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An Online Doctorate for Researching Professionals

Issues in Distance Education

Series editor: Terry Anderson

Distance education is the fastest-growing mode of both formal and informal teaching, training, and learning. It is multi-faceted in nature, encompassing e-learning and mobile learning, as well as immersive learning environments. Issues in Distance Education presents recent research results and offers informative and accessible overviews, analyses, and explorations of current topics and concerns and the technologies employed in distance education. Each volume focuses on critical questions and emerging trends, while also situating these developments within the historical evolution of distance education as a specialized mode of instruction.

Series Titles

The Theory and Practice of Online Learning, Second Edition

Edited by Terry Anderson

Mobile Learning: Transforming the Delivery of Education and Training

Edited by Mohamed Ally

A Designer’s Log: Case Studies in Instructional Design

Michael Power

Accessible Elements: Teaching Science Online and at a Distance

Edited by Dietmar Kennepohl and Lawton Shaw

Emerging Technologies in Distance Education

Edited by George Veletsianos

Flexible Pedagogy, Flexible Practice: Notes from the Trenches of Distance Education

Edited by Elizabeth Burge, Chère Campbell Gibson, and Terry Gibson

Teaching in Blended Learning Environments: Creating and Sustaining Communities of Inquiry

Norman D. Vaughan, Martha Cleveland-Innes, and D. Randy Garrison

Online Distance Education: Towards a Research Agenda

Edited by Olaf Zawacki-Richter and Terry Anderson

Teaching Crowds: Learning and Social Media

Jon Dron and Terry Anderson

Learning in Virtual Worlds: Research and Applications

Edited by Sue Gregory, Mark J. W. Lee, Barney Dalgarno, and Belinda Tynan

Emergence and Innovation in Digital Learning: Foundations and Applications

Edited by George Veletsianos

An Online Doctorate for Researching Professionals

Swapna Kumar and Kara Dawson

An Online Doctorate for Researching Professionals

Program Design, Implementation, and Evaluation




Preface and Acknowledgements


PART I   Theoretical Foundations and Design

1. The Case for an Online Professional Doctorate

2. Designing the Curriculum

PART II  Implementation

3. Building an Online Community of Researching Professionals

4. Fostering Scholarly Thinking Online

5. Dissertations in the Online Environment

6. Online Mentoring

PART III Ensuring and Evaluating Quality

7. Maintaining the Quality of an Online Professional Doctorate

8. Identifying Impact

Further Considerations


Preface and Acknowledgements

The model of an online professional doctorate that we present in this book is based on our experience with designing and implementing the online EdD degree in educational technology offered at the University of Florida. The journey began in 2006, when Kara and her colleague Rick Ferdig (now at Kent State University) began to recognize that our university’s PhD program in education did not meet the needs of all students. Like most PhD programs, ours was oriented toward students who aimed to work in an academic environment, teaching and conducting research, yet a significant number of our doctoral candidates had no interest in an academic career. Many were already working professionals whose goal was to apply their new knowledge in a particular context or, in some cases, simply to strengthen their credentials. These students typically attended school part-time, often commuting to campus after work, and took years to finish the program. We made accommodations for them as best we could, by adjusting course assignments to better meet their needs and by working out schedules that allowed them to pursue their degree on a part-time basis. Despite these accommodations, however, the PhD program was an awkward fit for them.

We had also begun receiving numerous inquiries from working professionals elsewhere in the country who were interested in earning a doctoral degree while maintaining their existing jobs. Although such an arrangement was clearly incompatible with our campus-based PhD program, it was not beyond our powers of imagination, given that Kara and Rick had recently launched our university’s first completely online MEd and EdS programs. Students applying to these programs tended to have a particular interest in educational technologies and in how these technologies could be used to support learning in the situations in which they were employed. We wondered whether we could design an online doctoral degree—one that would be as rigorous as, but different from, our campus-based PhD program—to serve the needs of students who planned to continue working in a professional context after graduation and whose interests lay in the field of educational technology.

