Why Johns Hopkins is eliminating Ed.D. specializations—and what it’s offering instead

BY Isabel Peña AlfaroJanuary 25, 2023, 1:54 PM
A couple throw a frisbee for a dog on the campus of The Johns Hopkins University, as seen in March 2020 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Today’s education leaders are faced with new challenges, including the effects that the COVID-19 pandemic had on ways of learning and teaching, along with the increasing awareness to embrace diversity of thought, background, and experience. But one challenge education leaders needn’t face is choosing a specialization for a doctorate program in education, at least according to Johns Hopkins University.

Whereas applicants to Ed.D. programs must typically choose from a limited number of concentrations—and stick with that specialization throughout the duration of their studies—the faculty at Johns Hopkins University realized that approach created a narrow and siloed way of solving educational problems. That’s why, beginning this year, Johns Hopkins will launch a new model in which Ed.D. students will create their own area of interest in a choose-your-own-adventure style and present their work in a variety of formats beyond the traditional dissertation model.

“We’re essentially giving students more choice, opportunity, and ways to engage,” says Laura Flores Shaw, interim director of the online doctor of education program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. As the applicability of this degree grows and enrollment in many Ed.D. programs is surging—including at Johns Hopkins, where enrollment has almost doubled since its inception in 2013—the university is also rethinking the traditional dissertation process so students can reach audiences beyond academia.

Because education is traditionally siloed, the new approach at Johns Hopkins will foster an interdisciplinary and broad mindset, Flores Shaw adds. By eliminating specializations, the university aims to encourage students to broaden their horizons and study content from concentrations they might have previously labeled as irrelevant to their specific research topic. Students can blend areas of interest and take courses from various disciplines to understand their issue from a holistic perspective. 

Here’s what prospective students need to know about the revamped Ed.D. program at Johns Hopkins.

How will the program break down traditional education silos?

The four-year Ed.D. program at Johns Hopkins will now focus on process versus outcome, notes Flores Shaw. The program encourages students to solve challenges with an open mind and take time to understand the issue at hand rather than rush to solutions. “By focusing on the process—allowing this learning process to be messy and so forth—we want our students to experience education in a different way,” she says.

An example of this shift is the move from the traditional dissertation into a dossier-style project. “In the past, we’ve had students write only in scholarly writing,” says Flores Shaw. “The problem is that it limits how that work is disseminated.”

With the dossier, students will first identify their project’s intended audience. Students will have the choice to create their dossier in a style that will appeal to, and connect with, their audience. Dossiers can be presented in a scholarly written document, a graphic novel, an audio story, or other formats.

“We’re allowing students to present those projects in any modality that they wish, so we’re not privileging scholarly, academic writing,” notes Flores Shaw. “We’re understanding that there’s value in all forms of communication, and that doesn’t take away from the rigor that is still expected.” 

Current students in the entrepreneurial leadership area of interest have already started switching to dossier format. One student works for a company that trains nuclear plant operators. She conducted her doctoral research on mind-brain teaching, and for her dossier, she is writing a playbook with updated training for nuclear plant operators, based on her research. The project will live on her employer company’s website.

By allowing students to create their dossier in a variety of formats outside academic lingo, the faculty believes that change will result in an environment that empowers more students to thrive—making this degree even more worthwhile to grads. 

“If we are privileging one form of communication over another, we are not actually walking the talk of the social justice piece,” adds Flores Shaw about the decision to remove the traditional dissertation method.

Students can exercise leadership by taking control of their doctoral journey

Students in the Ed.D. program are prepared to lead from a social justice perspective. They are encouraged to look at education as a whole, rather than concentrating on traditional subjects of study and disciplines, such as math, science, and English. 

They are taught to lead by, “understanding people’s lived experiences, by learning about neurodiversity, which means also understanding that most of our behavioral expectations come from a hetero-normative, neurotypical dominant culture,” notes Flores Shaw. By accepting—and even applauding—a variety of forms of communication, coupled with the shift away from discipline-only study, students from diverse backgrounds will flourish, she adds.

“We have these ideals and we have these visions and, then, it’s about the implementation,” Flores Shaw says of the new program. The learning process will include both faculty and incoming doctoral students. “We are very excited about what we are going to learn from them and what we’re going to see from them.” 

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