PhD Thesis

On the 17th of January I successfully defended my thesis. Thank you to everyone who helped me along this journey!

The thesis is available to read (4Mb Pdf):  Supporting Seamless Learning: Students’ Use of Multiple Devices in Open and Distance Learning Universities


ICDE Conference 2017 Presentations

Last week I attended the ICDE World Conference on Online Learning in Toronto, Canada. I will share a follow up post later that talks more generally about the conference, but below are the two presentations I gave at the conference, one as part of the main programme and one in the Global Doctoral Consortium track. These presentations allowed me to share some of the results from my PhD research.

Becoming Seamless Learners: ODL Students’ Use of Multiple Devices

Moving to Seamless Learning: Multiple Devices and Changing Study Habits

Submission of Thesis

I have not posted in a while as I have been busy finishing up my thesis. I have just submitted so will catch up with some blog posts over the next few days as it has been a busy few weeks. Below is the abstract for my thesis. If you are interested in reading the thesis (undergoing review now) then email me and I will gladly send you a copy.

Thesis Abstract: Supporting Seamless Learning: Students’ Use of Multiple Devices in Open and Distance Learning Universities

The widespread access to mobile and personal technologies, together with internet services, has created the potential for the continuity of learning experiences across different technologies, contexts and settings. These digital technologies include both fixed (desktops and laptops) and handheld technologies (tablets and smartphones). The use of emerging technologies in education is associated with emerging educational practices. Educators need to be aware of not only what their students learn, but how and why as well. However, there is a lack of awareness of how students use their different devices for learning and how Open and Distance Learning (ODL) universities can effectively support them to do so. The purpose of this exploratory study is to understand the learning habits and behaviours of students using different devices for learning. This is to determine how students move between technologies, locations and learning activities and the types of support they require. The research uses the concept of seamless learning as a theoretical framework, where students can continue their learning experiences across different contexts. A case study approach was followed. Two ODL universities were explored, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya in Spain and the University of South Africa in South Africa. A mixed methods design was used with a sequential explanatory strategy. Quantitative data (online surveys) was first collected from undergraduate students in each case to identify the significant variables and relationships. This data was analysed using descriptive, correlation and regression analyses. This was followed by the collection of qualitative data (semi-structured interviews) to build on the quantitative data and to explain the relationships. This data was analysed using a grounded theory approach. The results indicate the students are using multiple devices in multiple locations to perform different learning activities. Although students make use of technologies in different ways (according to their needs), some patterns emerged. Access to devices is no longer an issue as the majority of students have access to three or four digital devices for learning. Students use their devices in a variety of public and private locations, yet home is still the preferred location for study. The more portable a device, the more places it is used.  Fixed devices are seen as central devices for study purposes and used for almost all learning activities. However, handheld devices are seen as supplementary devices and are used for fewer, more specific, learning activities. The results also indicate that students use their devices together to be more efficient and productive. The use of devices together can be classified as sequential (moving from one device to another) or simultaneous (using two or more devices at the same time). The movement between devices is facilitated by cloud services that enable automatic synchronisation. However, internet access is still an issue for some students. The use of multiple devices, together with the associated software and services, are affecting study habits. Conversely, most educators do not take students’ use of multiple devices into account in the design, facilitation or support of learning experiences. Students using multiple devices require both academic and technological support to succeed. The findings have been synthesised to propose a framework for student use of multi-devices for learning to assist educators to design better learning experiences or offer improved support to students. The main influencers of how frequently a device is used for learning are: i) the learning activity or goal; ii) the location or environment; and iii) the devices the student accesses and uses for learning. However, the frequency is also influenced, to a lesser extent, by the time available, the perceived importance of the device to academic success, the level of digital expertise and the device affordances. The majority of students are able to move between devices and contexts and continue their learning experiences seamlessly. However, this does mean there is a minority of students who cannot yet learn seamlessly. These students may require additional levels of support. These findings indicate that ODL universities need to refine their learning design and support services to better meet the needs of students using multiple devices.