At about the same time, a seminal article, “Reclaiming Education’s Doctorates: A Critique and a Proposal,” appeared in Educational Researcher, arguing that existing doctoral programs in education—whether the degree awarded was a PhD or an EdD—were failing on a number of fronts. The article’s authors, Lee Shulman, Chris Golde, Andrea Bueschel, and Kristen Garabedian (2006), made the case for a new type of degree, one that would integrate research and practice and would be explicitly designed to serve the needs of working professionals. They also pointed to the urgent need for such a degree. Inspired by the article, we shared our thoughts with our department chair, Tom Dana, who encouraged us to create a plan for an online EdD. Almost simultaneously, Kara was asked to serve on the university’s Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate (CPED) committee. Launched in 2007, with the University of Florida as one of its founding members, CPED’s original mission was to reconceive and redesign the EdD degree as one specifically intended for professional practitioners, as distinct from a PhD in education. Although CPED informed our early thinking about professional doctorates, online programs were not a focus of CPED’s work at the time, nor was the field of educational technology, which has an unusually broad scope of application and draws students from a diverse array of backgrounds. Moreover, CPED was firmly oriented toward programs offered in the United States, whereas we became engaged in the work of incorporating what we had learned about the professional doctoral programs offered in England and Australia, where such programs had been in existence for decades. Ultimately, then, the model that we developed differed from CPED’s framework.

After much planning, we enrolled our first cohort of professional doctoral students in fall 2008. Ours was one of the first online EdD degrees in educational technology offered by a public research university in the United States and designed for researching professionals. The initial teaching faculty consisted of Cathy Cavanaugh, Erik Black, and Christopher Sessums, in addition to Kara and Rick Ferdig. Swapna joined us in fall 2009 and continues to serve as our EdD program coordinator and lead program researcher.

We would like to thank our families, the colleagues who worked with us on the University of Florida’s online EdD in educational technology, and the colleagues and PhD students who have collaborated on our research in the program. We are also grateful to the students in each cohort, who provided feedback on various aspects of the program; their comments allowed us to improve its quality, its relevance to student needs, and its eventual impact in educational environments. Finally, we extend our thanks to Jacki Donaldson, who edited several chapters of the first draft of this book.

An Online Doctorate for Researching Professionals


Doctoral education as known in North America today can be traced back to the educational philosophy of Wilhelm von Humboldt, who, in 1810, founded the University of Berlin (renamed Humboldt University in 1949). The first PhD graduates in the United States and Canada matriculated in 1861 and in 1897, respectively (Bourner, Bowden, & Laing, 2001; Kot & Hendel, 2012). Doctoral programs are offered in different forms and with various requirements across the disciplines, but their common aim is to graduate individuals capable of conducting independent research and advancing knowledge in their fields. The early twentieth century saw the emergence of doctoral programs that sought to address the needs of professionals in a variety of settings where research could inform practice. Called professional doctorates, practitioner doctorates, work-based doctorates, or professional practice doctorates, these doctoral programs also took diverse forms as they gradually expanded across and within disciplines.

The past decade has seen the development of both on-campus professional doctorates with varying degrees of online components and similar programs that are completely online. This has led to a need for educators and administrators to design educational experiences that (a) align the goals and outcomes of a professional doctorate with the needs of professional students, (b) implement lessons learned from prior research on doctoral education and adult learning, and (c) integrate research and practice to support distance learners, thus helping them to succeed in online environments. Fostering scholarly habits of mind and research skills through online learning can be challenging, as can the conceptualization and implementation of an online terminal degree. A doctoral program, be it a research doctorate or a professional doctorate, is inherently different from a master’s program, which usually consists of a set of courses and projects and may include an internship or practicum. To prepare both independent researchers and members of a scholarly community, a doctoral education generally provides various types of experiences; it might include coursework, one-to-one mentoring, independent work, participation in research teams, and involvement in a wide variety of forums that lead to enculturation in a community of scholars. An online doctoral program must include such experiences as well as others that are possible only in online environments (e.g., participation in a network of international scholars on Twitter). As we have presented our work at conferences over the years, we have encountered individuals with extensive experience in campus-based doctoral education who have struggled with the design and implementation of an online doctoral program, as well as those who have led excellent online master’s programs but have been less successful in creating doctoral-level experiences in online environments. In this book, we build on existing literature on doctoral education, adult learning, and online education to present our model of a professional doctorate offered online.

