Case Study:University of Nebraska Ph.D. Program

By Jason D. Baker
June 1997

[Note: I have published this brief and albeit dated case study for two reasons. One: the UNL ELHE program is one of the few online Ph.D. programs offered by a major state university. Two: their tuition, even when you add all of the program and technology costs, is a relative bargain in distance education.]

Case Study:
University of Nebraska Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Higher Education

Within the United States, doctoral programs delivered primarily through distance education are less common than their Bachelor's or Master's counterparts (Peterson's Distance Learning, 1997). While there are some universities that have specialized in non-traditional doctoral education programs, such as Nova Southeastern University, Walden University, and The Union Institute, it appears that traditional universities have been slow to follow. One exception is the University of Nebraska - Lincoln (UNL) which offers a Ph.D. in Administration, Curriculum and Instruction with a specialization in Educational Leadership and Higher Education (ELHE) delivered via distance education.


UNL established the distance education ELHE program in Fall 1993 to provide academic preparation and professional development for individuals who will serve:

  • as leaders for public and private educational instutions
  • as faculty and researchers in educational administration, leadership, policy studies, and law
  • as leaders for higher and postsecondary education institutions (University of Nebraska - Lincoln, 1996)

By offering the program at a distance the program permits practitioners currently working in universities and community colleges to pursue a Ph.D. freed from time and space limitations. institutions (University of Nebraska - Lincoln, 1997). Alan Seagren, founder of the distance ELHE program, also noted that "The fundamental questions of higher education are global and this program encourages an international student body and international faculty" (telephone conversation, June 3, 1997).

Program Design

The ELHE program has four primary components: core studies, doctoral seminars, cognate studies, and the dissertation. Core studies focus on the areas of economics, history, philosophy, psychology, organizational theory, management and leadership within the higher education framework. Doctoral seminars are designed to developing problem solving and learning skills through investigation, critical analysis, and application while cognate studies permit students to do additional study in a particular area of interest. The dissertation is the culmination of the program where the student performs original research in an area of educational leadership and higher education (University of Nebraska - Lincoln, 1996). Participants in the program move through the fixed course schedule as a cohort of 15-20, with a typical Ph.D. program containing the following components:

  • Core Studies, 18 Credit Hours
  • Doctoral Seminars, 12 Credit Hours
  • Cognate Studies, 6 Credit Hours
  • Dissertation, 20 Credit Hours
  • Research Tools, 16 Credit Hours (University of Nebraska - Lincoln, 1997)

While much of the program is delivered to students via distance education, participants are required to attend a series of on-campus residency sessions. The preferred sequence for residency is two ten-week summer sessions during the first two years of the program. However, students may choose instead to spread their residency over four years by attending four five-week summer sessions.

Delivery System and Instructional Strategies

The ELHE program is delivered over the Internet using Lotus Notes software. Lotus Notes is a software package that combines client/server messaging, groupware, and Internet access (Lotus, 1997). (The asynchronous messaging component of Notes is similar to, though more robust than, other messaging products such as WebBoard or NetForum.) At the beginning of each semester, students receive a CD-ROM containing the necessary Lotus Notes configuration as well as electronic copies of journal articles, syllabi, and other relevant resources. Courses may also incorporate textbooks, videos, computer software, and other materials. Then, in an approach remarkably similar to this class, students and the instructors interact using the computer conferencing system and electronic mail.

Interaction and collaborative learning are key aspects of the ELHE program. All classes are team-taught with one faculty member serving as the team leader and at least one additional faculty member participating. The teams are responsible for not only serving as the content experts but for encouraging and leading learning conversations among the students. "A guiding principle is that learning is the responsibility of the student with faculty facilitating the process through encouragement, guidance, and leadership" (University of Nebraska - Lincoln, 1997). As such, students are required to interact online with fellow cohort members through assignments and online discussion. For example, on any given discussion question, students are responsible for responding to at least three other posts (Alan Seagren telephone conversation, June 3, 1997).

Interaction is extended beyond the online discussions through the use of mentors and residencies. Mentors not only assist and advise students through their courses and dissertation but also provide an additional opportunity for interaction and collaborative learning. A mentor is typically a faculty member at an institution nearby the student who is granted courtesy rank at UNL and agrees to guide the student through the program (University of Nebraska - Lincoln, 1997). Ideally this creates a partnership between UNL and a local university which benefits the student. The summer residency sessions consist of traditional classes that the students take as a cohort. This face-to-face contact further enhances the interaction among the students in the program both during and after the residency sessions.

Administration and Support

The program is administered by the ELHE department with support from the continuing studies division. While the continuing studies division handles much of the registration paperwork, it is the ELHE faculty and staff who do much of the scheduling, tech support, materials preparation, and student relations. (For instance, the head of the program answers e-mail requests and a graduate student is the Lotus Notes guru.) Since it was a program borne out of the dreams of a few faculty members, it still administered as a "home-grown" program. However, as other UNL programs are being developed which are modeled after the ELHE doctoral program, it is anticipated that the administrative responsibilities will shift (Alan Seagren telephone conversation, June 3, 1997).


The seven faculty members who currently teach within the program all have earned doctorates in their field. However, for most this is the first time that they have taught in a distance education format. To start the program, a professor from Australia was enlisted who had experience in distance education. He assisted in he development of the program and taught professors how to teach at a distance by team-teaching with them (Alan Seagren telephone conversation, June 3, 1997). New faculty were also trained by pairing them with ones who had previously taught in the distance format. This pattern of on-the-job training using team-teaching has continued to be the instructor training method.


To date no hard data has been collected to determine the effectiveness of the ELHE program. Much of this is simply because the first cohort is just now finishing up. However, based on the student evaluations, the program has been well received by its participants. In addition, many of the people at UNL who expressed reservations about the program's creation (such as the graduate dean) have been impressed with the quality of work produced by the participants and have changed their opinions. Furthermore, there are efforts underway to create similar distributed programs including a M.A. program in education modeled after the ELHE Ph.D. (Alan Seagren telephone conversation, June 3, 1997).


Based on their materials, as well as an interview with the program's director, it seems that rather than simply slapping technology onto an existing doctoral curriculum, they worked through the issues involved in creating an effective distance learning model. One of the weaknesses, however, is the relative newness of the ELHE program. Part of a systems approach to distance education is strong evaluation and analysis, followed by a willingness to revisit the components and make improvements. However, the lack of significant evaluation data makes it difficult to close the loop on the systems approach. In order to ensure that the program is successful, such evaluation, analysis, and modification is essential.


Lotus. (1997). Lotus Notes Description [Online]. Available:
OpenDocument [1997, June 7].

Peterson's Distance Learning. (1997). Princeton, NJ: Peterson's.

University of Nebraska - Lincoln. (1997). A Distributed Doctoral Degree in Higher Education [Online]. Available: [1997, April 1].

University of Nebraska - Lincoln. (1996). Educational Leadership and Higher Education: Course Structure [Online]. Available:
ELHECourseStructure.html [1997, April 1].

University of Nebraska - Lincoln. (1996). Educational Leadership and Higher Education: Mission [Online]. Available: [1997, April 1].

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