APU Careers & Learning Intellectible Online Learning Podcast

Supporting Graduate Students in Online Education

Podcast featuring Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D, J.D.Faculty Member, School of Business and
Dr. Ronald Johnson, Faculty Member, School of Business

Starting a graduate program is a big step for students and there is a significant difference between undergraduate and graduate programs. In this episode, APU business professors Dr. Gary Deel and Dr. Ronald Johnson discuss strategies about how to provide support and mentorship to help graduate students succeed. Learn how they help build students’ confidence, use tools and technology in the classroom to improve engagement, and address the different needs of individual students. Also learn about opportunities that graduate students may not know about like authoring research papers with faculty members and joining professional organizations.

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Dr. Gary Deel: Welcome to the podcast Intellectible. I’m your host, Dr. Gary Deel. Today, we’re talking about strategies for supporting graduate students in online higher education. My guest today is Dr. Ron Johnson. Ron is a product of the military voluntary higher education program. While serving for 24 years in the United States Air Force, he completed a master’s degree in Human Relations and a Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership, both from the University of Oklahoma.

Ron’s research interests include using mobile technology in the online classroom, corporate social responsibility, and leadership and teams. A huge music fan, Ron is very happy about the return of live music after COVID. Ron, welcome to Intellectible, and thank you for being our guest today.

Dr. Ronald Johnson: Well, thank you for the warm introduction. It’s good to be here, Gary.

Dr. Gary Deel: Absolutely. I appreciate it. Well, in full disclosure to our listeners, we are recording this in July of 2021, and we know each other through our mutual work and in the School of Business. But we’re here today to talk about what is a really important topic and a challenge that I think all universities face in some form or another is how best to support graduate students, particularly in the online environment. So we may talk a little bit today about the differences between online higher education at the graduate level, and the typical brick-and-mortar university experience. But to open it up broadly, what’s been your experience with graduate students? Maybe you’d like to talk a little bit about the work you’ve done thus far and what you’ve learned from it?

Dr. Ronald Johnson: Yeah, that’s a very good question, Gary. Working with graduate students has been one of the best things that’s ever happened to me because I’m not a traditional professor, nor was I a traditional student. I had a mentor. I had a commander at RAF Milton Hall in the United Kingdom who really supported me. And he basically said before I was going into a combat zone during Operation Desert Storm to take some classes.

First night of class, I was wondering, “What am I doing here?” group of 18 and 19 year olds send a 37-year-old senior, non-commissioned officer. By the fourth night, I knew I had an epiphany, I had my calling one day I’m going to be in front of the stage. I’m going to be the professor for the students. And seven years later, that’s where I’ve been. I’ve been in higher ed ever since.

So working with graduate students is a privilege and they need somebody who has the experience. And I see my role in the classroom, not only as someone who can share knowledge about the academics, but also the profession, and the experiences that I’ve had. And help them see what their role is in graduate education as the future leaders in business and in the military.

Dr. Gary Deel: So I’m curious to know and I should’ve mentioned this earlier, but of course, thank you for your military service. We’re grateful to all of our faculty, staff, students, family, and friends who are military veteran, active duty, and military affiliated here at our university.

I’m curious to know what your experience has been between the difference among graduate and undergraduate students? So obviously we’re here to focus today on strategies related to supporting our graduate students, but in order to shine a light on that for the perspective of a potential student that may be listening to this podcast at some point in the future, and perhaps the prospective instructor who may be looking for ideas, what’s your experience been in terms of the most important differences in the way that we handle and support and coach and motivate our students among those two groups or two levels?

Dr. Ronald Johnson: I have only taught graduate courses my whole career. I’ve never taught an undergraduate course. However, many of the graduate courses that I teach has students that come in straight from undergrad. And I noticed that the beginning graduate student, the one who just finished their undergraduate studies, needs a little bit more attention. They need a little bit more help in the basics: How to conduct research, how to properly write and express themselves. And of course, the big step from undergraduate to graduate school is the ability to be a critical thinker and apply analytical thought to their assignments.

So it’s a big step. It’s a big step for professors to teach students who are just starting in graduate school. And it’s also a huge step for the student who is a new graduate students. So that’s another way that the mentoring process comes in because we want to provide them with all of the tools that they may need either in the classroom or outside of the classroom in order to become a successful graduate student.

