Interview with Scott Burris, Ph.D. - Department Chair for the Department of Agricultural Education and Communications at Texas Tech University

About Scott Burris, Ph.D.: Scott Burris is the Department Chair for the Department of Agricultural Education and Communications at Texas Tech University. Since joining the Texas Tech faculty in 2005, Dr. Burris has coordinated the Department’s teacher preparation program, an undergraduate Bachelor of Science degree and state certification to teach at the high school level in Texas. In 2016, he took leadership over the Department of Agricultural Education and Communications’ graduate programs before stepping into his role as Chair.

In addition to his administrative responsibilities, Dr. Burris teaches courses in data analysis, education research methods, and agricultural education principles. His commitment to and enthusiasm for teaching earned him the Chancellor’s Council Distinguished Teaching Award, the President’s Excellent in Teaching Award, and the CASNR Teaching Award. He also served as the Associate Chair for Texas Tech University’s Institutional Research Board and is on the Board of Directors for the Texas FFA Association.

Dr. Burris earned his Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary Agriculture from Texas Tech University, followed by his Master of Science and his Ph.D. in Agricultural Education from the University of Missouri.

Interview Questions

[] May we have an overview of Texas Tech University’s Online Ed.D. in Agricultural Education? What are the key learning outcomes for this program, and how does it prepare students to design and instruct in agricultural education programs, manage knowledge around agricultural practices, and oversee technological change and communications design in the field?

[Dr. Burris] To understand our online program, one really has to go back and understand a little history in our department. In 1999, Texas Tech University and Texas A&M University received approval from the Texas Higher Ed Coordinating Board to offer a joint doctoral degree. This degree was completely at a distance and it was extremely innovative at the time. In fact, I’m not aware of any other distance-delivered doctoral degrees at that era in time, certainly none in that specific discipline. The program had a catchy name. We called it “Doc at a Distance” and the faculty at Texas Tech and at Texas A&M jointly provided course work, supervision, and mentorship. We ran that program with Texas A&M until very recently, and technically we still have students who are finishing the last cohort of students in that program.

So as that context indicates, we’ve been at this for quite a while. Texas Tech University is significantly younger as an institution than many of our colleagues around the country, and at the time Texas Tech did not even have an on-campus doctoral degree specific to our discipline. By both state standards and national standards, this program was innovative and on the cutting edge. It also served a niche of students interested specifically in agricultural education leadership. Most students at that time who were seeking an on-campus doctoral degree in this area would go to a college of education, then try to create some kind of focus or specialization in our field.

Over the years, this degree later grew into a Ph.D. program that is resident-based, but the online program collaboration between us and Texas A&M University continued through 2017, which is when both institutions decided we’d outgrown the collaborative relationship and should part ways to build our own programs. That was a key decision-making point for our faculty to decide what we wanted to do to build our program. We felt that this program really serves a strong need for a specific group of people, and this was an opportunity to make the curriculum and learning outcomes and online learning environment our own.

In the fall of 2019 we admitted the first students into the Texas Tech Online Doctorate of Education in Agricultural Education. So while formally this program is new, if you imagine the history and the origin and how it evolved through Doc at a Distance, we’ve actually been at it for a couple of decades now.

In terms of the learning targets for the program, one way to think about the program is to think about the knowledge basis and the contextual applications for students who might find this degree program of value. Let me start with the knowledge basis first. These are just broad, not contextually specific areas of knowledge that are applicable in the discipline of agricultural education. The first one is educational program planning and needs assessment. We want our students to have a working understanding of the process of educational program planning and needs assessment.

Curriculum development, including principles of learning and instruction, is the second area that is central to our discipline. Program evaluation of educational programs is an important element of this. And then we also have scholarship and discovery, which includes being able to conduct and interpret research and scholarship within our discipline. So those are our primary areas of focus for the knowledge basis component of the program.

The contextual applications get a little bit more into who this degree program is developed for and who is most likely to find it applicable to their careers. Within agricultural education, there are a few specific contextual applications. The first one is formal teaching–school-based education in the discipline of agriculture. The second one is non-formal education in agriculture, which is often referred to as extension education. The third one is in strategic communications that have agricultural education aspects, and the fourth is in agricultural development, specifically in leadership within the agricultural industry.