Almost a decade ago, we set out to develop the online EdD degree in educational technology that is presently offered through the University of Florida’s College of Education. The College of Education offers both a PhD and an EdD in the field of educational technology. The PhD (a research doctorate) is designed for individuals wishing to pursue research-oriented careers, while the EdD (a professional doctorate) is intended for those wishing to conduct research and assume leadership roles in professional environments. In short, the PhD program prepares “professional researchers,” while the EdD program prepares “researching professionals” (Bourner et al., 2001, p. 71). Students enrolled in the PhD program are expected to study on campus—ideally, attending full-time and engaging fully with the campus community. We expect students pursuing our online EdD to continue working while taking courses, implementing their learning in their professional practice and engaging fully with the online academic community. Students in both programs are expected to produce work that is commensurate with doctoral-level standards and that advances the field and improves practice. We firmly subscribe to the view that the professional doctorate, while distinguished from the research doctorate by its purpose, can and should be as rigorous as the research doctorate.

Our goal was to create an online doctoral program that would enable candidates to build an online community of inquiry, to engage in critical discourse within a specific discipline and/or in an interdisciplinary setting, to learn from and with experts and peers, and to generate knowledge based on existing and original research. In this book, we present the model on which our program is based. Despite its origins in a specific doctoral program, the model necessarily addresses issues of concern to any online professional doctorate, such as curriculum design, the development of scholarly thinking, dissertation supervision in an online environment, and community building. Such topics are clearly integral to all doctoral programs aimed at learners who study part-time, are working professionals, and are unable to pursue on-campus studies. While we would never claim to have it all figured out or to have created a model that will work in every context, we believe that we have much to offer those interested in exploring online doctoral degrees, whether for professional researchers or researching professionals.

The University of Florida EdD in educational technology (UF EdD EdTech) has been offered since 2008 and has graduated fifty-six students at the time of writing. The degree comprises two years of online coursework culminating in qualifying exams and followed by the dissertation, during which students research a problem of practice, working one-on-one with faculty mentors. The program is characterized by asynchronous and synchronous online interactions, yearly on-campus meetings, and a strong focus on community building and the connections among theory, research, and practice. We have conducted a wealth of research about the program, which has contributed to the development of our model. Our published articles pertaining to specific topics are briefly summarized and cited in the individual chapters wherever relevant.

In this book, we share the theoretical and research foundations for our program, as well as its design, implementation, and evaluation. We discuss many of the key decision points, nuances, and potential pitfalls facing those designing and implementing online professional degrees. We share our insights from our own research and experience and from our colleagues; perhaps most importantly, we present data from students who have experienced our program. Although this book is largely based on our experiences in the field of educational technology, our work applies to a broad range of disciplines.

The book is divided into three parts. Part 1, which focuses on theoretical foundations and design, begins with a chapter in which we describe the need for researching professionals and online professional doctorates and present our model for a program that meets this need. Chapter 2 presents several adult learning theories and describes how they can be used to design an online professional doctoral curriculum that connects theory, research, and practice.

In part 2, we turn to the topic of implementation. Chapter 3 focuses on what we consider to be the most important and most challenging aspect of online professional doctorates—creating a community of researching professionals who are also scholars. In chapter 4, we describe ways to foster scholarly thinking among researching professionals with an online curriculum that promotes scholarly reading and writing, information literacy, and enculturation. Chapter 5 focuses on the structure and conceptualization of dissertations that connect theory, research, and practice, and chapter 6, which centres on the mentoring of such dissertations, is based on strategies used and data collected from three cohorts in our program.

Finally, part 3 focuses on evaluating an online professional doctorate. Chapter 7 addresses the maintenance and measurement of quality, and in chapter 8, we explore the definition and assessment of impact in an online professional doctorate. We conclude the book with a discussion of the numerous administrative issues, faculty decisions, and potential pitfalls we have experienced on our journey.

