Building an Effective Online Doctoral Program

Student researches at computer while writing notes


Online learning has exploded over the past decade. According to the National Center for Education statistics, in the 2018-2019 school year, 16.3 percent of college students were enrolled exclusively in online courses, with an additional 18.4 percent taking at least some online classes.

At Southern Nazarene University (SNU), we launched our online Doctor of Education in Administration and Leadership (EdD) to keep up with the growing demand for online access to advanced degrees. The program improves access to post-graduate studies, and students report an exceptional experience that leaves them well prepared to advance in their career.

Here’s what institutions considering an online doctoral program should consider as they build their online learning options.

Benefits of online learning

Online learning offers immense benefits to your students, including:

  • Convenience: Online degrees don’t require students to get dressed, find childcare, fight traffic, and give up several hours each day. They simply turn on their computers and attend school.
  • Scheduling flexibility: Seventy percent of full-time college students also work, according to a Georgetown University report. Most learners cannot afford to quit working and may not have jobs that offer scheduling flexibility. Attending class online gives them greater control over their own schedule, so they can support their families, care for their children, and complete a degree.
  • A wider geographic reach: Some regions have little or no access to quality in-person education. Online learning can support the academic dreams of students wherever they are, without moving, and regardless of which options are locally available.
  • Support for certain disabilities: Certain disabilities can make in-person learning much more difficult. A student with a mobility impairment may be unable to drive or navigate large campuses. Students with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or generalized anxiety disorder may experience debilitating anxiety sitting in a classroom with strangers. Online learning allows these students to pursue an education in an environment that better meets their needs.
  • Equitable access to education: Students who are unable to attend in-person school may still be able to attend online. In this regard, online learning may be the only option for some students pursuing advanced degrees. 

Is online learning as good as face-to-face learning?

In-person learning has never been the only way to teach. Indeed, some of the most beloved teachers—Fred Rogers and Bob Ross, for example—taught remotely. Online learning works when institutions tailor their programs to the unique opportunities and challenges of remote education. This requires focusing on quality, measuring outcomes, and soliciting student feedback about their experience. Online course development involves key collaborative work between the subject matter faculty and the faculty instructional designer—both with deep and complementary expertise.

When assessing whether online learning is as good as in-person learning, it’s important to look at quality, competency, and student learning outcomes—not whether an online program perfectly replicates the in-person experience. Indeed, for some students, online learning may be a superior option, but for some they may prefer in-person. For others, online learning may be the only avenue they have for accessing higher education.

Career development with online learning

Even people who accept the myriad benefits of online learning are often skeptical about how an online degree may affect career prospects. The most important thing to keep in mind here is that a degree itself is a significant source of career development. Students learn vital skills in school. Moreover, an advanced degree can shatter career ceilings. The most important strategies for ensuring your students are ready for careers are the same in both online and in-person classes. They include:

  • A rigorous, challenging curriculum that never compromises quality
  • The pursuit of ideas and approaches that maintain relevance with current best practices
  • Highly qualified instructors with academic and industry experience
  • Pursuing or maintaining regional accreditation

Assessing technical needs for online learning

Online degree programs must offer a high-quality technical experience. Pixelated videos, frequent connection disruptions, and low-quality interfaces add layers of frustration to the graduate school experience and may lower the quality of education that students receive.

Meeting student needs begins with high-quality instructors who are familiar with online learning and can competently use the technology implemented. Include educators in the development of the program. They know the skills students must master, which means they also know how best to teach them. Work with a skilled designer to build an interface adapted to your program’s educational goals.

Some hallmarks of good online learning platforms include:

  • They are compatible with a variety of operating systems.
  • They work on many different devices, including mobile devices.
  • They do not require students to install software that only works on very new devices.
  • They encourage student engagement with discussion boards, recorded video/audio peer and instructor interactions, presentations, quizzes, and other interactive tools.
  • They allow students to easily participate in classroom discussions and follow up with their instructors.
  • They encourage dependable and regular feedback from instructors.

You must test your program with real students. Be prepared to offer technical support and to tweak various aspects of the program as needed.

Building an effective online degree program

About half of PhD candidates leave school without finishing their dissertation. All-but-dissertation (ABD) students have put in significant work, without completing the degree. That wastes time and resources for both students and universities.

Attrition is a problem at all institutions of higher learning, including those offering online programs. Online program directors must cultivate strategies for keeping students enrolled and moving them efficiently through the program.

At SNU, each cohort benefits from having its own Dissertation Director—a counsellor throughout the program to support students in completing their programs. These kind and committed experts teach a cohort’s second or third class. They remain with the cohort through graduation, supporting students through the proposal process and ensuring they remain on track to complete their dissertations.

We also embed the dissertation into the coursework, so that students who complete their classes also complete significant portions of their dissertation. As a result, students finish our program in 32 months.

Online learning opens advanced degrees to more diverse students. This brings immense value to institutions of higher learning, while ensuring more equitable educational opportunities. Branching into online education capitalizes on a trend that’s not going away. In the meantime, it grows your reach and promotes greater educational access.

Stephoni Case, EdD, serves in the graduate studies in Education and Leadership Department at Southern Nazarene University (SNU) as department chair and a professor of education. She is the program director of the doctor of education in administration and leadership, and the master of arts in educational leadership programs. She teaches servant leadership and education leadership as the flagstone courses for both programs. Her research agenda includes culture and religiosity as it intersects with decision making as well as equity in school finance.

Dr. Case began as an English and creative writing teacher for Mustang Public Schools. She taught in the English department at SNU before completing her doctorate in education at Oklahoma State University, where she also directed the Oklahoma Center for School Business Management.

Cassuto, L. (2013, July 1). Ph.D. attrition: How much is too much? The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. (2015). Learning while earning: The new normal.

Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. (2019). Number and percentage distribution of students enrolled at Title IV institutions, by control of institution, student level, level of institution, distance education status of student, and distance education status of institution: United States, fall 2018. National Center for Education Statistics.

Southern Nazarene University Professional & Graduate Studies. (n.d.). Doctor of education in administration and leadership (Ed.D). Southern Nazarene University.