Doctoral Students’ Identity Positioning in Networked Learning

On the 19th of September I attended a presentation by Dr Marguerite Koole, from the University of Saskatchewan, Canada.  The focus of the presentation was her research around identities for online doctoral students. These are my notes from the presentation.

Doctoral Degrees

  • Doctoral degrees are more intense and longer than other degrees and require working at a conceptual level. It involves considering the nature of knowledge and contributing original knowledge.
  • It changes the identity of the student.
  • The significance of a doctoral degree is source of new knowledge, practices and technologies. The awarding of doctoral degrees is also linked to the prestige of a university.
  • There are different types: traditional with individual supervision, PhD by publication, a taught doctorate, professional doctorate.
  • Interaction can take place face-to-face, via telephone, email or virtual conference.

Online Doctoral Degrees

  • Offer flexibility for the needs of practitioners and professionals
  • Encourage cohort interaction to reduce isolation and increase support
  • Challenges for online learners are lower completion rates than face-to-face learning and not being able to observe academic conduct norms
  • Some students are not prepared for online doctoral studies and face challenges related to finances, job stability, family commitments and lack of support.

Doctoral Completion Rates

  • Such statistics are difficult to measure, but some examples over 10 years: Canada 34-71%, Australia 30%-70%, England 48% (part-time), 76% (full-time)
  • Challenges are high non-completions and inability for graduates to secure academic work.

Research Study

  • Goal: to explore how online doctoral students in experience challenges to their current identities, norms, and relationships across the various boundaries of their academic and non-academic worlds.
  • Research question: ‘How do doctoral learners in programs describe identity positioning?’
  • Participants: 20 doctoral students in 2 online PhD programmes in Canada.
  • Method: Semi-structured interviews and noting themes, patterns etc.
  • Theoretical framework: Social positioning (Harré, 2010)
    • Conventionalization: Credentials, publications, social and ethical behaviours
    • Appropriation: appropriated concepts, attitudes and behaviours
    • Transformation: perceived status, value of contributions
    • Publication: expression and enactment: writing, publications, public speaking


  • Positioning within general society
    • Increased sense of understanding of society, greater appreciation of others in society, different cultures and societal issues, reinforced value of teaching and serving society.
    • Questioning reasons for study, the personal and society benefitsNarrow focus of PhD not of interest to most people
  • Positioning amongst friends and family
    • Management and examination of multiple priorities, not enough time for relationships, emotional cost from being away from family and friends
    • Sharing information about studies with families and friends – trying to simplify and open communication
    • Reactions from family and friends ranged from disinterest, criticism, lack of understanding to excitement, support and acceptance
  • Positioning within the professional context
    • Trying to synthesise academic and workplace knowledge
    • Leading to promotions and increased status (having a voice in decisions, people listen more). More likely to get full-time teaching positions.
    • Introducing new ideas and practices and examining old work practices
  • Positioning within the doctoral cohort
    • Mixture of competition and collaboration
    • Provided collegiality and supportiveness (sharing successes and failures), providing academic and emotional support
    • Helps to feel if you are on track or not
  • Positioning within the academic department
    • Better understood expectations of academic behaviour and standards of performance
    • Huge leap moving from Masters to PhD
    • Sense of belonging and closer relationships with professors
    • Questioning of ontology and epistemology
  • Positioning within academia
    • More critical of statistics without evidence, better at reading academic articles
    • Understanding of publishing and the value thereof, growing as a writer
    • Exposure to experts from across the world

Implications: Support for online distance students

  • Students can actively shape their support structures: locate a mentor, foster relationships with other students, learn to describe their research in non-threatening and meaningful ways to friends and family and consider the timing of the doctoral journey.
  • Universities can provide orientation sessions (how to manage support structures, finances, health, schedules, etc.), clarify standards of performance and expectations of behaviour (provide writing samples, analytical work, etc.) and encourage conference participation and publication.

For more information about Dr Koole’s research look at: Koole, M., & Stack, S. (2016). Doctoral students’ identity positioning in networked learning environments. Distance Education, 37(1), 41–59.



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