Readying online doctoral students

Wikeley and Muschamp (2004) in Distance Education 25 (1) explored the intent of the Doctor of Education (EdD) program at the University of Bath. They wanted to determine the importance of engaging doctoral students, learning at a distance, in a community of academic research (versus students’ communities of practice or profession). They discussed the difference between professional and research doctorates, models of doctoral programs (i.e. the traditional master-apprentice), and doctoral student expectations.

They argued that “if the crucial criteria for doctoral-level work are that it engenders ‘original thought,’ ‘critical judgement’ and ‘contribution to knowledge’ then engagement with a research community is an essential factor in the development of the students’ own ‘voice'” (p. 127).

On the flip side, some consider the professional doctorate is about scholarship and practice, and not to prepare for academia. However, the authors of this article not only expect students to have a greater understanding of their practice, but also the theories that underpin then. Engaging students with useable knowedge (practical/applicable focus) also requires engaging with useful knowlege (greater insight through questioning practice). Thus, this would entail bringing students into a community of practice related to academic research.

Pedagogically, this would require:

  • helping students move between two communities based on practice and academic research
  • appreciating the diversity in students’ background, expertise, professions, locations, learning style and cultures
  • supervising students collection of materials required for their learning, and the ability to direct their own lines of investigation
  • allowing different modes of communication (recorded and unrecorded) and exchanges as needed to build a community (to develop a perception of community)
  • helping them build the confidence to voice their ideas in a community of academic research by working collaboratively to build knowledge (gaining a personal authoritative voice and collectively generating knowledge)
  • helping build trust, increase dialogue and share learning experiences in the community to challenge literature and each other, to listen to colleagues, and to build on the discussion and knowledge
  • ensuring the distance student has equivalent experiences as on-campus students (modular programs, group presentations, feedback, interaction, contribute to a research community dialogue)
  • the tutor should sustain the group and promote discussion, train students how to engage in online communication, and help them to understand the culture and process of the doctoral program
  • the tutor should design teaching and learning activities and strategies to enable all of this (opportunity for engagement)

Wikeley and Muschamp used a theory of transactional distance by Moore to develop a new model for designing and delivering professional doctorate programs. They state, as opposed to prescribing learning activities and applying rigid learning structures, “if the structure becomes more adaptable then the transactional distance decreases, dialogue increases and learning autonomy returns” (p.136). 

But, be aware that distance doctoral students, mostly mid-career senior professionals from various public and private sector fields, still have some expectations and a need for structure. They expect tutor expertise, gaining knowledge, advancing and developing their understanding of practice, and embarking on a research journey. Being too unstructured and overly flexible might not work for this high achieving folk.

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