We provide details of theoretical frameworks and research where possible, but we also presume some basic familiarity with doctoral education practices and online teaching and learning. We cite seminal works on both doctoral and online education that readers can access for background information if needed. The increased expansion of online education in the last two decades has been accompanied by the development of standards, accreditation procedures, technical infrastructure, acceptable use policies, intellectual property policies, units that support online course development and online students, and faculty development programs in online teaching. Learning-management systems, student-information systems, synchronous and asynchronous communication technologies, and mobile applications for access to online program offerings have been implemented and studied at institutions of higher education around the world. Our knowledge base and ability to offer online programs has been enhanced by descriptions of implementations, research reports, and conference presentations on various aspects of online education in leading academic journals and professional organizations such as Educause, Contact North, and the Online Learning Consortium (formerly the Sloan-C Consortium). Seminal works such as The Theory and Practice of Online Learning (Anderson, 2008), Handbook of Distance Education (Moore, 2013), Online Distance Education: Towards a Research Agenda (Zawacki-Richter & Anderson, 2014), and Distance Education: A Systems View of Online Learning (Moore & Kearsley, 2012) provide a comprehensive overview of various aspects of online education.

We believe that this book can guide program leaders who aim to develop, implement, and sustain a rigorous online professional doctorate that provides excellent educational experiences for adult professionals who have different needs from those aiming to pursue careers in academia. It can also be useful to higher education professionals seeking to include e-learning components in existing on-campus doctoral programs and to expand existing programs for traditional students so as to include professional students at a distance. Educators interested in improving the quality of an online professional doctorate—from both a process perspective (how things are working) and a product perspective (how the doctorate is impacting students and their environments)—will also find this book valuable. Notwithstanding discipline-specific and institution-specific issues and areas for consideration that might arise in other programs, this book provides a comprehensive guide to the design, implementation, and evaluation of online professional doctorates.


Theoretical Foundations and Design

1   The Case for an Online Professional Doctorate

The goal of most doctoral programs is to prepare students for research and teaching positions that will allow them to advance knowledge in their chosen disciplines. Ideally, students immerse themselves in the scholarship of their disciplines, acquire research skills, become active members of the academic community, complete comprehensive or qualifying exams, and conduct independent research that culminates in a dissertation. However, not all individuals who pursue a doctoral degree do so with the hope of working in a university- or research-based setting. Some are motivated to pursue doctoral degrees by the increasingly large and complex body of knowledge and expertise required in their field, aspirations for promotion or advancement, and/or an intense passion to make a difference in their local professional contexts. Traditional doctoral structures are often less than ideal for such individuals because their needs and goals differ from those associated with traditional academic and research environments.

The needs of professionals seeking terminal degrees that are not focused on academic or traditional research environments have been addressed in a variety of ways. The past decade has seen an increasing number of professional doctorates offered in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, countries where higher education professionals and policy-makers have given greater attention to economic pressures, the need to implement research in the professions, and the drive to prepare a highly educated workforce (Kot & Hendel, 2012). In Canada, similar political, economic, and social factors have contributed to a renewed emphasis on the quality of PhD programs and to the creation of flexible PhD programs for adult professionals (Allen, Smyth, & Wahlstrom, 2002). These efforts address the rising need for highly skilled researchers and professionals outside of academia, aim for closer connections between research and practice or between research in academic and nonacademic professional contexts, and provide improved access to a terminal degree for adult professionals with commitments that might exclude them from full-time on-campus studies.

Developments in Internet and communication technologies in the last two decades have made possible virtual learning environments that facilitate doctoral-level experiences at a distance. However, the diversity of models for online doctorates, the research expectations and products, and the traditional view of what constitutes doctoral education have often led to such degrees being perceived as less rigorous, lower quality, and incapable of advancing knowledge. Nevertheless, excellent online doctoral programs (both professional doctorates and flexible PhDs) exist around the world that contribute to knowledge creation and that graduate professionals who conduct invaluable research in their professional contexts.

