In 2014 HECSE developed Quality Indicators for Preparation of Leadership Personnel in Special Education. These indicators have been used by many programs to guide the development and evaluation of doctoral programs in special education. At the request of HESCE leadership, a committee was formed to review the quality indicators and to make recommendations for online doctoral programs in special education.

Each quality indicator was carefully examined and discussed to determine whether the indicator could be met through an online format and what if any specific considerations would need to be addressed to ensure quality. It was determined that all of the quality indicators could be applied to an online doctoral program and special considerations were identified. The table below lists the indicators with general comments as they relate to online programming.

Quality IndicatorHow can this be accomplished in an online program?
1. Program has a mission statement that address both process and product elements.• On the website.
• Be explicit and consistent.
• Thorough handbook; program of study.
2. Roles and functions of the graduates are clearly defined and meet an identified need in the field.• Explicitly stated on webpage. Indicate career options; desired career paths
3. Program has a clearly defined set of competencies related to teaching, research, and service, as well as measurable instructional objectives for each of those competencies.• Can be clearly defined online.
• Feedback should always be provided.
• Through detailed Doctoral student Annual Reviews
• May need some more specificity here – Especially for teaching, research, and service competencies. Rubric regarding how competencies are met must be developed and maintained.
4. Program content is grounded in foundational literature of the field, reflects state of the art research and evidence-based practice, and is related to the mission and identified competencies of the program.• Each course syllabus details competencies and content to be covered.
5. Syllabi, program descriptions, and doctoral experiences include best practices related to research methods and evaluation and use of data.• Careful consideration is needed to determine how Doctoral experiences will be observed, measured, and supervised to ensured they include best practices related to research methods and evaluation and use of data
6. Students participate in an array of professional experiences that progress from mentored to independent, that align to research, teaching, and service.• Need to establish a network within their community. Have clear guidelines for establishing experiences, and an appropriate timeline.
• Embed through field experiences using ZOOM, skype, or other online collaboration strategies.
• An alternative indicator may need to be included or amended for how students would access mentored research, teaching, and service experiences via an online program.
• Annual Review that covers broad range of doctoral experiences.
• Summer Institute format may enhance experiences.
7. Program faculty are productive scholars, researchers, and practitioners who serve as models and mentors and whose skills contribute to the mission of the program.• Connect faculty & students via Skype/Zoom
• Ensure that faculty teaching online courses have the needed professional development and support to develop and teach online using state of the art methods and applications.
8. Program demonstrates commitment to recruiting, sustaining, and matriculating students from under-represented populations.• Provide incentives as grants/scholarships.
• Easy to access online curriculum with flexibility with scheduling.
• Make sure website is current and updated.
• Marketing needs to be strong and on-going.
9. The resources available are adequate both at the program level and at the institutional level to maintain and assure a high quality program over time.• Ensure that adequate IT support is available on-campus and off site.
• Enlist experienced and dedicated faculty to provide ample opportunities and feedback online.
• Use online platform that allows for state of the
10. Program has a mechanism for ongoing assessment and evaluation of the progress of individual doctoral students.• One-on-one meetings – not just classes.
• Ensure regular contact and ongoing assessment.
11. Program will have a system of keeping track of outcomes for graduates that indicates clear alignments between the program’s mission and their subsequent employment.• Institutional Program Assessment Plan
12. Program will have a system of keeping track of current and former student accomplishments throughout their program and for at least three years after graduation in the areas of teaching, research, and service resulting in a clear alignment to the program’s mission.• Individual program tracking by advisor
• Online progress system.
• Maintain software program to build portfolio.
13. The evaluation plan is used to revise and refine the program.• Document through Program evaluation plan.

Guidance for developing online doctoral programs in special education

Traditional full-time doctoral students learn through ongoing interactions and relationships that are developed in person over time. Intentional planning for this type of incidental learning in an online program is needed. So much of the doctoral learning experience happens outside of coursework.


  • Use a cohort model where students enter the program as part of a community (Kumar & Coe, 2017)
  • Incorporate specific experiences within the courses that students are required to take. For example, some content courses require that students prepare and submit a conference proposal, or a journal article, or a mini-grant.
  • Use a combination of synchronous and asynchronous experiences to ensure quality.
  • Maintain quality control through rigorous admission criteria and a reasonable number of students admitted. The student to faculty ratio must be controlled.
  • Provide for information literacy (i.e. how to access library and other data-bases) (Kumar & Coe, 2017)
  • Create or adapt resources to help online student navigate program (create online webinars and resource pages that students can use throughout program) (Kumar & Coe, 2017)
  • Allow for flexibility in faculty teaching style while maintaining integrity of Quality Matters.

Guidance for mentoring online doctoral students

  • Use frequent, varied, synchronous and online asynchronous online technologies (i.e. email, Skype, ZOOM, phone, social media) for different purposes (Bierma & Merriam, 2002; Kumar & Coe, 2017)
  • Formats that use web-cameras such as ZOOM, FaceTime and Skype add the benefit of real-time conversation and non-verbal communication (Jacobs, et al, 2015)
  • Frequent and timely communication including expectations, deadlines and timelines. (Kumar & Coe, 2017)
  • Consider small-group virtual meetings and mentoring to facilitate student to student peer connections. High structure and high dialogue during course work facilitates closer community of learners (Kumar & Coe, 2017)
  • Consider periodic face to face meetings on campus and during professional conferences for students to get to know each other and to connect with faculty.


Bierma, L. L., & Merriam, S. B. (2002). E-mentoring: Using computer mediated Communication to enhance the mentoring process. Innovative Higher Education, 26, 211-227.

HECSE (2014). Recommendations of the Higher Education Consortium in Special Education for Quality Indicators for Preparation in Special Education. http://hecse.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/HECSEQualityIndicators14.pdf

Jacobs, K., Doyle,N., Ryan, C. (2015). The nature, perception, and impact of e-mentoring on post-professional occupational therapy doctoral students. Occupational Therapy in Healthcare, 29, 201-213. https://doi.org/10.3109/07380577.2015.1006752

Kumar, S., & Coe, C. (2017). Mentoring and online support in online doctoral programs. American Journal of Distance Education, 31, 128-142. https://doi.org/10.1080/08923647.2017.1300464

Quality Matters (2017). Non-annotated Standards from the QM Higher Education Rubric, Fifth Edition. https://www.qualitymatters.org/sites/default/files/PDFs/StandardsfromtheQMHigherEducationRubric.pdf