And one of the things that I do, Gary, is I have a tip of the week. Each week, I share something different, whether it’s looking at a different type of a website that will help them in both their business and professional life and as a student and just share various tools that are available either within the university or they’re on the open web. And I think that helps students as well make that transition into, “Okay, now I have to do more research as a graduate student.” There’s a higher expectation for my work.” So I help them and grow into that role of a graduate student.

Dr. Gary Deel: You mentioned something with respect to graduate students who enter a graduate program immediately following their undergraduate program and maybe needing a little bit more guidance and support accelerating the scope of their efforts to be successful in the graduate program. And that makes me think about the preparation that we provide for students at the undergraduate level for a potential path to graduate school.

It’s a double-edged sword because we don’t necessarily want to focus too much on it in the sense that there are, of course, a lot of students at the undergraduate level who have no aspirations of going to graduate school, or perhaps if they have aspirations, they’re limited or encumbered by financial constraints or time constraints or what have you. And for one reason or another, they’ll not be able to do that, perhaps not right away or perhaps not ever. But for some of course, that’s the plan and they intend to and they will eventually do so.

So we want to be able to prepare students for graduate school for those that are intending to go, but we don’t necessarily want to focus on that for all the students who won’t find immediate value in it if they’re not going on to graduate school.

So do you have any thoughts on the current state of affairs with respect to the rigor and the support that we give to undergraduate students in preparing them for graduate school? Do you find that it’s sufficient or that undergraduate programs could do a better job with respect to readying our students for graduate school?

Dr. Ronald Johnson: That’s very interesting observation. There’s a lot there to unpack. The first thing I’d like to consider is that we have a very diverse student body. Majority of our students are in a college program, in a graduate program. Most of them they’re the first ones in their family to ever attend school. So there’s not that expectation while they were growing up. So there’s a lot of doubt with a student when they first start in graduate school. Can I do this? Why am I here? Sort of like what I had when I went to school.

And one of the things that I do is, I try to build up their confidence. And I think that our university, probably most universities have many tools to help the new student. We have a graduate student orientation, which is a two-week, self-pace course to help the student go through everything that they need to know as a graduate student.

We have a fairly good tutorials within our online library to help the students with writing, with conducting research. And of course, my role as a mentor is to be there and help them develop not only as students, but as thought leaders in their profession once they make it through their program. Because one of the most rewarding things is seeing a student who comes into graduate school. It’s their first class. No one in their family has ever been to school. They’re juggling their career, their family, lots of other things. They may be deployed. And they are afraid.

And my job is to lower that. I want to lower that fear and let them know that they can do it. So it’s very important that I give the feedback that is specific to each of these and to tailor my style for the individual that I’m dealing with.

So getting to know the student in their first class or two, it’s just so rewarding when I see them near the end of the program, they’re like a new person. They’re confident, they’re thought leaders, they’re taking what they learn in graduate school and applying it in their work environment and their organization. So just to lower that level of expectation and raise that hope that “Yes, you can do this.” And the majority of the students end up succeeding.

Dr. Gary Deel: And I would echo your thoughts. I think that that’s something that many of us who teach graduate classes. And in my case, I teach for several universities at the graduate level, and I find a different level of connection to the graduate students. Perhaps that’s partially a product of the fact that class sizes tend to be smaller by comparison. So you have far fewer and maybe the opportunity to make stronger connections because you’re just not quite spread so thin as an instructor.

But I’m curious to know among those who have challenges or struggle, whether it’s to keep up with pace or the expectations of the program, what are some of those most common challenges that you see and how… I know you’ve talked a little bit already about how you go about supporting them, but can you elucidate for those who maybe have never been to a graduate program? So I’m thinking at this moment about potentially an undergraduate student who might be listening to this podcast in the future and thinking, “I’m not sure if I want to go to grad school. What kinds of problems could I expect?” So what kinds of things do you see that students typically have to overcome in graduate programs?