In this opening chapter, we provide some background about professional doctorates and present our model for an online professional doctorate that fuses theory, research, and practice. Using the example of the online professional doctorate in educational technology at the University of Florida (UF EdD EdTech), we explain why the online environment is an ideal medium in which to offer a professional doctorate. The chapter concludes with a list of key considerations for university program leaders wishing to distinguish between research and professional doctorates and to offer online professional doctorates.


The first doctor of pedagogy (later called doctor of education) was awarded in 1898 at the University of Toronto in Canada, and the first doctor of education, or EdD, in the United States was awarded in 1921 at Harvard University, sixty years after the first PhD was granted at Yale University (Allen et al., 2002; Lee, Brennan, & Green, 2009). Doctoral degrees in other disciplines, such as nursing, engineering science, and psychology, soon followed, the goal being to enable disciplines that could not offer a doctor of philosophy to award a degree comparable to the PhD. A report on doctorates earned in the United States in 1991 listed fifty different doctoral-level degrees in addition to the PhD, including several in very specialized fields such as rehabilitation and music ministry (Ries & Thurgood, 1993). These doctoral degrees varied in purpose and scope: some were research doctorates designed, like the PhD, to prepare recipients to teach at a postsecondary level, while others targeted people who planned to become practitioners in a particular discipline. Taking as his example the doctor of ministry, Tucker (2006) notes that, depending on the individual program, the same degree could amount to either a research doctorate or a professional doctorate.

This lack of standardization has been especially prevalent in relation to the EdD. The Survey of Earned Doctorates, sponsored by six federal agencies, reported that 143 participating doctor of education programs in the United States, after being reviewed over several years, were reclassified from research doctorate to professional doctorate during the 2010–11 period (National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, 2015). Given the close relationship between practice and research in the field of education, the EdD was, in theory, intended to prepare educational practitioners to be educational leaders who conduct research in practice, whereas a PhD in education prepared students for academic careers in educational research. In reality, however, several institutions, including Harvard, offered EdDs that looked more like PhDs, while others offered both degrees. The EdD was often treated as a less rigorous degree, with some institutions offering the EdD as a practitioner degree with no research component. As a result, “instead of being valued for accomplishing the discrete ends it was originally designed for, the EdD is widely regarded as a ‘Ph.D.-Lite’” (Shulman et al., 2006, p. 27). In 2006, on the basis of data collected from individuals involved in six different disciplines at fifteen institutions who had reconceptualized their doctoral programs, the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate emphasized the importance of clearly distinguishing between the research doctorate, which would prepare stewards of a discipline, and a professional practice doctorate, which would prepare stewards of practice (Perry & Imig, 2008; Shulman et al., 2006). Bourner et al. (2001) made a similar distinction between research and professional doctorates in universities in England using the terms discipline-development doctorates, whose holders seek to advance science and knowledge from a disciplinary standpoint, and student-development or context-improvement doctorates, whose holders seek to solve contextually based problems of practice through rigorous research.

Since 2007, to improve both programs, the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate (CPED) in the United States has addressed the lack of clarity in the content of EdD and PhD programs by engaging colleges and universities in distinguishing the goals and outcomes of these two programs. According to the current CPED definition, PhD programs prepare researchers for traditional faculty or research settings while EdD programs “prepares educators for the application of appropriate and specific practices, the generation of new knowledge, and for the stewardship of the profession” (https://www.cpedinitiative.org/page/AboutUs). During our program’s inception, our faculty participated in CPED, and the vision of a professional practice doctorate equally rigorous to a Phd but distinct in purpose catalyzed our initial thinking about the UF EdD EdTech. Our model evolved based on numerous factors, including the online nature of our program, the interdisciplinary nature of the field of educational technology, the range of contexts within which our students work, and our familiarity with international perspectives on professional doctorates.


The term professional doctorate does not have a standard definition and is often synonymously used in various disciplines with terms such as practitioner doctorate, professional practice doctorate, the practice degree, and the clinical doctorate. All of these terms clearly refer to a doctorate designed for those with significant work experience and those who are embedded in or want to apply the degree to practice. However, doctoral programs in different disciplines, as well as within the same discipline across institutions, have varying expectations and formats.