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

[Dr. Burris] Our program follows the guidelines that Texas Tech has set up for best practices in distance education. The learning management system that we use is Blackboard. Our faculty enjoy a tremendous amount of flexibility in instruction delivery within the Blackboard learning management system, and they tend to incorporate asynchronous and synchronous instruction according to what they feel makes the most sense in the program. Some instructors may have a heavy synchronous and live discussion element, while other instructors might use a more self-paced approach to give students more scheduling flexibility.

Throughout students’ enrollment, there are a couple of things we do to help initiate the identification of faculty mentors and a graduate committee for their dissertation. There are four hours of seminar courses that are included as part of the degree program, which are one-hour courses that give students the chance to meet our faculty, get to know their research and lines of inquiry, and to identify common areas of interest. Many of our students choose to make an initial visit to campus at the start of their enrollment. That’s not a program requirement, but we do require two campus visits as part of the degree. One of those is in association with their comprehensive examination process before they advance to the candidacy stage, and we require that the oral defense element of that take place on our campus. The second campus visit is at the very end and that’s the dissertation defense.

Our faculty are used to interacting with students in the distance environment as we have been doing so for a long time. We also have Zoom licenses and frequently meet and interact with students as they’re working through the steps of their dissertation process. Many of our instructors also have synchronous discussion times associated with of their courses. Many of our instructors facilitate office hours through technology connections. So there are a lot of ways that a student can interact with our faculty without actually coming to campus.

[] Texas Tech University’s Online Ed.D. in Agricultural Education requires the completion of a Dissertation. What does the Dissertation involve, what processes do students take to complete it, and what kinds of faculty/peer support do they receive during their work?

[Dr. Burris] The Online Ed.D. in Agricultural Education follows the same guidelines and expectations that our graduate school establishes for all of our doctoral programs, campus-based or otherwise. As such, our students have to meet key milestones that are expected of any doctoral student in a rigorous program. This includes a comprehensive evaluation stage, a dissertation proposal presentation, and a final dissertation defense.

The comprehensive evaluation stage comes at the end of your course work, and your faculty committee are the ones who create the questions for your exam. Upon passing the exam, you then enter the qualifying stage and qualify for candidacy. Our goal for when you qualify for candidacy is that you’re shifting to what we call an independent scholar, someone who can be self-directed in their approach to their degree program and certainly in their research. While committee mentorship and support are important elements of the dissertation process, a great deal depends on the initiative of the student, rather than having an organized and formal class on a weekly basis or a set of semester classes that keep you focused and keep you organized.

It really turns to the student’s responsibility and there is a little bit of a danger there that without that structure the student does not stay on an efficient timeline. To help ensure that this does not happen, our faculty team works really hard to get students to the point where when they do enter candidacy they understand what the expectations are and they’ve got a support system around them so that they can continue to be on track with their research.

For the dissertation, we have several flexibilities at Texas Tech University within our graduate school policy. Students don’t have to follow one specific format, but the most traditional format is a traditional five-chapter approach, which includes a scientific investigation of scholarly importance to the field. However, we want students to choose a dissertation format that best aligns with their individual interests and professional goals.

Most of our students find themselves professionally in a place where they have some immediate real world problems that are going on in their current organization that would work very well for the dissertation process. Maybe it is a formal needs assessment to identify a new educational approach, or maybe it is a program evaluation to evaluate an existing program that is in place. Or maybe the student does use a more traditional research study to try to answer a research question. Any of those can be good and because we are such an applied discipline, most of our students are able to identify a research problem somewhere really close to their current situation that makes for a good project to serve as their dissertation in the degree program.

[] What role does faculty mentorship play in Texas Tech University’s Online Ed.D. in Agricultural Education? How can students make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems while they are enrolled?

[Dr. Burris] One of the most important parts of this program is the faculty mentorship aspect. Long before students reach candidacy phase, they will have assembled their committee already to help give them guidance in navigating their coursework and final research project. The most critical person is the committee chair and as students begin their candidacy, they are also discussing with their chair to identify a research problem and to address the methodological approach for that particular study. Then, with their committee, students revise and refine their research proposal, presenting this proposal to their faculty committee for feedback.

The chair maintains regular and constant communication with that student all the way through the process. Many of our faculty meet and Skype or Zoom regularly with candidates that are in not just in the final stages of their research, but also the early and middle stage of their research. They have regular times to meet with those students to A) hold them accountable and motivate them to make some progress and B) answer questions and alleviate any challenges that might come up. This is no different from how we treat students on-campus in our residence programs. We schedule time and work with them through the process. Though the medium is different (online vs. in-person), the dynamic and the frequency and depth of communications are the same.

