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Leveraging Technology Tools to Make Online Doctoral Capstone Committees More Successful

Walden University faculty use web based tools that promote learning and connection for EdD and PhD in Education candidates.

Online education is not just Dr. Darci J. Harland’s vocation, it’s her passion.

As a full time faculty member in The Richard W. Riley College of Education and Human Sciences at Walden University, Dr. Harland develops online courses, teaches doctoral degree courses, and mentors PhD and EdD students in capstone writing. But it was earning her own PhD from Walden, in educational technology, that seeded her belief in the power of online learning.

Leveraging Technology Tools to Make Online Doctoral Capstone Committees More Successful

“Learning became real when I started to learn online,” she said. “A lot of people might think that an online degree is impersonal, but I would argue exactly the opposite. Online learning can be extremely personal and extremely individualized, particularly at the terminal degree level. And a lot of it has to do with the technology that is now available. My passion is utilizing technology tools that foster connection and build strong relationships between mentors and their mentees during the dissertation process. I work with a number of other faculty members, and we always make a strong effort to break down any barriers people perceive in getting an online degree.”

Here, she shares some of those tools and techniques that she and her colleagues use to make online doctorate capstone committees more successful:

Video Calling

Dr. Harland talks to her students across multiple platforms, using “whatever the student is more comfortable with.”

“I mentor about 20 different students, which means I'm their dissertation chair, and I meet with them via Skype. I see their faces. I know their families, and their pets’ names; I know their kids. It’s very personal. We have built in tools to Blackboard, our learning management system, but we can supplement with other tools. So, if they're on Skype, that's great. I have a Zoom account so I can meet my students there, and I can even have a group of students meet. I do find that building a relationship and seeing them on a weekly or biweekly basis in the Zoom call allows me a little bit more flexibility in my text feedback.”

Track Changes and Comments

Doctoral degree and PhD students receive Dr. Harland’s text feedback via track changes and comments in their Microsoft Word documents. For some, the process can feel overwhelming at first.

“I establish in one of our very first meetings that it's going to be like drinking from a fire hose and you have got to learn to just love it.” she said.

“A comment might be, ‘This is anthropomorphism. Look on this page in the APA handbook and that's where you'll find more information about that.’ These comments are meant to be twofold. We have to identify issues, but then we also use it as a teaching moment: Here's the problem and here's how you fix it. We refer them either to the handbook, the APA manual, or resources that Walden provides. At Walden, we have a fantastic Writing Center and Academic Skills Center. If I notice that a student's having a problem with passive voice, there’s a great blog post on how zombies could help you shake your passive voice. I will refer them to it with a link right inside the comment bubble. And then they know they need to go to that link and that will help them learn from their mistakes, and how to not make them in the future.”

Since the “fire hose” of edits and suggestions may still be overwhelming for some students, Dr. Harland said she explains to mentees at the start of the first quarter that the process is never intended to be a reflection of them as a person.

“It is just my job to push them intellectually and in their writing style,” she said. “And so, just even in the last few quarters, I have really tried to make sure that I communicate that. I say, when you see this document, and you see all these marks and all these comments, you may think you've done a bad job. And what I'm telling you is, oh my gosh, we have so much to work with here.”

In time, a dialogue grows within the margins as the mentor and mentee answer questions and discuss suggested changes. “To me, that conversation is a beautiful thing, and I train my mentees that that's how I want them to see it as well. I'm starting to treat you more as an equal. We are trying to provide these opportunities for you to build your thoughts and your writing and that it can be done very, very well between two people going through the document, back and forth.”

Dr. Harland said students can sometimes misconstrue comments, without hearing the inflection of a voice or seeing facial expressions. That’s where an infusion of creativity can help.

“One of the things I've learned from colleagues is to put in a cartoon instead of a text comment. I found a cute little graphic of one my favorite Disney characters, and he's pointing right into the text. I add my own text to this graphic, and it softens the blow a little bit,” she said.

Skype Chat

The educator creates a meeting space for the group, as well as individual mentees.

“As I'm working on drafts and reviewing, I have my Skype chat open. I have a really big group of students—all of my mentees and former mentees who have already graduated—and we chit chat in there. I say for quick questions, or questions you have for the group, let's put them in there. And then I have individual chats for each of my students. If they're stuck and need something really quick, they can ask me in the Skype chat rather than logging in to Blackboard. I find that very helpful because they feel like I'm accessible.”

