what leadership looks like on the business or corporate side, while the businessperson learns what organizational effectiveness looks like on the K-12 education side. People learn a different language, they learn different perspectives, and with that comes more diverse ways of thinking and problem-solving. We introduce important concepts in our classes, and invite our students to think of those concepts through their particular lens and share it out in a way that adds to everyone’s learning. That diversity in many ways is the fuel that drives the conversations in our classes.

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

[Dr. Longnecker] We use Blackboard as our learning management system. There are no required synchronous sessions in our program. When I was hired to run the program, one of the vice-provost’s major requirements was that we ensure our students had the flexibility of asynchronous instruction without sacrificing engagement and learning outcomes. If you look at the research, the adult learner has two major requirements: they want to know the why behind what they are being asked to do, and they want flexibility in completing it. We sought to meet those requirements and then some. We give our students the materials, the exercises, the conversations to help them become the best leaders they can be, but they have autonomy over their own schedule and how and when they engage with the material, barring key due dates for assignments and discussion boards. The vast majority of my colleagues and I have weekly check-ins that we conduct using Blackboard Collaborate, and these are synchronous discussion sections where students can ask questions and discuss key concepts, but we record these sessions and students are not required to be there.

Another piece that I have really pushed in our online Ed.D. program is getting away from assignments that have little to no application in students’ daily work. When I was a high school principal, there was never a time when my boss asked me to write a 15-page paper on a concept–that just doesn’t reflect real life. So we instead use a lot of interactive technologies and welcome students to use them for their assignments as well. We use Flipgrid, which is an interactive video and audio communication tool, and we use Loom a lot for assignment overviews and for lectures. Loom has been absolutely revolutionary in my practice and in what we do for this program. We also use VoiceThread a lot. All of these technologies enable us to incorporate a good mix of interactivity and that face-to-face element into students’ writing and research-based assignments.

[] For their final graduation requirement, students of Trevecca Nazarene University’s Online Ed.D. in Leadership and Professional Practice must complete a Dissertation. May we have more information on the Dissertation, and what it entails? How is the Dissertation embedded into course content, allowing students to graduate in 27 months?

[Dr. Longnecker] One of the best parts about our dissertation is the embedded aspect, where students can complete their doctorate in 27 months. Our dissertation process is designed to be structured yet flexible, where students can study pretty much anything they want, using any scholarly methodology they desire. I tell my students, “You can study literally anything you want, as long as you can learn something new and study it well.” Now that kind of flexibility when it comes to dissertation topic and methodology can be somewhat overwhelming. The sheer size and challenge of a doctoral dissertation is often something very out in left field for most people, which is why we incorporate a great deal of structure in terms of the procedures of completing the dissertation.

For example, we have a step-by-step calendar that all of our students follow. I conduct about six or seven live trainings throughout their time where we talk about each chapter of the dissertation and how to approach it. We go through IRB applications, what students need to do for their proposal defense, and for their final defense. In addition to these live trainings I conduct, I have a team of full-time advisors who are experts not only in research but also in how we approach the dissertation. Additionally, we built a comprehensive online resource that we call the Dissertation Hub, which is essentially a tailored website that covers everything about our dissertation process. Each cohort will also get a monthly video from me, which I call the Dissertation Digest, that basically outlines, “This is where we’ve been, this is where we are, and this is where we’re headed and what you need to work on next. These assignments that you’re completing right now–this is how they’re going to translate over to your dissertation. This is what I want you thinking about, etc.”

This gives students multiple layers of support, on top of their formal research classes. Our goal in this program was to give students the best of both worlds, to be able to tell them, “All right, you can go study anything you want, and then we have these support structures in places to make sure that you can do it well.”

And we’ve seen some amazing projects come out of this structured yet flexible approach–projects that have real impact. One of our students, for example, is investigating the effectiveness of culturally aimed programming on first-generation Black students at traditionally white institutions. She surveyed a bunch of students and then she interviewed them, and found some incredibly powerful insights. I have another student who is a police officer in Texas, and he is doing his dissertation on the perceptions of military-based policing efforts or tactics and how those perceptions differ from cops and community members – could there be a more pertinent topic right now? I had another student who runs an oil derrick up in Alaska, and who decided to conduct an analysis of the supply chain for his company to see how to improve the process and maximize efficiency. So the topics our students explore really run the gamut, and are reflective of the diversity in each of our student cohorts, where people working in preschool environments are discussing their research interests with law enforcement professionals, higher education administrators, human resources managers, etc.

[] What role does faculty mentorship play in Trevecca Nazarene University’s Online Ed.D. in Leadership and Professional Practice? How can students make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems while in the program? In addition, what are some support systems outside of faculty mentorship that students can access online?

[Dr. Longnecker] A major focus point of our program was to make sure that all of our students feel a personal connection to us. It is so very easy in a face-to-face program to feel like a person, and in an online program to feel like a number. My colleague Dr. Bledsoe and I, when designing the program and its student advising piece, we wanted to fight that. When I get copied on an acceptance letter, I try my best to immediately record a video for this new student just to welcome them by name, introduce myself, and talk about some of the key points I saw in their writing sample and application overall. This gesture shows students that we aren’t just picking them to be student 501. We picked you because we see your potential and will be with you every step of the way to build upon that potential.