In addition to this faculty support, Texas Tech has a significant online influence across our campus, and because of that we have strong support for students who are enrolled in distance programs, which gives them easy access to our university libraries. We are even able to send books to students if there is a hard copy of the book that they need. We also have a university Writing Center at the graduate school, which our students have full access to. Pretty much any service that a student can get on campus is also available in some form to our distant students.

Because we’ve been doing this model of delivery for about twenty years now, even though we no longer host it jointly with another institution, we have a long line of scholarship projects that students have successfully completed through this program. One of the groups that has benefited greatly from our program are agricultural extension education programs. For example, AgriLife Extension is an example of one such cooperative extension models. In many cases, there is a strong existing educational program that’s being implemented to producers or to consumers. Many of our students have often gone and identified those educational programs and conducted a formal program evaluation to look at the impact of these educational programs on a broad level. That is one example of how students in the extension education sphere have used their dissertation topic to investigate something that is meaningful to them.

Other students are interested in studying relationships and variables in a specific population. A good example of that is one student’s investigation of agricultural communications and how it has evolved as a discipline. Within this question was another question about the ways in which technology is changing how people work and interact on a global level. A student, for example, might want to study how producers identify and receive their primary information sources for decision-making. So not necessarily a program evaluation, but more of a scientific investigation of variables in a specific situation or setting. The literature of published dissertations that have come from this online doctoral program have been quite robust.

[] For students interested in Texas Tech University’s Online Ed.D. in Agricultural Education, what advice do you have in terms of submitting a competitive application?

[Dr. Burris] One of the things that we would expect from a successful applicant to this program is that you have a combination of the appropriate educational experience. A master’s degree is a requirement to enter the program, and we also expect candidates to have some kind of career or work experience within this particular discipline. This is an ideal program for individuals who find themselves in mid-career in one of those specific contexts mentioned earlier–formal and nonformal agricultural education, or organizational leadership at an agriculture business–and who are looking for a terminal degree as a way to improve their career trajectory or have stronger impact within their particular organization. It’s not limited to just those people but that absolutely is the type of candidate who benefits the most from this program.

When we consider applicants for this program, one of the factors that influences our decision is faculty capacity–how many students can we admit and still be able to provide the kind of interaction that they need to have a successful experience in the program. And while we don’t have a formal quota for the program, we have fourteen faculty members and we are very conscious about making sure that we do not overload them with students, so that each of their student mentees gets the time and support they deserve. The Doc at a Distance program mentioned previously was cohort-based, in that we admitted people at a specific start time, and we tried to keep them all together until the very end. And while we have since changed this, so that students have more flexibility as to their timeline to completion in the program, we still only admit students in the fall semester.

In order to be a successful candidate or a competitive candidate for admission, first and foremost you need to meet all of our deadlines and graduate school standards. We require transcripts of all applicants’ post-secondary academic work, and we also require the GRE as part of the application. And you also have to select people for your letters of recommendation and take sufficient time to craft a clear and convincing personal statement. Significant effort and planning go into the application itself. If your application is not complete at the time we are reviewing candidates for admission, we don’t even consider you.

Therefore I would say my number one piece of advice would be to get started early and make sure you follow all of the guidelines that our applicants are required to follow. In terms of what we look for, there are two key elements. Number one is, “Are you a good fit for the program?” What I mean by that is if you can’t make a strong rational argument about how a degree in our discipline is going to be of some advantage to you, then we’ll likely choose to refer you to other places where we feel like you might be better served. To be blunt, sometimes people find us because we’re a respected online program and they’re looking for a doctorate. They don’t necessarily need or want a doctorate in agricultural education, but we’re available and competitive cost-wise for the quality of education, so students apply because they figure, “Why not?” However, as mentioned previously we are very deliberate in our admission of students, and if we question how a degree in agricultural education provides any value to you ultimately, we are unlikely to admit you. We typically don’t admit students if we can’t see a clear path to how this is a positive change for them professionally, because we know it wouldn’t be the best use of their time, effort, and tuition money.

