Achieving Person-Centered Education in an Online Environment

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Achieving Person-Centered Education in an Online Environment

As a high-school student, I had the opportunity to choose between a number of really good candidate colleges to pursue my Bachelor’s degree. I wanted a school with a good academic reputation and narrowed my choice to one pretty large university (30,000+ students) and one that had a student population of about 3,000. I chose the smaller school because it felt like I would not be lost in the crowd and would receive personal attention. That turned out to be the right path for me as I had the opportunity to participate in all sorts of sports teams (as a 5’0” guard I played basketball), join a sorority, live on campus, and enjoy the academic and recreational facilities one would expect of a much larger university. Plus class sizes were such that all my professors knew me.

Students have even more choices now. As Dean of Doctoral Programs at University of the Rockies, I find myself in a leadership position in a university with a similar “smaller-college” student experience for graduate education, although there aren’t any dorms, sports teams, or other traditional ways to connect. The student experience at University of the Rockies happens mostly online through classes, webinars, calls, and video interfacing with faculty, other students, and staff. However, the same factors that made for my fruitful undergraduate school experience are built into University of the Rockies’ academic model: highly qualified professors, large-school quality resources, and a person-centered culture treating students as self-directed individuals with unique needs.

Courses at University of the Rockies are designed and taught by faculty who all have a terminal degree, such as a PhD, PsyD, EdD, or JD, and provide top quality education in the classroom. Class sizes stay relatively small, with courses designed to encourage discussions between students and professors, and also among students who are mostly mid-career professionals themselves. The class experience is less like my undergraduate freshman physics lecture with 200 students, and more like the seminar classes I had as a senior, with classmates who had interests similar to mine.

Connection is about availability. While students don’t live on a traditional campus, all the expected support is provided from admissions, academic, and financial services advisors who know students by name, to Student Access and Wellness and Career Services who can provide support when needed. The Library databases are comprehensive for graduate students in the degree programs offered and available 24/7 (unlike my undergraduate library that closed at 10 pm). The Writing Center offers paper review services within 24 hours, as well as online tutorials, videos, and email support. Both the Writing Center and the Library provide 24/7 chat so students can also be connected to a real person at any time they need help. This individualized support helps students who may be working on their schoolwork after they come home from their job and put the kids to bed. In contrast, my undergraduate school was small enough that I could walk everywhere, but I certainly did not have all-night access.

As may be expected, studies of online graduate programs have found that lack of human interaction is a major challenge for students (Deshpande, 2016; Golde, 2000; Hoskings & Goldberg, 2005). To address that challenge, University of the Rockies strives to provide person-to-person interaction at many points of contact. Having a person-centered culture means that faculty, staff, the Registrar, and even the Deans know most of the students by name. We work hard to understand each student’s journey through their studies, and for the doctoral students, through their dissertation. To help prepare for working on their dissertation, doctoral students all attend at least three in-residence workshops in Denver where they meet faculty, staff, and most importantly, each other, to get that extra in-person attention to feel that they are seen, heard, and supported as individuals. One of my job functions is to help students navigate uncommon situations, so I know that care is given to each individual as they decide to enter, reenter, and progress through their respective programs. I have gotten to know most of the faculty and many students, and we all work together to create the best fit for instructors in classes, as well as student-centered dissertation committees. Our Circles of Practice model will, in the future, include both faculty and students with similar interests collaborating on projects.

University of the Rockies may not have sports teams, or even a mascot, however, it does provide a quality person-centered education with the convenience of working toward a degree while at home or on the road. And for a school that focuses on the social and behavioral sciences, it is all about the connection and helping our students succeed.



Written by Dr. Irene Stein, Dean, Doctoral Programs


Deshpande, A. (2016). A qualitative examination of challenges influencing doctoral students in an online doctoral program. International Education Studies, 9(6), 139-149.

Golde, C. M. (1998). Beginning graduate school: Explaining first-year doctoral attrition. New Directions for Higher Education, 101, 55-64.

Hoskins, C. M., & Goldberg, A. D. (2005). Doctoral student persistence in counsellor education programs: Student-program match. Counselor Education and Supervision, 44, 175-187.

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