Independent of the dissertation support we provide, we also conduct regular check-ins especially in the beginning of the program to make sure students know how to navigate Blackboard, that they sign up for their free premium Grammarly account, and familiarize themselves with APA format. Dr. Bledsoe and I serve as two primary administrators for all the students in our program. We also have Dr. Chris Garner who is also a graduate of Trevecca’s online Ed.D., and he is their student success advisor. I describe him as students’ doctoral concierge. He is the one who directs students to important resources, makes sure they have the books they need for their classes, and connects them to faculty who can answer their questions. Connecting to each of our students on a personal level is very important to us. All of our students have my cell phone number and can contact me anytime, and all of our faculty members use Calendly for virtual office hours where students can seamlessly pick a time on Calendly and it will integrate with our Office365 calendar so we know when to call them.

Beyond our program’s many layers of mentorship and guidance, students also benefit from Trevecca-wide levels of support, such as the Trevecca Writing Lab, and access to SmartThinking which can check over their papers. The amount of support that our students receive from all sides is something that I am really proud of in our program.

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

[Dr. Longnecker] As simple as it sounds, being brave enough to apply to a doctoral program says a lot about a person for me. Completing a doctorate is something that only two percent of the people in the world have done, so having the courage to submit an application already speaks volumes to me, personally. In your application, you should show you have leadership experience by explaining projects that you’ve been on, and demonstrating that you are a doer and a finisher. In your writing, you should illustrate that you take pride in your work by being meticulous and grammar conscious. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten pieces with simple errors that shouldn’t be there.

I tell my students that the idea of a draft for a doctoral student vastly changes. I tell them, “Your work on your first rough draft as a doctoral student should be so good that you’re ticked off when somebody finds something wrong.” That is the mindset that I want our applicants to have when it comes to their application submission. If they come in with that level of effort, they’re going to be successful in everything they do in our program and everything that they tackle afterwards.

[] What makes Trevecca Nazarene University’s Online Ed.D. in Leadership and Professional Practice unique and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students? How does the program prepare students for advanced careers in transformational change, strategic planning, and education systems leadership?

[Dr. Longnecker] The transferability of this program is one thing that makes it particularly distinctive. We are a doctorate of education, but we are not even housed in the School of Education at Trevecca. Instead, we are a program offered out of the School of Graduate and Continuing Studies. As a result, our program is highly relevant to a diversity of professionals. We are not interested in pigeonholing our students, and the generalizability of our Ed.D. is one of its most powerful elements because it has even enabled some of our students to bridge the gap of a career transition. We don’t want our students thinking, “I can’t be an HR executive because I’ve only ever worked in secondary school education…” So from the beginning of our program we stress the concept of adaptive leadership and what it looks like, and coach our students on how they can take that adaptive leadership and use it anywhere. We want them coming away from our program knowing that they can be servant leaders anywhere, and that they can be whatever it is that they need to be, wherever life takes them.

In addition to the immense amount of support that our students receive during their time in the program, I would say another aspect that makes our Ed.D. unique is the alumni network. The people that I can reach out to and engage with across the globe, the diversity of international reach of our network are incredible. We have an alumni LinkedIn group that is about 400 students strong, where alumni can post jobs, share celebrations, and check in with each other. And the idea of servant leadership is something that stays with our students long after they graduate. Several of our program’s advisors right now are alumni, as are several of our professors (myself included).

We also host alumni volunteer events such as Trevecca’s Giving Back Day, where our alumni gave almost $15,000 to students who had been affected by a tornado that came through Nashville. A big part of the Trevecca culture is the idea of bringing people together to give back to the community. In our program we take that very much to heart–after all, we’re doctoral students in leadership, so we should go out and show some leadership even as we connect with one another and celebrate our achievements.

[] Trevecca Nazarene University also offers an online Ed.S. to Ed.D. in Leadership and Professional Practice bridge program. May we have more information on this program? For students debating between earning their Ed.D. vs. enrolling in the Ed.S. to Ed.D. bridge program, what should they take into consideration?

[Dr. Longnecker] In my opinion, there is no better option for K-12 educators than Trevecca’s Ed.S. to Ed.D. bridge program. It is geared towards K-12 educators who are sure that they want to stay K-12 educators, and who want to increase accountability in their school district, drive growth, motivate teachers, and be an instructional building leader. Students complete an action research project, which is very classroom-based, and is effectively a CliffsNotes version of a dissertation. After they present their action research project and earn their Ed.S., they can come over to the Ed.D. program and take about six more classes to earn their doctorate. They take the Interpersonal Effectiveness class with me, as well as a research class, the Leadership 2 class, and their statistics classes.

This bridge program is such a great option for K-12 educators because it enables them to potentially get two raises, if their district abides by a salary structure that aligns salary with degree attainment. Students can get a raise from earning their Ed.S., and then another raise when they get their Ed.D. And another cool part about this program is that I am actually the last professor students have in the Ed.S. program, where they work on and present their action research projects. This allows for a seamless transition into the Ed.D. program, because not only are we helping them polish up their action research project, but we’re also paving the path for them to bring that project into the Ed.D. program and hone it so it can serve as a foundation for their dissertation.

Thank you, Dr. Longnecker, for your excellent insight into Trevecca Nazarene University’s Online Ed.D. in Leadership and Professional Practice!