The problem with terminology is further complicated by the fact that internationally, the professional doctorate takes many forms in the English-speaking world. In various disciplines in the United States, a combination of coursework and research has been prevalent in doctoral education of all types since the 1920s. Similarly, in Canada, doctoral programs generally include coursework, a residency (with varying lengths and requirements for research versus professional doctorates), and research (Allen et. al., 2002). In the United Kingdom and Australia, however, the PhD often does not include a “taught component” (Bourner et al., 2001, p. 66). The United Kingdom first offered professional doctorates (e.g., the EdD) in the 1990s; these degrees often included coursework, which distinguished them from research doctorates. In Australia, the professional doctorate has been defined as “a program of research and advanced study which enables the candidate to make a significant contribution to knowledge and practice in their professional context” and possibly “more generally to scholarship within a discipline or field of study” (Council of Australian Deans and Directors of Graduate Studies, 2007, p. 1).

British and Australian researchers often refer to the professional doctorate as an “in-service doctorate” (as opposed to the “pre-service” or research doctorate) to indicate that the doctorate was designed for working professionals and not for young students fresh from bachelor’s or master’s degrees (Bourner et al., 2001, p. 66). For instance, Maxwell and Shanahan (1997) define the professional doctorate in Australia as “an in-service or professional development award, concerned with production of knowledge in the professions,” distinguishing it from “the professional doctorate in the USA (with its history as a pre-service award)” (p. 133). In addition, Maxwell (2003) found that the connection to industry was definitive of several professional doctorates, which were characterized by the location of their research in industry, the inclusion of committee members from industry, or mentoring by members in industry. The workplace, and not the university, as the basis for research was also highlighted by Maxwell and Shanahan (1997) in their analysis of nineteen EdD programs in Australia; they asserted that professional doctorates produced “knowledge in context” rather than “propositional knowledge” (p. 142).

This distinction is noted by Gibbons, Limoges, Nowotny, Schwartzman, Scott, & Trow (1994), who propose that two modes of knowledge production exist: Mode 1, or disciplinary knowledge, which is generated in universities and is “governed by academic interests of specific communities,” and Mode 2, or transdisciplinary knowledge, which is produced “in context of application” and is a result of “new forms of research practice carried out in places far from the university” (cited in Lee, Green, and Brennan, 2000, p. 124). Or, as Morley and Priest (1998) describe it, transdisciplinary knowledge contributes to the “development of professional practice, rather than to the advancement of purely theoretical knowledge” (p. 24). Based on the distinction between these two modes of knowledge production, Lee et al. (2000) propose a hybrid curriculum model for the professional doctorate that takes into account the intersections between the university and the organization in which a doctoral research project will typically be undertaken. This hybrid model would facilitate the development of not only new kinds of knowledge but also new ways of producing knowledge, ways that involve new relationships among participants and new kinds of research writing. Lee et al. (2000) propose “a three-way model, where the university, the candidate’s profession and the particular work-site of the research meet in specific and local ways, in the context of a specific organization” and where the doctoral student will use “research literacies” to solve “problems of professional practice” (p. 127). Our proposed definition of the professional doctorate substantially corresponds to this point of view.


Following their review of doctoral programs at seventy British universities, Bourner et al. (2001) distinguished between the PhD as a degree “intended to develop professional researchers” and the professional doctorate as a degree “designed to develop researching professionals” (p. 71). We agree with this distinction and define researching professionals as individuals who conduct research that generates knowledge to improve (primarily) their professional contexts; their research combines foundational and theoretical knowledge in their disciplines (sometimes, in more than one discipline) with knowledge of research in their contexts. We contend, however, that a professional doctoral curriculum that is designed according to our model can also contribute to the advancement of theoretical and empirical knowledge within a discipline or across disciplines. We propose an online professional doctorate that

  • combines online coursework with a dissertation;
  • allows researching professionals to remain embedded in their professional contexts while engaging with an online academic community of inquiry;
  • fosters scholarly thinking in researching professionals;
  • produces research grounded in a conceptual framework and culminating in a dissertation that addresses problems of practice but also has implications for other contexts; and
  • generates researching professionals who can fuse theory, research, and practice and can communicate new knowledge and research in both professional and academic contexts.