Dr. Ronald Johnson: We’re in a very challenging environment right now. We are still in a pandemic and that adds another level of pressure to students. So if they’re becoming graduate students, one of the first things I try to do is demystify the graduate student experience. There’s a lot of written and unwritten norms within graduate school that the new student is unaware of. And if they don’t understand these, then they can be hampered when they come into the classroom.

So it’s really up to me to let them know, “Look, this is what is expected of you. This is how we want you to converse with your classmates.” You want to do your homework, you want to do your writing, your research in a certain way. And not to limit anyone’s creativity or their style, but just to let them know that there are questions that all students are going to have when they come into graduate school. And I can help them navigate through these challenges and better understand the norms and what it is that it means to be a graduate student.

One of the things I do is after the first week of a first course in a student’s graduate career, I usually end my feedback with, “Congratulations, you are now officially a grad student.” And I think they like that because now it’s like real. It’s not that they’re just in class trying to keep their head above the water. They actually got their first feedback and now they’re in grad school. So just let them understand that yes, it’s not as mysterious as it seems when you say grad school and grad student.

Dr. Gary Deel: Do you find any skepticism or any apprehension about the value of what it is that a graduate student is doing? I would find in the undergraduate ranks that there’s among some, certainly not all, but among some, there’s a little bit of skepticism about whether they’re going to drink the Kool-Aid, even though they’re already there, so to speak. They may be in the institution, in the program somewhat reluctantly, not quite believing in the value of this or sure if it’s worth the time and effort and money that they may be investing in their future.

And me personally, I don’t necessarily see as much of that in the graduate level, but that doesn’t mean there’s zero either. So I’m curious to know as you build relationships and rapport and work with graduate students, do you find that any are uncertain about the path that they’re on and have concerns about whether or not what they’re doing in a master’s program or doctoral program is worthwhile for them?

Dr. Ronald Johnson: Certainly. There are doubts probably every day. Students and faculty alike. It’s like, “Why am I here? What am I doing here?” But those become less and less as the student progresses through their studies. And we have to work with the students, get to know them and try to lower their anxiety throughout the program.

And it’s really, for me, it’s very personally satisfying when I see a student who is having difficulties at the beginning of class, but they know that their professor cares. And I always make sure to tell them that I am not the outlier, I am not the professor. They’re going to get this quality across the board. No matter where they’re going to school, we care. And our success is built upon their success. So if I show students that they can succeed through feedback, through mentoring, then they’re more likely to have a very positive graduate school experience.

I like using technology in our online classroom. All of our classes are asynchronous. However, with our new platform, our new learning platform, we have the ability to do Zoom meetings at the touch of a button. Now, I know you’re probably thinking, “No, not another Zoom meeting. We just gone through a year and a half of Zoom meetings. I’m Zoomed out.”

But for online education, there’s nothing better than that face-to-face, live interaction between the instructor and eight or 10 students, whoever, it’s always voluntary, but when they decide to show up, we can just talk, I can listen.

I’m not going to explain week four’s assignment. I can do that easily with a text message, which is what most students want now, they don’t want email. They want a text message. Or I can do it with a real quick memo, a voice memo. However, when I do Zoom, and here’s something that’s pretty neat, I have really a supportive leadership team and when I started doing the Zooms, I would do one every two weeks. And after week two, I invited my program director who immediately said, “Oh yeah, I’d love to come talk to your students.” Boom. They get to meet the person who puts together the program besides the professor.

Week number four, my second Zoom meeting, that was with my faculty director. They were able to talk to the woman who is my boss, and they had a wonderful time. Sixth meeting was with the Provost of the university, the head academic officer, and I had just a great time talking to the person who sets the direction for the whole university.

So a Zoom meeting or any type of technology where you can get that personal touch really is going to lower the overall anxiety and increase the experience for the graduate student. So that’s just some of the stuff that I tried to do to differentiate between the undergrad and the graduate experience.

Dr. Gary Deel: What percentage of your students across the board do you think are actively interested in or need or want for that matter the support services that you so generously offer in the classroom, whether it’s a Zoom meeting or a text message or an email. Versus I would contrast that with a student who is completely self-sufficient and does not need anything more than for you to grade their work and post their final marks for the score to their degree audit. Do you have any sense of the split of what that looks like across the student demographics?

