More than ever, educational leaders and administrators need to advance their leadership skills to include effective ways to deliver online education. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen talks to APU’s Dr. Jan Spencer about his 20-year career working in online education. Learn about his focus on building skills for educational leaders, which incorporates student affairs and a coaching approach to help develop connections with students.
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Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m here with my guest, Dr. Jan Spencer, and we’re so excited to have him here today. For our listeners, Dr. Spencer, would you give us a little bit of background about yourself and how you got into online education?
Dr. Jan Spencer: Wow, that’s a great question to start with, Bethanie. It’s been over 20 years ago that I was approached by a colleague to take a class and do it online, and I thought, “Wow, that was kind of a strange opportunity.” But I realized that with the technology that was being developed at the time, such things were possible, so I said, “Sure, I’ll teach an online class,” and so this colleague friend showed me the ropes to get me started, and that was a long time ago, 20 years ago. And I realized then that there was something very strongly available to people through this medium, and then I finished a graduate degree, a degree, a terminal degree, using the online platform with some residencies in between, and found it to be very effective, so I’ve been involved with online these last couple of decades.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Fantastic. Well, I’m thrilled to have you here, and again, I want our listeners to know a little bit more about you, so they just know a little about your background, kind of where you’re coming from here. We have a large audience of online faculty, educators, teachers at all levels, who listen to our podcast, and they’ll be very interested to know what you do now. You’re a Department Chair, and what do you do in your role as a Department Chair?
Dr. Jan Spencer: My role as a Department Chair is really a combination of overseeing and regularly redeveloping courses for the three programs that I lead, as well as oversee the faculty involvement and the quality of teaching that goes on with regard to those courses and programs involved. So that’s, I would say my primary role.
The three programs that I deal with are the Educational Leadership, which is really the K-12 form of administration for teaching and leading. And then I deal with the Higher Education Administration, which would be for colleges and universities, those administrators. And then another master’s degree in Student Affairs and Higher Education.
So my focus, I would say, would be more in the leadership element. My Ph.D. is in Organizational Leadership, so it fits real well with the education space that I work with. I’ve been a high school principal before and taught a lot of years, so there’s a great combination of experiences that I’ve been able to have that contribute to what I do.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Fantastic. Thanks for that background. Now, you’re here today because we want to talk a little bit more about leadership and online education, right?
Dr. Jan Spencer: Absolutely.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: So let’s talk about that. If we have some educators listening today who are thinking they’d like to learn a little bit more about leadership, how might they do that?
Dr. Jan Spencer: Well, really, what we are all about in trying to work with educators is give them opportunities to either add to their portfolio of what they do or give them an opportunity to get a higher degree in what they’re doing already.
In the case of Higher Education Administration or Higher Education Student Affairs, there’s people who work in those areas, in colleges and universities, but don’t have a degree at a graduate level in that area. They may be somebody’s secretary or somebody working with certain kinds of details, or in student affairs as a worker in that area, and would like to actually get a degree in that area. It gives them more opportunities in the future, and so we provide an opportunity for that to happen.
Certainly, there’s a need in the online space, particularly, which is what I like about the technology that we’re using, to develop student affairs’ opportunities for people and development of clubs and coordinating relationships for people in those clubs.
Dr. Jan Spencer: It’s exciting to be able to see that happen in the online platform so that it’s not just an electronic arrangement that’s going on, but there’s actual real-life people that care about what’s going on, on-ground where they live.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Wow, that sounds very interesting. We sort of branched out into two different topics just now, and I heard you say some things about leadership, and then also student affairs, which sound kind of like two different things. How are they different, and what do we need to know about that?
Dr. Jan Spencer: Well, student affairs is an important part of leadership, particularly in a university level because students often come not just to get a degree in what they’re seeking after, but to be able to develop the connections beyond the collegial experience that they’re having. And so student affairs provides that link and that encouragement for students to develop the kinds of connections that will support their work beyond the degree.
And so in the area of student affairs, for instance, I’m an advisor for two different clubs at our university. One of them is with the Conscious Capitalism, and the other is with the Student Affairs Club, and these provide students a way to use their skills in leadership and develop ways to support good works in the communities where they live, as well as see beyond, in terms of the opportunities and values that they have, affecting their relationships and their work environment beyond the university, if that helps.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Yeah, that’s really good background for us and for our listeners. What I’m hearing you say is that if a teacher out there, if a faculty member out there wants to get more involved in something beyond the role they’re in right now, one of the things they could do is pursue student affairs, which is going to be more connected, more activity-focused, and you even have a club for this, so you’re going to interact to some degree if you’re interested in that. If I were going to join this student affairs program and seek a degree in this area, what would I hope to experience when I participate in that kind of a club and in the courses?