An online professional doctorate with these characteristics contributes to effective application of research in professional contexts, productive collaborations between experts in professional and academic contexts, and a deeper understanding of research in professional contexts for those working in traditional academic contexts. This bidirectional flow of knowledge, expertise, and research can result in the advancement of various types of knowledge in both academic and professional contexts.


Our model is based on the premise that the knowledge, research, and scholarship of students graduating with a professional doctorate should bring together the trifecta of theory, research, and practice (see figure 1).

Figure 1

Figure 1. Trifecta of theory, research, and practice.

  • Theory. Researching professionals should possess foundational knowledge of theories in their discipline, and deep knowledge of theories that inform their areas of specialization within their discipline.
  • Research. Researching professionals should possess foundational skills in research methods, deep knowledge of prior research and research methods in their areas of specialization, and knowledge of ethical behaviour and appropriate research methods in the context of their practice.
  • Practice. Researching professionals should possess foundational knowledge of the social, political, historical, and economic fabric of their professional contexts; deep specialized knowledge of their professional contexts and disciplines; and a passion for improving their professional contexts through problem solving.

Researching professionals in a professional doctorate should be able to (a) construct their conceptual or theoretical frameworks that combine theories and prior research from one or more disciplines as they relate to problems of practice; (b) apply those theoretical frameworks using contextually appropriate research skills, to the implementation of research in their professional contexts; and (c) communicate the results and implications of their research to enhance context-specific knowledge and practice. In our model for the online professional doctorate, researching professionals are also enculturated into scholarly thinking in their disciplines, making it possible for them to disseminate knowledge and research produced in their professional contexts to other contexts. For example, in the UF EdD EdTech, dissertations produced by students within their professional contexts often lead to implications for other professional contexts and can sometimes contribute to the advancement of knowledge in a discipline. We assert that knowledge and research resulting from a true fusion of theory, research, and practice in an online professional doctorate are significant for both professional and academic contexts. Moreover, the online nature of the professional doctorate we describe in this book and the multiple opportunities for interactions and information dissemination provided by communication technologies today ensure the blurring of context boundaries and increased engagement among stakeholders from various contexts.


Several institutions currently offer successful on-campus professional doctorates in which students take classes at university campuses in the evenings or on weekends and conduct research in their workplaces. Nevertheless, we assert that the online environment is an ideal medium for professionals who wish to immerse themselves in theory and conduct research while remaining embedded in their practice. We envision the online professional doctorate as particularly relevant for researching professionals who work in diverse professional contexts at a distance from the institution at which the terminal degree of their choice is offered. With today’s Internet and communication technologies, faculty members at a university can interact using real-time video and audio with people situated at physical distances; professionals can access academic research and course materials while at their workplaces and homes or while travelling; and online communities can comprise participants located in different states, countries, and workplaces. It is not only possible but, in our opinion, preferable for a professional doctorate that combines theory, research, and practice to be offered using the online medium.

Those likely to apply to professional doctorates are typically older than traditional PhD students, are usually fully employed in professional settings, and often carry numerous personal responsibilities such as caring for children or aging parents. Online education allows such professionals to continue to work, whether full-time or part-time, and to meet the personal demands on their time while simultaneously learning in an environment that promotes the integration of university learning and professional practice. During interviews with nineteen students who graduated from the first two cohorts of the UF EdD EdTech, seventeen stated that they could not have received their doctoral degrees if not for the online medium. The reasons they provided included family responsibilities, work commitments, inability to coordinate class schedules with professional commitments, and geographical distance from a research university. Sixteen students stated that the support of their online cohorts was instrumental in their ability to persist and finish their dissertations. The online environment enables students to build a community with other students working in other professional contexts, thus avoiding the isolation that many working doctoral students feel in traditional, campus-based programs.