The second element that we look for is established proof that this candidate will be able to finish the program successfully–which means not only completing classes and passing the comprehensive exam, but also engaging in rigorous scholarly inquiry independently. We look at students’ academic track record, recommendations, and GRE scores as indicators of academic ability. Our program is a major time commitment, taking students on average three years to complete at minimum. The question we are asking, and the one we want applicants to ask themselves is, “Are you going to be able to commit to the academics at a level that will ensure your success in this program, while you are working and also managing your personal responsibilities?” Connected to that is the question, “Do you have a support structure around you that’s going to allow you to do that?” We look for indicators that if we admit someone, they’re in a good place and are going to be able to stay with the program until they complete it successfully.

The personal statement is the applicant’s chance to talk about A) how they’re going to use the degree and B) what puts them in a position to be successful if they’re admitted into the degree program. The other piece in the application are the letters of recommendation. While not a requirement, I would encourage students to think about asking their immediate supervisor for a letter of recommendation, if he or she can speak to their strengths and potential to be successful in the program. Immediate supervisors have recent memory of your work, and can describe concretely to how your past work connects to your future ability to succeed in our program; they can also articulate their awareness that you as an employee and as a doctoral student have the capacity to balance both at once. Someone who can vouch for your work ethic and strong performance and current capabilities–that goes a long way to helping us see that you have the right pieces in place to do well in our program.

[] What makes Texas Tech University’s Online Ed.D. in Agricultural Education unique and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students? How does this program prepare students for advanced careers in agricultural education, as well as program development and improvement?

[Dr. Burris] I would say one of the primary things that makes this program distinctive is its longstanding history of being one of the first programs of this kind in the nation. The close to two decades of curricular evolution that is the result of our history means that we’ve honed our curriculum to excellence, and our faculty also have the right skillsets to work with students optimally in a distance capacity.

If you consider the traditional Ph.D. in our discipline of agricultural education, the majority of Ph.D. graduates go on to become faculty at other departments of agricultural education or similar disciplines at institutions of higher education. Our Ed.D. program is unique in that the majority of our students go on to be successful leaders within their institution, whether that is in extension education in agriculture, or agricultural business management. The majority of them do not go back into higher education or post-secondary education. That being said, there is still a good group of them that do go into faculty positions in higher education settings such as research universities and community colleges.

We as a faculty team get the privilege of seeing and interacting with many of our graduates in these different capacities, and it is always fun to see where they take their education and training in our program. I am actually very close to quite a few of our graduates and see them on a regular basis, as do a good number of my colleagues. For example, one of our past graduates is a superintendent of schools in a very innovative but rural school district, about a two and a half hour drive from our campus. Many of us on the faculty team are still engaged in the advisory committee that meets quarterly on campus, and so we go down and talk to him about the innovative programs that he’s implementing in his school district. We have a lot to learn from our graduates, their experiences and insights, and these mutual mentorship relationships and collaborations long after students graduate is an excellent way to maintain a strong connection.

Another thing that makes us unique is the quality of the online experience we deliver to our students. I was at an all-hands-on-deck meeting this morning at Texas Tech regarding the current situation with COVID-19 quarantine, as all institutions of education have been having throughout the country. Each of the departments had to report on where they were in terms of getting their curricula ready for online delivery. I was happy when it came my turn to be able to say that we were already using online learning technologies even for our on-campus students. These technologies that have become the key mechanisms for online education delivery across the country were always an integral part of our department, and therefore our faculty team was comfortable with and experienced in fostering a strong learning community and supportive environment in an online medium. It felt great to be able to say that my department was well equipped to be able to handle a full transition of all our programs online.

And on a related note, our faculty are always looking for ways to use technology to improve our students’ experiences in the program. After the all-hands meeting, I met with just my faculty and we talked about what these crazy times that we’re experiencing mean for us and how we were going to tackle the accompanying challenges. And one of the things that we agreed to as a faculty team is not just to get our courses online and meet the minimum level of expectation. Instead, we looked at how we can learn from this opportunity as a kind of trial run for undergraduate course delivery, to see what kinds of innovative and permanent changes to our programs can come out of this. I think that this captures the spirit of our group a little bit, and the enthusiasm with which we apply ourselves to our mission of making the best possible learning environment for our students. It has been fun and rewarding for me to be in a position where I get to share that enthusiasm with people.

Thank you, Dr. Burris, for your excellent insight into Texas Tech University’s Online Ed.D. in Agricultural Education!