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


Supervising Online Doctoral Students

I participated in an ICDE Global Doctoral Consortium (GDC) webinar yesterday. The focus of the webinar was student and supervisor perspectives of online supervision. It was presented by Dr Marguerite Koole and Dr Gale Parchoma from the University of Saskatchewan (Canada). The first part about student perspectives was similar to a presentation I attended by Dr Koole last year, so I will only provide my notes about the supervisor perspective.

Online Doctoral Supervision Commitment

  • Doctoral supervision is long-term, significant time commitment.
  • It is a high-stakes undertaking for both the student and the supervisor.
  • Working together online is complex.
  • A supervisor is expected to provide at minimum 900 hours of support (which in practice can be double that time).
  • The relationship continues beyond the degree as the supervisor can provide scholarly and professional support for a career in academics or a professional career.

Supervisory Challenges

  • Different work locations and flexible hours: Managing different time zones and competing responsibilities. This leads to working at strange hours or over weekends.
  • Interdisciplinary supervision: Disciplinary differences between supervisor and student. Some supervisors do not accept students from different backgrounds, while those that do, may not have strategies to overcome discipline differences.
  • Theoretical & methodological diversity: Differences in preferred theoretical frameworks and research methodologies. Some supervisors insist on matching interests in methodologies/frameworks or adapt to student preferences, which requires additional time.

Dealing with Student and Supervisor Differences

  • It can be challenging to help students overcome “knowledge gaps” and to take on “new world views”.
  • If the difference is significant, either students can be passed on to other supervisors who can better support them or  the supervisor has to help them focus and rethink.
  • Experienced supervisors use “structured brainstorming” to find a middle ground that helps “land research questions” and “find a place in a critique” of previous research to make an original contribution.
  • Supervisors help students to understand “the role of theory” in grappling with research problems.

Development of the Relationship

  • There is always a complex series of negotiations for both the supervisor and the student.
  • Trust is formed over time through transparency and openness to diversity.
  • Usually issues are overcome or either party can request a change.




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.


PhD Research Stays

In our third knowledge sharing session of the year, one of the PhD students in our research group shared his experiences in being a visiting PhD scholar for 3 months.

Before the Stay

  • The first step in planning for a research stay to identify the purpose of the visit and what it should achieve. In his case, his purpose was to consult with experts in his particular topic and widen his literature review.
  • He identified a number of universities and research centres in Europe where he could apply to visit and contacted each one.
  • The application consisted of an email with an application letter, a letter of support from the PhD supervisor, a proposed workplan for the visit as well a CV.
  • He finally received a letter of acceptance from an institute in Switzerland. He used this acceptance letter to apply for funding from our university for the research visit.
  • Once the request for funding has been accepted, he needed to organise the logistics of his visit: airfare and a room to rent for the duration of the stay. Other logistics may include visas, health insurance, etc.

During the Stay

  • An important character trait for the PhD student during the stay is patience when things to do not work out as planned and some flexibility is required.
  • Work with the local host/team to identify proposals for the research visit and agree on the deliverables to achieve.
  • Schedule regular meetings with the local research group and look for opportunities to present your work more widely and get involved with related department activities.

After the Stay

  • Present your deliverables to the research group once you have returned.
  • Keep in contact with the research stay contacts and look for opportunities to work together (co-publishing, sharing databases)



Tips for doing a PhD (and enjoying it)

Today I am back to my studies after having a few weeks off over the summer. This article Five things to think about if you’re considering a doctorate was a good read to get back into focus. From The Conversation, and written by Sioux McKenna, the 5 things are:

  1. Make sure you’re doing it for yourself – consider all your reasons for doing the PhD and ensure the main one is to invest in yourself.
  2. The magic of momentum – “regularity of input, more than the quantity and quality, seems to be key”.
  3. Celebrate small successes – set clear deadlines and share these.
  4. Be kind to yourself – keep a positive outlook and move past poor progress or negative feedback.
  5. Find a community – regularly engage with your fellow travelers.

Top questions to consider when examining a PhD Thesis

This useful article by Patrick Dunleavy Top ten questions for the PhD oral exam: A checklist of ‘viva’ issues that always come up offers some advice on preparing for an oral exam. I am listing the 10 questions below as I think they are important to consider throughout the PhD journey, not just at the end:

  1. What are the most original (or value-added) parts of your thesis?
  2. Which propositions or findings would you say are distinctively your own?
  3. How do you think your work takes forward or develops the literature in this field?
  4. What are the ‘bottom line’ conclusions of your research? How innovative or valuable are they? What does your work tell us that we did not know before?
  5. Can you explain how you came to choose this topic for your doctorate? What was it that first interested you about it? How did the research focus change over time?
  6. Why have you defined the final topic in the way you did? What were some of the difficulties you encountered and how did they influence how the topic was framed? What main problems or issues did you have in deciding what was in-scope and out-of-scope?
  7. What are the core methods used in this thesis? Why did you choose this approach? In an ideal world, are there different techniques or other forms of data and evidence that you’d have liked to use?
  8. What are the main sources or kinds of evidence? Are they strong enough in terms of their quantity and quality to sustain the conclusions that you draw? Do the data or information you consider appropriately measure or relate to the theoretical concepts, or underlying social or physical phenomena, that you are interested in?
  9. How do your findings fit with or contradict the rest of the literature in this field? How do you explain the differences of findings, or estimation, or interpretation between your work and that of other authors?
  10. What are the main implications or lessons of your research for the future development of work in this specific sub-field? Are there any wider implications for other parts of the discipline? Do you have ‘next step’ or follow-on research projects in mind?