In our educational technology program, we do not see the PhD and EdD degrees as mutually exclusive but as having different purposes, goals, and outcomes: the PhD prepares professional researchers for academic and other contexts and the EdD prepares researching professionals for the interdisciplinary field of educational technology. With these distinctions in mind, we spent considerable thought and effort on the admissions process, attempting to identify the goals of prospective students. Of the 117 applicants to our first two cohorts (approximately 50% of the applications received) who completed a voluntary, anonymous survey about the reasons for their application to our university, 115 were employed full-time. About 90 percent of those who responded to the survey stated that they were applying to our program because it was offered online, and 60 percent named convenience as a reason. Professional development (82%), professional growth (76%), and enhanced professional status (61%) were the most cited reasons for pursuing a doctoral degree. These data clearly indicate the relevance of an online terminal degree to working adults who cannot attend a university full-time but would like to learn and grow in the context of their professions. Of the 117 survey respondents, only 11 percent had not previously taken an online course, whereas 51 percent had taken at least six courses online before applying to our program. While we acknowledge the fact that the respondents were interested in or were already working in the field of educational technology, these numbers not only reflect the general trend toward online education in institutions of higher education (Seaman, Allen, & Seaman, 2018), but they also emphasize the need for online terminal degrees for professionals.


Traditionally, a doctoral education aims to prepare researchers who will engage in the pursuit and advancement of knowledge in higher education settings. In the past couple of decades, the number of academic jobs available to doctoral graduates has decreased (Golde & Walker, 2006; Nyquist, 2002), and at the same time, the access for adult professionals interested in pursuing terminal degrees part-time in institutions of higher education has increased because of advancements in Internet and communication technologies. These developments have been accompanied by calls for improving the quality of doctoral education and fulfilling the need for highly educated professionals and skilled researchers in areas outside of academia (Archbald, 2011; Burgess, Weller, & Wellington, 2013; Golde & Walker, 2006; Nyquist, 2002). Reports have criticized the isolation of academic research from industry and the economic needs of a society or country and, at the same time, have highlighted the need for researchers and professionals with terminal degrees who can advance knowledge in professional contexts, policy making and government, social and economic organizations, and corporate environments (Canadian Association for Graduate Studies, 2005; Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, 2005).

In a report about innovations in doctoral education, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation (2005) specifies new paradigms, new practices, new people, and new partnerships as the four themes that should inform doctoral education of the future. At the heart of this report is the need for making research the focus of doctoral education and for making “the application of knowledge beyond the academy integral to a doctoral experience” (p. 3). Although the report does not mention professional doctorates, we contend that these degrees—if they integrate the trifecta of theory, research, and practice—are ideally suited to generating knowledge applicable outside of the academy. Within our framework, professional doctoral research is rigorous but has a different purpose from the research conducted in a traditional research doctorate: our framework supports the creation of knowledge in context (Maxwell & Shanahan, 1997), application of that knowledge to professional contexts, and advancement of the discipline through that application. A researching professional’s knowledge and the intersection of theory, research, and practice may fall within a discipline but are often interdisciplinary because professional contexts frequently operate in a transdisciplinary manner. There is a great need for individuals who are qualified to generate such knowledge to solve increasingly broad and complex problems in a variety of professional environments and to disseminate that knowledge in multiple environments. In the following section, we provide the example of educational technology as a field that is experiencing a great demand for researching professionals and online professional doctorates, and we briefly describe how theory, research, and practice coalesce in the UF EdD EdTech.


Educational technology is a field with a long history of practice-focused domains and research-oriented paradigms (Reiser, 2001). A widely accepted definition of educational technology that clearly brings research and practice together is “the study and ethical practice of facilitating learning and improving performance by creating, using, and managing appropriate technological processes and resources” (Januszewski & Molenda, 2008, p. 1).

Notwithstanding research-oriented positions that are important for the field of educational technology, opportunities for researching professionals are expanding rapidly around the world in contexts such as schools, virtual schools, businesses, industry, the military, ...

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