Virtual Tutorials

Dr. Harland records a discussion of each student’s work using a Blackboard tool.

“It can make a big difference for students to be able to hear you talk about their document,” she said. “I can pull up a draft that I've got marked up, and then I can record myself walking them through that document. ‘When I wrote this comment, here's what I meant,’ and, ‘Here’s what I heard, as your reader, so if you add some clarification here.’ I find that very helpful.”

These recorded sessions are among the online assets Walden uses to make earning a degree a reality for working professionals. Dr. Harland’s mentees can click on them when their schedules permit. “A lot of my students work and may not get home until late at night,” she said. “During some of the time they're doing Walden work, I may not be available. And so we need to do things asynchronously more than synchronously.”

Dr. Harland said asynchronous learning was a plus for her as she earned her PhD in education: “I’m the kind of a person who needs that built in wait time.”

Individual Pace Setting

Walden’s online education lets students move at their own tempo. Dr. Harland leverages this benefit for her mentees using the array of technological tools.

“I have 20 students, and I might have five who are in the final stages, five who are collecting data, and five who are at the end of the proposal. And then I've got five who are beginning the prospectus, which is when they're just solidifying their dissertation idea,” she said. “Because it's so individualized—you have some that move slower and some that move faster—I will let them move as fast or as slow as they need to, as long as they're doing five graduate credit hours’ worth of work every quarter, because that's the minimum.”

This staggered system offers mentees another valuable learning opportunity: the chance, as veterans, to help other students progress through the stages they’ve successfully completed.”

“If there are students who are a stage ahead of them, those students can lean on me, but they also can lean on other students who are just a little bit ahead of where they're at. It’s a wonderful system, because the students who are ahead were also helped by someone else and so they want to pay it back,” she said.

“I just graduated five students this last quarter, and they have told me, ‘Make sure you send mentees to me if they have questions, or if they want someone to practice interviewing with, or if they want someone who has the same methodology I did and they want to pick my brain.’ They want to help my mentees because they were successful and got through, and they want to pay it back to those who did the same thing for them.”

Video Messages

Dr. Harland shares weekly video announcements, which help build bonds with mentees. Through her experience as a mentor to doctoral and PhD students, she’s learned that less is more—“five minutes or shorter”—and that engaging content is essential.

“It can be something boring, like, ‘Welcome to Week Seven, blah, blah, blah, blah.’ Or you can record a video of yourself saying hello and introducing them to your kids and showing them the jack o’ lantern they carved. It’s personal, and that seems to work really well. You're going to be spending two years of your life with these students. So, allowing your personality to come out and just being real with them is, I think, the easiest way to build trust,” she said.

Find Your Purpose With Walden’s Online PhD Programs

An education PhD or Doctor of Education is the ultimate achievement, and Walden’s flexible and innovative learning approach makes it possible for working professionals to reach that pinnacle.

When you choose Walden’s PhD in Education degree program, you’ll find all the components you need to lead you to success: contemporary curriculum; cutting edge technology; respected faculty members like Dr. Harland; personalized support; top quality, in person residencies; and more.

At Walden—ranked No. 1 in education professional doctoral and PhD graduates1—you can tailor your program to the career you want. You can choose from 11 PhD in Education degree specializations to customize your coursework, including a self designed option for Higher Education Leadership and Policy.

Reap the benefits of online higher education and find the future you seek in the rewarding field of education.

Dr. Darci J. Harland earned a BA degree in biology and English education from Olivet Nazarene University, an MS degree in curriculum and instruction from Illinois State University, and a PhD focusing on educational technology from Walden University. In her 12 years as a public school teacher, she taught middle level science, high school science, and English. She’s the author of STEM Student Research Handbook, which encourages high school students to conduct their own research at the highest levels of inquiry. As a university professor, she has taught both undergraduate and graduate level courses addressing literacy in the content areas, general secondary methods, secondary science methods, lab methods of science teaching, and educational technology.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering a PhD in Education degree program online with multiple specializations to meet your personal and professional goals. Expand your career options and earn your degree using a convenient, flexible learning platform that fits your busy life.

1Source: Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved August 2017 from

Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,