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Jobs, jobs, jobs! ETRA Ph.D. students, grads turn IT prep into prestigious gigs

December 14, 2020
Max Anderson
Max Anderson

Max Anderson is on a unique journey.

He was the first instructional designer hired by the University of Illinois College of Medicine. That was 2013. And when college administrators were ready a few years later to recruit and appoint a director of Instructional Design and Learning Innovation, they turned to Anderson.

Well, sort of.

“I helped write my own job description, so that’s sometimes awkward,” says Anderson, who in May earned a Ph.D. in Instructional Technology from NIU. “Even though I was technically the first choice, the college HR did do an open search for the required three weeks.”

Anderson now is staying quite busy, hoping to “eventually have a team of instructional designers, educational technologies, videographers, multimedia experts and others under me so we can help faculty and staff at a much more exponential rate.”

But “realistically, due to COVID, I will not have a team any time soon,” he says, “so it’s all on me for instructional design work in the college.”

That promotion, and those new responsibilities, put Anderson in good company with several other recent graduates or current students in the Department of Educational Technology, Research and Assessment who are climbing the professional ladder.

  • Lei (Heidy) Zhao, a current student in the Ph.D. program, has become a senior learning designer at the Northwestern University Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute (NUCATS).
  • Ashanti (Jefferson) Morgan, also a current student, is now senior manager of Global Learning & Development for the Battle Creek, Mich.-based Kellogg Co.
  • Maureen Hogan, who will graduate in spring 2021, has been hired by the University of Notre Dame as an instructional designer/technologist.
  • Kenie Moses, who graduated in May 2019 with his Ph.D., is currently an assistant professor of Engineering and Mathematics and department head of Engineering & Technology at Southern University at Shreveport (SUSLA).
  • Fahad Al Shahrani, who earned his Ph.D. in 2014, is general manager of Human Resources Development Fund Academies in Saudi Arabia.
Wei-Chen Hung and Judy Puskar
Wei-Chen Hung and Judy Puskar

ETRA Chair Wei-Chen Hung is not surprised by the success stories: Graduate students in the Instructional Design programs are rarely comfortable with the status quo, Hung says, and are continually striving to challenge themselves, grow in their abilities and advance in their careers.

“They’re not just coming here to learn the newest knowledge,” Hung says. “In our community, we are always seeking opportunities to educate people – to influence people – with the newest technology, with the data and with the different types of learning theories. This is why people in their organizations trust them. They are the people who know how to improve the organization, the school district or the company.”

Judy Puskar, academic program advisor, agrees.

“Our students are very dedicated professionals to begin with,” Puskar says, “and being in the College of Education, they have that drive to teach and also to be informed and current. Our program is especially good for them because we have such a strong foundation in research and educational theory and because we integrate practice.”

Moses, as an assistant professor, is a good example.

After earning his NIU degree, Moses received an invitation from SUSLA to develop an associate degree program in Computer Engineering Technology. Meanwhile, he “revamped the Engineering Technology degree program that was previously in place at SUSLA until the untimely passing of the department head in 2011 and had lain dormant since.

Kenie Moses
Kenie Moses

Now he teaches courses, develops research projects, writes grants to support those programs and conducts recruitment and outreach including engagement with employers and matriculation and transfer agreements.

His work is important, he says, because SUSLA is part of the only Historically Black Colleges and Universities system in the United States that serves predominantly under-represented minorities from diverse backgrounds.

“We reach students who are traditionally ‘hard to reach’ or ‘left behind’ by the educational system and empower them to reach their educational and workplace goals to become successful contributors to society,” Moses says.

“The program works with students early in their academic careers, which helps shape the direction that their life takes in either two-year, four-year or lifelong learning,” he adds. “The program also enrolls non-traditional students providing workforce pathways to employment or retooling their previously acquired skills enabling them to join or rejoin society as workforce-ready completers.”

Al Shahrani manages programs delivered by the HRDF Academies, responsible for human capital development to prepare employees in specialized subjects in Saudi Arabia’s private sector.

One of those is the Leadership Academy to ensure future leaders “lead their organizations as per the Kingdom Vision 2030 that corroborates the qualitative localization of leadership in terms of providing high-caliber leaders with excellent planning and innovation capabilities.”