Dr. Ronald Johnson: That’s an interesting question. I would say that the latter student you just described is the minority. There are the self-sufficient students that show up, do their work and never have a question. They don’t have any question, my feedback is usually just, “Good job, this is what you did well. You may want to consider this,” but by and large there’s no extra outreach. The majority of the students are in need of touch. And like I said, we have the technology to support that.

So everybody in the class, and, of course, myself, we have our cell phones with us and we use our online mobile app and I get notifications. As soon as I get a message, as soon as I get a text message from a student in the classroom, it shows up and I can answer it within seconds. And I may not have the answer because I’m not sitting behind my computer screen so I can’t really give them maybe not all of the specifics, but the majority of the times, I can acknowledge their question, answer their question, and put the student at ease. Probably I would say 65%, maybe 70% are using those tools and want to use those tools rather than just being self-reliant.

Dr. Gary Deel: Do you find that the degree to which support of that nature is needed among the student population? Do you find that it’s higher or just different in the online world versus in your past traditional experience with on-ground campuses and traditional universities? Do you think that graduate students are at an advantage versus a disadvantage in an online context to these days? Or is it just a different type of modality that requires different tactics?

Dr. Ronald Johnson: I think it used to be that way. I started out teaching graduate and doctoral courses on-ground, face-to-face throughout Europe. And having that interaction, that face-to-face, especially at the doctoral level was very important.

The more that people are moving their lives online, because back then we didn’t have Facebook, we were just using email, that was it. It was not a very rich environment for online education. Now, there are so many tools that we can use and do use that the experience I think that it’s higher in the online environment because if you want to be successful online student, you have to participate. You can’t hide out in the back row of the classroom and not contribute during a class session. You have to participate and there’s ways to get them to participate if they are not. But I think that the richness now is almost at a level as to what we were doing in the classroom, in the face-to-face modality.

Dr. Gary Deel: Perfect. We were talking about different types of students with different needs and different contexts of learning. But I’m curious to know what have your experiences been as a mentor to graduate students at higher education? And can you share with us any success stories or examples from that experience that might help to elucidate what we’re talking about for our listeners?

Dr. Ronald Johnson: Sure. The one thing I want to make clear, though, before I do that is that, a mentoring style that’s effective for one student may not work for another student. So you have to be, if you’re mentoring a student in graduate school, you have to be very aware of that individual student and tailor your accountability and what you want that student to learn and to do and help push them to succeed.

And I’ve had a lot of successes mentoring students within my classrooms. One, for example, just six months ago, asked me for a reference to get into law school, and this was at a prestigious law school. And I was happy to write them a glowing recommendation. And the reason why is because I had helped this student not just in the classroom, but we had a relationship a little bit outside of the classroom.

So my advice to a student, if you’re going to ask one of your professors or mentors for a recommendation to move on is to be specific. Let the person know that this is what you did in their classroom. This is what class you were with them, it’s usually more than one, and why you’re asking for their recommendation. And I’ve done that for students that have been accepted into law school, different graduate schools, doctoral programs, and just general life approaches.

Two of my students have gone on to professorships at major universities. One is a contributing editor for the Harvard Business Review. Now, I had nothing to do with that, that was all on him. But to be able to encourage that student while they were in grad school, it meant a lot when I could read one of his papers because he was advancing the knowledge in our field. And I use these examples with my students and say, “You may be the next one.” And I want the student to understand not only could a mentoring situation be successful, but it’s also going to help them enrich their networks and I was wondering if you could share your experiences?

Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah, I think that’s a great question with respect to the mentoring function for graduate students. I think it really varies based on the ambitions of the student. We talk a lot about strategy and life coaches, et cetera, and having a one-year plan and having a five-year plan. But the reality is, opportunities will change. Economic factors will change. We talked a little bit for just a moment earlier about COVID and how that turned everything on its ear and disrupted a lot of industries.

I come from a background in hospitality. And so I teach, for example, hospitality students. But in that respect, when you have a pivotal event like that that changes the outlook of the industry for an indefinite period of time, there’s uncertainty as to where these careers will take the students. And then the students begin to rethink the trajectory of their professional ambitions. And I think what is most rewarding as an instructor is to try to be adaptable with students to their needs and to illuminate different paths, different opportunities.

And so from a graduate student perspective, there’s opportunities in the professional working world in practice. So if you are, for example, a hospitality student, sticking with that example, you may find yourself in the industry working someday in a professional capacity, if you aren’t already. You may find yourself in academe someday, as we are. So you may have aspirations of wanting to teach different curriculum in different areas.

And for that, as a matter of accreditation and credentialing, you have to have certain levels of higher education, particularly graduate degrees at a minimum. And depending on which classes you’re teaching, it may be just the master’s or just the terminal degree.

There’s opportunities in consulting, right? So there’s opportunities to help businesses as a third-party set of eyes and ears that can look from a perspective of experience and expertise and offer direction on different things that should be done to help improve the status quo.

I think the key with respect to graduate students in particular is to recognize and appreciate the diversity of ambitions and where different students want to go and what they want to become. And then to try and shape yourself into sort of, I think of myself like an amoeba in the sense that you can become what you need to become to help that student succeed. And for every student that’s different. So the one-size-fits-all approach, I think is less and less effective as time goes on and career paths become more and more diverse in this modern workforce that we live in.

I’ve worked with many teachers. And this reminds me of a conversation that I had with a fellow educator years ago who was venting about the frustrations of being an instructor and this person was saying, “I don’t understand accusations from students of unfairness or lack of sensitivity from my teaching style because I treat all of my students exactly the same.”

And I realized the spirit of the argument was to say that I treat everyone with equal levels of respect and dignity. And that was what the person was getting at, but I think they were missing the larger picture. And what I shared with them was, the problem is, everybody’s not the same. Everybody deserves the same level of respect and dignity in interactions with you.

But everybody’s needs are different and everybody’s communication styles are different. And so for you to say, “I’m this one-size-fits-all solution and I don’t change. I just treat everybody exactly the same,” you’re only going to be effective with a very small sliver of your total demographic of students because those are going to be the ones that coincidentally fit that rigid monolith of who you are, versus being the person that’s capable of adapting to different personalities, of adapting to different ambitions and different needs in the

‘that’s what I’ve learned over the years in teaching. And if you can do that, it doesn’t have to be painful and it can be awfully effective. You can find a way to be useful to every student in at least some way, shape, or form.

Dr. Ronald Johnson: Yeah, there’s no cookie-cutter approach that we can take when it comes to working and helping our students. It’s like coach Bill Belichick. He’s not going to treat Tom Brady, well, at least when Tom Brady was with the Pats, the same as, again, treat the third-string offensive lineman. They’re different people, they have different needs, and you have to remember that.

But one thing that I do think that’s important when we’re looking at how we can help support and develop our graduate students is meeting them and finding out what are their expectations? What is it that they want from the relationship? How can I help refer them to other people with either in the university by saying, “Hey, this is a good course for your program.” Not doing student advising, but say, “Since you’re interested in project management, you may want to talk to this professor that we have. She’s the subject expert on that.” And also to let them know the importance of, after their academic studies are complete at the graduate level, to be a member of a professional organization.

Professional organizations love bringing in graduate students. They give them super discounts. So they’re going to pay next to nothing for membership, but it’s going to open up a whole new world for the student. And it’s going to help the organization as well because they’re getting new thought new leaders, new people with different ideas to diverse student populations. So it’s a relationship that helps both the student and the professional organization.

So in my classes, every class, I’ll put in links to the membership pages of either the Project Management Institute, the American Psychological Association, the Academy of Management, Society for Human Resource Management, all the different organizations that our students may want to explore and become a member of in order to broaden their work and to help them grow and expand their network both inside and outside of the classroom. So I think that that’s a good way to really help out.

Do you find that interacting with other faculty in higher education that support for graduate students is a topic that faculty struggle with commonly, that being able to reach them in a way that is effective is not necessarily intuitive for a lot of folks?

I think we could do a better job at supporting one another if I understand your question correctly. Because being a professor, being a graduate school professor, especially online, that can be a lonely job. And to have maybe a sounding board of some colleagues that you could interact with, that would probably be helpful. Because there are times when we may have that difficult student, or there may be a situation that we have not seen that probably one of our colleagues has seen and could support and help us with that. So yeah, I think that that would be a good way to open up the lines of communication.

One of the memberships that I’m part of currently is our graduate council. And my university’s graduate council pretty much reviews and sets curriculum and new programs and the overall experience for faculty, students, and directors to make our graduate program a viable one. So that’s a good place for us to talk and to get that type of help and help one another. And it’s also a place where we can share new ideas, something that we can maybe say, “Hey, I have this expectation that we can do this to help our students. What do you think?” But that’s all setting the framework for the relationship between the faculty and the graduate student.

Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah, do you find that the best practice sharing.  I know that we do a lot of this here at American Public University, the sharing of best practices among faculty, different ideas that they have for managing the classroom, communicating with students, supporting students that have challenges and helping them reach the finish line that I find it at least intuitively. I have a sense that it’s useful. Would you agree that that can be helpful in this respect or is there a better way to go about allowing faculty to collaborate on best practices?

Dr. Ronald Johnson: There are opportunities for faculty. For instance, one of the meetings that I attend every month has a section, a segment of the meeting for the faculty, for all faculty, both the full-time and part-time faculty to share their best practices. And I can’t tell you how many tips and, “Oh, that’s a great way of doing things,” things that I’ve learned of best practices that other faculty are doing in their classrooms. So to have opportunities like that to share and to learn of what works and maybe what could be done better, that’s very valuable. And we could probably even do more of that.

Dr. Gary Deel: Within the School of Business in particular at American Public University of which we’re both a part and we’ve taken an active role to make sure that there is a robust program in partnership with all of our program directors and all of our professors across the school to ensure that all of our graduate students know there’s an ear for them if they need it. There’s someone to listen and someone to help so that they don’t feel abandoned or alone on an island in the event that they have questions that need answers, or they have fears or apprehensions or frustrations or uncertainties that we can provide guidance in one shape or form or another.

I think this has been a very fruitful discussion. Were there any other aspects of this topic that you wanted to cover before we wrapped up?

Dr. Ronald Johnson: I would just like to add to what you just finished saying in that faculty-to-faculty collaboration is crucial, doing a podcast such as this or collaborating on a scholarly paper. But just as important is faculty-to-student collaboration. So I’ve often offered my students the opportunity to work with me on a paper, whether that’s a professional paper or something for one of our online forums, that they can actually get something published and have the opportunity to do some scholarly research with me. And that’s been very successful. So faculty-to-faculty, faculty-to-student collaboration, I think is also a nice way to share within the graduate online environment.

Dr. Gary Deel: I think that’s a great point is that we focus a lot and almost to the point of being overly homogenous about the approach to scholarly writing that we include each other and collaborate among fellow scholars in academe, but we may not think to include our students. And there’s opportunities for them to participate, whether it’s a byline or it’s just an opportunity for them to learn from the experience, they get something out of it. It’s great to be able to put that on their resume and to learn what that experience is like.

There’s a lot of value to come from that for students. And I think embracing that and reaching out to students and to let them know that that’s available is important. Because otherwise, I remember distinctly as a graduate student of three or four programs myself that it’s not something that you would intuitively think is available to you all the time. You don’t necessarily think that “Oh, I can write with my professor if I want to or I can collaborate on a conference presentation with my professor if I want to.” So there’s ways to do that and to be there and to provide additional value for students that go beyond the curriculum of the classroom that you happen to be in.

So I think that’s an additional tip that we can offer for anyone who may be teaching graduate classes and have a desire for additional advice or suggestions on how they can improve on the status quo.

And for graduate students who may be listening to this and wondering about what else they might be able to become involved with in their universities and how they can acquire even more value from the time and effort they’re spending in their programs. So that’s perfect, Ron. Well, thank you. I want to thank you again for sharing your expertise and perspectives on these topics with us today. And thanks for joining me for this episode of Intellectible.

Dr. Ronald Johnson: It was my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Dr. Gary Deel: Perfect. And thank you to our listeners for joining us. You can learn more about these topics by visiting the various American Public University-sponsored blogs. Thank you so much and be well, stay safe everyone. Bye-bye.

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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