Potential Thesis Defence Questions

As I move into my final year of my PhD, the focus is now solely on the analysis of the data I have collected, collecting all my thoughts, and writing the thesis. I found this article on 40 possible thesis defence questions by Rebecca Ferguson. The questions are listed below:

1. Can you start by summarising your thesis?
2. Now, can you summarise it in one sentence?
3. What is the idea that binds your thesis together?
4. What motivated and inspired you to carry out this research?
5. What are the main issues and debates in this subject area?
6. Which of these does your research address?
7. Why is the problem you have tackled worth tackling?
8. Who has had the strongest influence in the development of your subject area in theory and practice?
9. Which are the three most important papers that relate to your thesis?
10. What published work is closest to yours? How is your work different?
11. What do you know about the history of [insert something relevant]?
12. How does your work relate to [insert something relevant]?
13. What are the most recent major developments in your area?
14. How did your research questions emerge?
15. What were the crucial research decisions you made?
16. Why did you use this research methodology? What did you gain from it?
17. What were the alternatives to this methodology?
18. What would you have gained by using another approach?
19. How did you deal with the ethical implications of your work?
20. How has your view of your research topic changed?
21. How have you evaluated your work?
22. How do you know that your findings are correct?
23. What are the strongest/weakest parts of your work?
24. What would have improved your work?
25. To what extent do your contributions generalise?
26. Who will be most interested in your work?
27. What is the relevance of your work to other researchers?
28. What is the relevance of your work to practitioners?
29. Which aspects of your work do you intend to publish – and where?
30. Summarise your key findings.
31. Which of these findings are the most interesting to you? Why?
32. How do your findings relate to literature in your field?
33. What are the contributions to knowledge of your thesis?
34. How long-term are these contributions?
35. What are the main achievements of your research?
36. What have you learned from the process of doing your PhD?
37. What advice would you give to a research student entering this area?
38. You propose future research. How would you start this?
39. What would be the difficulties?
40. And, finally… What have you done that merits a PhD?

Supporting Online Doctoral Students

Following on from my previous post about Doctoral Identities in Networked Learning, this post continues with my reflections after a workshop with Dr Marguerite Koole from the University of Saskatchewan in Canada. It focuses on student readiness for online doctoral students and supporting students already in the doctoral programme. Another area of interest, not discussed in this post, is the support for students once they have completed the degree.

Readiness for Online Doctoral Studies

Dr Koole has created a self-assessment survey (shared under a Creative Commons license) to help students check if they are prepared for doing an online PhD. Below are some of the key issues to consider for students:

  • Academic Preparation
    • Qualification alignment with the departmental doctoral degree requirements
    • Similarity of doctoral field to masters field
    • Alignment of research paradigm with the dominant epistemological and/or ontological positions of the department
    • Knowledge and experience of faculty members in your area of research
    • Awareness of completion statistics in the department
    • Opportunities for teaching or being involved in research projects within the department
    • Flexible structure of the doctoral programme
    • Availability of orientation sessions for new doctoral students
  • Personal Preparation
    • Availability of friends or family to openly discuss  your doctoral studies
    • Impact of any health issues or family responsibilities
    • Impact of any major life events e.g. lifestyle or work
    • Awareness of your reasons for doing a doctorate
  • Professional Preparation
    • Support of your employer or possibility of career changes
    • Connection of research interests with workplace responsibilities
    • Availability of co-workers who have gone through doctoral studies
    • Future job prospects in your area of research after completing the degree
  • Financial Preparation
    • Savings specifically made for studies and a contingency fund for emergencies
    • Preparation of a budget (tuition, books, conferences, loss of wages, cost of living) and tracking of financial activities
    • Possible reduction in working hours and income
    • Sources of funding (internal and external to the university)
    • Financial support responsibilities e.g. family
  • Technological preparation
    • Access to a computer and internet access
    • Comfort in using basic tools (Word, browser, email, Skype) and other software e.g. research analysis software