“The impact of what we do goes much further than one organization or group of people,” Al Shahrani says. “It is a great opportunity to serve the country and have a direct impact on the future.”

Lei Zhao
Lei (Heidy) Zhao

The future is already now for current students Zhao, Hogan and Morgan.

Zhao had worked at Rush University Medical Center for about five years before taking her new role at NUCATS.

She is taking the lead on the process of training, curriculum design and development, using instructional technology to support competency acquisition and to build and implement instructional programs.

“The training we design and develop at NUCATS will help clinical research professionals in responsible and appropriate conduct of clinical research and will eventually help to develop the needed workforce for clinical research,” Zhao says.

“The part I like best is to see learners and participants gain knowledge and skills, and build up confidence in conducting clinical trials,” she adds. I hope I can not only design, develop and implement the training programs but also conduct studies on how the selected educational frameworks and technologies impact the learning so as to provided evidence to others who are in similar shoes.”

Hogan credits her role as TA and ETT229 course coordinator, a responsibility that includes proxying the computer proficiency exam, for helping her to earn her new job at Notre Dame.

“This was a huge opportunity, and it was this opportunity that I believe allowed me to accept the position at Notre Dame,” says Hogan, who began her Ph.D. program in 2015.

“The job notice popped up on my LinkedIn, and I thought, ‘Why don’t I try – just for grins,’ ” she adds. “Fortunately, I have kept my resume updated throughout my education, and continued to add items to my portfolio so I didn’t have to do more than write the cover letter. I have to say I was shocked when I got the phone call. And then more so when I was asked to come back for another interview. When the third interview with the head of learning at Notre Dame happened, I couldn’t breathe. It was a roller coaster ride!”

Maureen Hogan
Maureen Hogan

Notre Dame is transitioning to a new learning management system that will allow more flexible learning, she says.

When she begins her job, she will help with data analysis to understand the level of engagement students have in online courses, develop surveys, recommend policies, support teachers in their design process and assist students with technical issues.

“I am quite sure that the role will expand as the field of instructional technology continues to grow,” says Hogan, who also is a part-time adjunct instructor at Waubonsee Community College.

“As the pandemic crisis hit higher education, it has become apparent to all that our educational system in higher education across the country needs to really look at how to use the many advances in technology to offer today’s students more flexibility in how they learn,” she adds. “The gentle nudge that faculty development departments have been doing for years to persuade decision-makers and professors of the importance of distance learning became a hard shove into the reality.”

All five happily endorse the department, the program and the “kind and giving” faculty.

Encouragement to write, submit and publish articles. To apply for grants. To attend and present at conferences. To join the Graduate Student Association and its symposiums. To collaborate with professors on data collection, data analysis and literature review. To participate in college research – and even search! – committees. To take cutting-edge courses in new technologies such as virtual reality and user experience (UX) design.

“This holistic approach to developing graduate students is what, I believe, made me a better faculty member at Southern University,” Moses says. “Furthermore, the department’s faculty was always willing to engage graduate students in conversation and coursework while promoting research ideas that made each graduate student a better future researcher.”

Faculty and advisors “are reachable and responsible all the time,” Zhao says. “My advisors always recommend courses based on my needs. My program has been tailored particularly to support my research interest and research conduct.”

Fahad Al Shahrani
Fahad Al Shahrani

“NIU-ETRA gave me the keys to open new opportunities,” Al Shahrani adds. “ETRA is always innovative and flexible to meet the requirement of today’s needs with a touch of readiness for the future.”

Anderson appreciates the networking.

“The program connected me with some wonderful colleagues at NIU, including my classmates, instructors and administration level. Establishing relationships and connectedness is even more important while we are in the midst of a pandemic,” he says. “I have recommended ETRA to some of my colleagues and, to date, two of those people followed my advice and are also now in the doctoral program.”

Hogan would agree.

“The most important thing that ETRA has done is given me a sense of family. Our office staff is beyond amazing and does everything they can to help solve problems. Our professors pay attention and, if you need a meeting, they are there for you,” she says.

“But most importantly, they are role models. They work hard to get grants, add to the knowledge in the field of instructional technology and research, and make sure that their students are well-prepared with the skills they need to be successful,” she adds. “And Dr. Hung works harder than any person I have ever met in my long life – I am on the dark side of my 50s now – to bring together a global community where we can interact with incredible people from all over the world.”