Dr. Jan Spencer: Yes. Well, you’re going to be given the opportunity to interact with courses that will feed into, of course, a degree setting where you’ll have the basic skills to meet the variety of needs that student affairs professionals need to have. And we want to make sure that there’s a tremendous emphasis on student-facing relationships with diversity, understanding foundations of higher education, to be able to understand what college students are like. We’re going to give you some opportunities for research and development because certainly, the student affairs area particularly, is one where, again, is there that extension of relationship beyond the university that gives some opportunities for value to wherever it is that they’re going to work.
One of the things that our student affairs also contains is an emphasis, or at least an opportunity for concentration in coaching. So the coaching avenue have been able to actually coordinate relationships among students and emphasize the support to them, give them some options to help them work through their problems, to face making decisions. That’s all part of what student affairs can do, so understanding advisement.
There’s a lot of advising theory that goes into what these courses are all about, and it’s very, very important to consider that when you’re working with students, you understand what makes them think and what makes them tick. Again, you are one yourself anyways.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Yeah. Okay, so I didn’t know that you had a coaching emphasis in this program or option. When you said that, I thought, “Okay, you’re speaking my language, saying one of my favorite words there.” I love coaching, and I could see that if a person wants to go into student affairs or get this kind of background, gaining some knowledge about coaching or learning about coaching skills is just a beautiful way to go.
You can help encourage people, instead of just telling, and I’m sure that someone in student affairs wants that kind of a space, where they can offer options and ask questions, and not be pushing a student in a particular direction, letting them choose.
Dr. Jan Spencer: Yes. Well, it’s such an important thing that we even offer the coaching emphasis with the Higher Education Administration, so those who are seeking administrative degrees will also have an opportunity to do a professional coaching emphasis that will utilize some of the same tools so that the people that they work with in their circle of relationships, they’ll be able to speak into their lives in a positive way and help them to make decisions about their future. So we see coaching as a very important tool in the tool belt of the higher education professional.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Oh, this makes a lot of sense, especially when you need to be a leader who supervises or manages other people. A coaching approach is really something growing in the world, and you could use that in the business world should you ever change careers in there or have to work with people outside the institution and build relationships.
Dr. Jan Spencer: Right.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Wow, coaching skills are fantastic to have in your program, and I’m thrilled to hear about that. We talked a little bit about student affairs in depth, and you mentioned the coaching, so we’ve kind of transitioned back to the higher ed leadership idea.
I’m just curious, before we talk more about the leadership angle, about student affairs, if I were to go into a program like that and seek a degree in that area because I really love to work with students, I want to learn the coaching, I want to add that skillset to my bag of tricks, what am I hoping to do with it when I leave there? I mean, I know you can’t guarantee a particular job or career direction, but what would I be seeking when I’m done with that degree?
Dr. Jan Spencer: Well, typically, the student affairs professional is going to be seeking work in an institution that needs student affairs professionals. What’s interesting about this particular program is that we have many people who engage the master’s program because they’re already working in student affairs, but they don’t have a degree in it.
They find that they like it, but they want to be skilled in it, according to some kind of a degree program. That would be the first thing I would say, is you’re probably going to be in a college, a community college or a university setting where there’s a wide range of different applications of the student affairs’ use.
In our particular setting, of course, a major thing we’ve already mentioned would be the work with the students and clubs, but an advisement to them in terms of decisions they’re going to be making. But how students learn, working with students to get through some of the challenges that they’re facing in the higher education setting.
It’s important to recognize that there’s different kinds of tools available to students to increase their abilities in pursuing their education, and we want to be a support to that. So student affairs is a very critical way to put a face on an organization, particularly in an online space, so we find that very helpful.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: What do you think would be the most enjoyable class? What really stands out to you in this degree program as super interesting or fun?
Dr. Jan Spencer: Well, that’s a good question, because it’s hard to boil it down to just one. I guess I would say depending upon the bent, I should say, of a particular student, they may want to know the basics and start with the foundations of higher education, just to kind of get an idea of what higher education is about, and then before they even get into focusing in student affairs. Of course, we have a class in introducing them to student affairs and the different kinds of responsibilities, what the college students are like, the student development theory.
Then, one of the courses that is more and more important and very significant in our current environment, there’s a course on social and cultural diversity counseling, and we find that in higher education, the recognition of equity and diversity and inclusion are very important to students in a particular university setting, and that’s one of the courses that we offer that go along with student affairs.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Fantastic. Thank you for sharing all of that background and all the details about this program. Very exciting. How about the educational leadership side of things? What is that all about and what would a person be learning in that program?
Dr. Jan Spencer: Well, the bottom line for educational leadership, you’re speaking of the K-12 space, is to equip students with the ability to provide academic leadership in a particular school or schools. We work with superintendents to develop superintendents, or principals, or people who work in the administration of a local school, whether it be elementary or middle school or high school.
And so the main focus there is to provide them with the tools necessary to get around in that space and make sure that teachers are properly equipped, understanding the different trends and issues that particular schools are facing as development is happening. Then, we offer also concentrations in athletic administration, professional administration, virtual school administration. Sometimes people come to us because they want to make sure that they have an ability to add maybe a few courses. They don’t need a degree. They need courses in a particular area, so we have those as concentrations that really help. That’s just an idea of, really, some wide breadth of needs that people have in leading their schools, and we try to address as many of those major ones as we possibly can.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Is this formal? Like if I wanted to leave the classroom, let’s say I’m a K-12 educator, and I’d like to become a principal, is this one of those programs where I could enroll and get the credential that I need? Is it the theoretical background? Is it more for if I want to teach in a private school? What would be my end goal?
Dr. Jan Spencer: Yes. I think any of those possibilities would be considered. This isn’t a specifically credentialed program, and there are such a wide range of credentials that are out there, but this does meet all the criteria that a person would need if they were pursuing a credential, and, of course, they would need to coordinate with their local setting to make sure what was required there. But yes, there’s a breadth of material and research that we equip the students with so that they’re able to have a way to navigate the waters of administration.
Then, of course, with the concentrations, either in athletic administration or professional administration, or in virtual school administration, because that’s our big deal here, is working online, then they’ll have the tool bag and the tools to emphasize their capability in that particular area.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: All right. If I were going to go into one of these programs, like let’s just say I want to be an educational leader in a virtual school setting. What would be one of the more interesting or exciting things I might learn in this program?
Dr. Jan Spencer: Well, one of the things we do, of course, is talk about the ethics and legal issues in online learning, which is a separate point of emphasis in itself in many ways. It’s important to understand, “What’s the criteria that is needed? What are people expecting? What are the legalities involved in establishing an online setting?”
And then I would say also, understanding the online learning needs for the adult and the K-16 learner, so somebody who want to recognize how the breadth of learning in a person’s life takes place, you’ll need to know that in an online space to be able to be effective. Those are some of the things that I find very helpful. Understanding how to work with student achievement in online learning capability is very, very helpful for somebody who’s seeking to be a virtual school administrator.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Interesting stuff, Jan. What do you really want our listeners to leave with in learning about these programs you do and what you do every day, managing them, and how they can take this knowledge and go out and use it. What really stands out that you want to make sure to emphasize today?
Dr. Jan Spencer: Well, that’s a good question to ask, and maybe I will answer it a little bit differently than you are asking. I think of myself 20 years ago, when I was first introduced to online education, and honestly didn’t give it much of a chance. I thought, “How could you possibly, in an online space, learn what you can learn face-to-face?”
And certainly, we all like to learn face-to-face whenever we possibly can, but more and more, the online capabilities that we have give people access to learning really beyond what even the face-to-face contact can provide.
I will say that in terms of face-to-face, if you’re dealing with somebody who’s a hero in that particular subject matter, you want to be able to meet them and interact with them personally, that’d be great. But to have the breadth of opportunity, to learn way more than you would think you could, online education is becoming the thing.
I like to think of it as like a moving target. It’s always learning and growing. It used to be a few years ago, text-based pretty much. Now, we do more and more with video, either with recordings or with the live programming with students, everybody on the same screen, talking together. The person who lives far away from education centers need not fear that they can’t get what they need.
Now, there’s multiplied opportunities that are available to them because of the internet. It’s a remarkable tool, and I think we’ve just begun to use it to its max, so I’m excited. I’ve been converted from a negative attitude toward the internet to recognizing that, “My goodness, what is available to us now just blows your mind,” so I’m excited about the opportunities.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Yeah. You kind of dated me a little bit there because I was thinking-
Dr. Jan Spencer: Sorry about that.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: No, when you said 20 years ago, I thought, “Okay, when was it I took my first online class?” It was over 15 years ago and it doesn’t seem like that long.
Dr. Jan Spencer: Yeah, I know. I know.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Yeah, but you’re right, online education has come so far. And we have so many ways to engage, to interact, and feel like we really are with people, instead of just typing a few things here.
Dr. Jan Spencer: What’s exciting also, Bethanie, is that in the role that we have here at American Public University System, where we have so many military students, is I’ve had students say to me, “Professor, I’ll be gone this afternoon. I’ve got to go fly a sortie over some unknown location, or arrange flights for the President. I’ll be back tomorrow,” or something like that.
Where else could you engage such a wide range of experiences, except the internet, be in a conversation with people across the country or across the world at the same time and be learning and growing together? The opportunities are absolutely remarkable. Being involved with the educators, the administrators, the leaders of these different spaces, I feel like I have really a privileged opportunity.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Beautiful. It strikes me that the overarching mission of the university, reaching the military population and the public service group as well, you’re in the perfect position for that in your Educational Leadership degree program and in your role to really reach all of those people and serve all of them through your degree, and invite them in as well, so what a great experience. You mentioned having students from all over the world, and I’ve had that experience, too. I’ve had some that mention they can’t tell me where they’re at because it’s confidential.
Dr. Jan Spencer: Right.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: And others will share with you they’re in Alaska, or they’re in Europe somewhere, and we’re all learning together, and it’s quite a rich experience that everyone’s off, having their normal life, their job, and yet, they’re going to school and pursuing a degree at the same time.
Dr. Jan Spencer: Yes, and here recently, with the pandemic that we’ve been dealing with, more and more institutions from the preschool and kindergarten age, all the way through graduate degrees are quickly trying to find out how to make the internet work for them. And so I would say we are currently at a place where there is a fast rollout, a continuing fast rollout of degrees online, and so having the ability to train people and work with people to develop those online spaces is part of what we do here at American Public University System.
One of the privileges I have is in our Higher Education Administration. We have a degree in setting up an online university, so trying to put the tools in the hands of those who can make that happen. That’s exciting because then, as you said a moment ago, it puts us in this particular area of our university in an opportunity to touch a lot of people in a lot of different fields who are trying to make this happen right where they are. And there’s so many different settings that provide unique challenges to making it happen, and that’s part of what we get to try to work with.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Definitely. Well, Dr. Jan Spencer, thank you for being with us today. We’ve explored a little bit about what you do at American Public University and who you serve, and also some of your degree programs there. Can you give us a little recap before we leave of the degree programs that you manage, and certainly, if you’d like to invite anyone to come check it out, you’re welcome to do so. Just give us a little rundown summary.
Dr. Jan Spencer: Yes. I work primarily with three programs in education. First of all, Educational Leadership, which is K-12, kindergarten through 12th grade, and we seek to develop administrators and leaders in elementary, middle school and high school, so we have a degree for that, a master’s degree.
Then, we have a master’s degree in Student Affairs and Higher Education, which is, we took a lot of time in the program to talk about, because it is a significant area of growth, even in the online space to develop clubs and develop relationships with students, and so we have a degree focusing on that.
Then, we have a third master’s degree that I oversee in Higher Education Administration, and that works with developing leadership for either on-ground or online universities and colleges. We have a special class even in community college development, and even athletic administration as well in the university and college setting.
We also have leadership and coaching, as we may mentioned. The whole idea of coaching and leadership is really part of that overall cadre of tools that I get to work with, and it’s really, really fun. Great people and great students. I’m so proud of our students and what they’ve been able to accomplish.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Wonderful. If we have listeners out there that would actually like to know more or connect with you in some way, is there some way they can reach out or follow up after hearing this episode?
Dr. Jan Spencer: Sure. They’re welcome to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Fantastic.
Dr. Jan Spencer: And I’d be glad to talk with them and meet with them. That’s email@example.com, and we’re ready to field and discuss any of the issues or questions that people may have.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Wonderful. Well, thanks for being here with us, Dr. Spencer. And to our listeners out there, we always want to encourage professional development and growth, and this has been a great conversation to explore other avenues you might be interested in exploring in the future, higher education, leadership, student affairs, educational leadership, K-12, and any of those areas within that that were mentioned. Thanks for being here, and we wish you the best version of you this week in your online teaching.
This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge Podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request.