Support for Online Doctoral Studies

In the workshop, we worked in groups to come up with a support system for online doctoral students. Here are some of the elements our group discussed:

  • Cohort Support
    • An online community to share relevant information (upcoming conferences, workshops, relevant journals) and a forum for Q&A. This could be as simple as a WhatsApp group or as detailed as dedicated community space.
  • Supervisor Support
    • A supervisory contract to share expectations and e.g. timetables for meetings.
  • Mentor Support
    • This could be an academic or a recently qualified PhD holder to provide emotional support and counselling services.
  • Department Support
    • A list of “How tos” to share important information e.g. how to submit a proposal, obtain ethical approval, follow grievance processes, apply for funding.
  • Technological Support
    • Training or information on how to use various research tools e.g. SPSS
  • Research / Academic Support
    • Training or information on academic writing, publishing, time management, proofreading, peer review, reference management, designing questionnaires etc.
  • Network / Dissemination Support
    • Financial resources for attending conferences and summer schools.

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.


The Thesis Literature Review

This blog post was inspired by going through a presentation (36 slides) by Dr Judy Maxwell (2013) from RMIT, Australia, entitled Styling and Structuring the Literature Review.

Purpose of a literature review

The purpose of the literature review is to understand the current body of knowledge, what is missing from the body of knowledge, and how your study adds to it. The literature review also provides a theoretical underpinning to the research. It can answer the questions: What do I understand about this topic? What is the case for my research? These central questions can be supplemented by the following questions:

  • What are the definitions in this topic? Are they contested?
  • What is the history of this topic?
  • What have been the major issues and debates?
  • What are the key ideas, theories and concepts?
  • How is knowledge in this topic organised?
  • Who are the key players and what are the key texts?

A literature review does not need to contain all the associated literature. You need to select the most useful and relevant research for your specific topic area and to highlight the major issues.

Writing work as identity work

Writing a literature review involves developing your stance towards the literature. It becomes part of your identity. ‘Identity’ is complex and constantly evolving. It includes your socio-cultural background and your scholarly background.

Finding your voice

Think about the literature review using the metaphor of hosting a dinner party. You have chosen the (limited) number of guests, some guests are more familiar than others, everyone will have ideas to explore and issues to debate, but you are the host. It is about finding or adding your voice to the literature. You need to be clear about where you stand in the field of your work:

  • Make your ideas and arguments central
  • Frame discussion as a debate
  • Create a story relevant to your study by showing the different positions in the field

Structuring a literature review

Situate your research within a general context in the literature by defining and identifying the general topic or issue. Generally, the review will look at gaps in the literature, trends, themes and areas of dissent or controversy. Although the literature is typically one or two chapters in a thesis, the literature will be used throughout your thesis, particularly: in providing a rationale for the study in the introduction, in justifying your methodology, and in linking your discussion back to past research. Two possible structures:

A) Funnel structure

  • Introduce the problem and context
  • Highlight the development of major concepts, influential studies etc
    • Focus on areas of agreement, modification of design, tensions, inadequacies
    • Narrow the focus to studies closest to your own
  • Identify the gap where your research fits
  • Sum up and link to your research

B) Thematic structure

  • Introduce the problem and context
  • 1st theme
    • Focus on areas of agreement, tensions and inadequacies, narrowing the focus to studies closest to your own
  • 2nd theme
    • Focus on areas of agreement, tensions and inadequacies, narrowing the focus to studies closest to your own
  • 3rd theme
    • etc.
  • Identify the gap where your research fits
  • Sum up and link to your research

As final points, remember to summarise the major contributions, point out inconsistencies and gaps, and relate to your research question or problem.


Maxwell, J (2013). Styling and Structuring the Literature Review. Available: