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Doctoral Student Helping Peers Feel Supported in Online Programs

photo of laptop screen with professor and student meeting
Beth Rous and Jeri Heileman meet online to discuss Heileman’s work in her doctoral program.

Online programs offered by the University of Kentucky College of Education attract students from across the globe. They are part of a college ranked No. 14 in the nation, and top in Kentucky, for online program quality on U.S. News and World Report’s 2022 list of Best Online Master’s in Education programs.

“When I saw the diversity of thought and experience I was going to get in my online program, I realized it could hardly be matched in an in-person environment,” said Jeri Heileman, a doctoral scholar in the Department of Educational Leadership Studies.

Heileman began her doctoral coursework with a cohort of students located across the U.S. and internationally. The group has become highly connected. The social dynamic they have created has been the subject of much of Heileman’s doctoral research.

Heileman had witnessed the power of community as principal of a high-poverty middle school in Albuquerque, New Mexico. There, she created a school garden, tended to by students and families. The fruits and vegetables had not merely filled the need to help curb student hunger. They also helped create connections outside the classroom.

In the months prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Heileman’s research homed in on ways to cultivate connections in online learning environments — like the community that had been created in her school garden. When the pandemic transformed the way teachers and learners connect, it gave Heileman an added sense of relevance and urgency for her work.

“During the pandemic, I watched as many educators were forced to suddenly move online. It was difficult for them, because you cannot easily take pedagogy designed for in-person delivery and just put it to the camera and post it online. It does not translate that way. It needs to be intentionally planned and thought out for online delivery,” Heileman said.

The Department of Educational Leadership Studies was among the first in the nation to offer fully online master’s and doctoral degrees in educational leadership.

“Because the Educational Leadership Studies department had been offering fully online degrees for a long time, they were further along in knowing the best way to deliver programs to remote learners. I saw the chance to do much of my research within the very department where I was studying,” Heileman said.

Most research about building online communities has been from the business perspective, such as onboarding employees, Heileman said.

“It typically concentrates on helping people gain clarity about their roles and comply with policies. However, companies that are most effective in retaining employees add on the culture piece to their training. When they help remote workers create connections, they are more likely to see higher productivity, retention, and success.”

Key to an online program’s success is being student-centered and continually looking for ways to improve the program, said Dr. John Nash, associate professor and director of graduate studies for the Department of Educational Leadership Studies.

“We take temperature checks with our students constantly. There are three goals. We want our students to be able to say ‘I am not alone. Faculty have my back. And I know what to do next.’ If students can answer those questions during any part of their journey, they are more likely to be working toward their degree in a timely manner, having a valuable experience, and making it to graduation,” Nash said.

Each summer, the department hosts a “doc week” where students meet face-to-face for the first time. They attend social events, have opportunities to talk one-on-one with faculty, and write and pitch research.

For her dissertation work, Heileman has been investigating, through conversations, research, and surveys, how the department can keep students socially engaged throughout the program, much like the interactions they get during doc week.

“Jeri created a series of videos for faculty to answer questions about themselves. We talked about our interests and how we spend our days off. Planting those seeds of conversation gave us opportunities to connect with the students and have meaningful interactions outside of coursework,” said Dr. Beth Rous, a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership Studies, doctoral program chair, and Heileman’s dissertation chair.

Online students do not get to walk by faculty offices, chat after class, or have water cooler conversations.

“So, we look for ways to help students understand the faculty are approachable and here to support them,” Rous said.

Heileman said the videos helped demystify the faculty for online students. The students reported, after watching the videos, they would feel more comfortable initiating a conversation, asking someone to be their dissertation committee chair, or getting help with coursework.

Heileman is also working to grow the department’s community through online chat platforms, such as Microsoft Teams and SharePoint. In places they have labeled “The Corridor” and “The Watercooler,” they post photos of their daily lives, like digging out of snow, share funny animal videos, and dive into heavier topics on occasion.

“We are trying to recreate, as best you can, the community you feel when you are working in a building. You start thinking about the things you do in person and how those translate into an online environment. If you are intentional, you can still create the same byproduct and opportunity to cross paths. You have to think creatively and innovatively about how you can do that in an online environment,” Heileman said.

After completing her degree at UK, Heileman is interested in continuing to help higher education institutions develop community in online environments. She believes it will help students have more success in finishing their programs. A doctoral journey winds up being solitary in the research phase, she said.

“Yet, when you have intentionally developed a community, cohort, or group of people, you don’t feel that. You feel support. I think in a doctoral program it’s really important and the research is out there to support that as well,” she said.