CIRI blog

Four personal experiences with online learning at the doctoral level

Published: Wednesday, October 2, 2013 by Dr. Cheryl Stenstrom

The following post captures a recent conversation among four faculty members about their experiences as students in online doctoral programs. Mary Ann Harlan and Cheryl Stenström graduated from the San José Gateway PhD program in 2012, Lisa Daulby is on track to graduate from Capella next year, and Mary Bolin graduated from the University of Nebraska in 2007. They discussed the evolution of technologies in these programs, the strong research communities they’ve found, and flexibility these programs offered, and dispel the myth that students in online programs feel isolated.

Mary Ann: So now that more than a year has passed and you have had time to reflect on your experience as a Gateway PhD student what are your ideas about the way the distance aspect of the program works for students? We never actually visited the QUT campus.

Cheryl: That’s a good question, Mary Ann. In addition to the MLIS program at SJSU SLIS, I’ve been involved with LIS distance education for about 10 years, so in some ways there was very little doubt that a distance program would be a good fit for me. I’d seen first hand the rich, meaningful interaction that could take place in an online environment through those previous experience. I guess this is indicative of a doctoral-level program, but I would say our interactions in the program exceeded my expectations in this regard. One of the things I think that was emphasized in the program was the need for students and their supervisors to define the ways and patterns of communication that would work for them in the program, both in terms of our own backgrounds and in considering the online environment. Lisa, you’re in the online program at Capella right now. How has the distance education component affected your doctoral experience so far?

Lisa: Great question and insights Cheryl. The distant education component has greatly affected my doctoral experience. To begin, the online, self-directed learning environment places a great degree of control into the hands of the learner. Both professionally and personally, the virtual learning community was the right space for me to explore my research interests in electronic health records.

I find that there are a number of misconceptions about the e-learning environment including it being isolating, uncongenial and potentially substandard in some manner. As you so eloquently stated, nothing can be further from the truth.

In reflection, I find the distant education experience to be rewarding and progressively enlightened. The asynchronous exchange allows for periods of thoughtful critical thinking and scrutiny while directly absorbing the scholarly magnitude of my colleagues. The instructors and fellow learners I have collaborated with are socially present, and provide high quality, deep and fluid engagement in the curse rooms. Finally, I think that being an online learner provides you with keen insights to facilitate the online educator knowledge base.

Mary, having received your PhD in 2007 within a distant education program in Educational Studies, pedagogically have you observed any significant changes and/or developments in online adult education and learning?

Mary: I was a librarian at the University of Idaho (UI) for 17 years, from 1986 until 2003. While I was there, I took advantage of the employee scholarship program to earn an MA in English. I studied linguistics, and finished my thesis and received my degree in 1999. In the next few years, I took more linguistics courses and ended up having 15 hours beyond my MA. All my courses were face-to-face courses conducted in a classroom. Then I decided to begin working on a PhD, and began taking courses in the College of Education, which has an excellent program in Adult Education. I took one very good face-to-face course on human resource development. It was conducted in the conventional graduate format, 3 hours from 5:00-8:00 p.m., held once a week. I took a summer course in quantitative research methods, also a very good face-to-face course. Then I took my first online course, a qualitative methods course, taught by a UI instructor who resided in Boise, 300 miles from Moscow, where the main UI campus is, and where I lived.

That course was asynchronous, taught using Blackboard, with discussion using Blackboard and email. The main activity of the course was the exploration of qualitative research by students in an independent environment, with the instructor as a coach and guide. There were readings and discussion, but no lectures or other activities. Each student wrote a paper using qualitative research methods. The paper was written in stages throughout the semester: problem statement, research questions, methodology, literature review, and so on, until the final product was complete.

At the end of that semester, my family and I moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, because my husband and I were offered positions as librarians at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln (UNL), where we have spent the past 10 years. When we arrived in Lincoln, I continued working on my PhD, transferring from Adult Education to UNL’s Educational Administration and Higher Education (EDAD) program. UNL also has an employee scholarship program and my MA and the 15 additional linguistics hours would all count toward my PhD. The UNL PhD program had face-to-face classes, but it also had a large number of online courses, with students from all over North America. While I had enjoyed my face-to-face classes at UI, both in linguistics and education, the online environment proved to be wonderful for me, both in terms of convenience and of learning. The EDAD department is a strong department in a strong college, and offers a variety of undergraduate and graduate degrees. The EDAD PhD had almost more students than it could handle at the time I entered it. It offered something so satisfying and useful to the place-bound adults already busy with careers in higher education that it had attracted hundreds of students. The faculty were experienced teachers and scholars, many of them near the conventional age of retirement. They were very innovative in offering their program completely online to those who did not live in Lincoln, and to those like me who did live in Lincoln but who preferred this mode of instruction.

By today’s standards (not even 10 years later), the delivery methods were not sophisticated, although they were very effective. The courses used Blackboard or the IBM Lotus Notes application. In either case, there were readings, discussion forums, online quizzes, and written lectures. There was little audio or video, nothing like Blackboard Collaborate or Panopto, not even narrated PowerPoint lectures. Students had little interaction with instructors, and relied on weekly discussion posts for interaction with other students. Assignments consisted of papers and shorter writing assignments. There were some group assignments (which I confess I did not enjoy), accomplished via email or discussion boards. Mostly there were reading and writing. The rigor of the program, and the satisfaction that I and other students found in it, were in the substantial reading on general and specific topics, some assigned and some identified by students, the lively and thought-provoking discussion with other students, and the extensive scholarly writing required by nearly every class. The online discussion was generally better than I have experienced in face-to-face classes, because everyone had to participate. Discussion thoughts and questions had to be put into writing. Some instructors had particular requirements for discussions, including a minimum number of words, an essay format with thesis statement, and the inclusion of citations to the relevant literature.

This mode of online instruction would not work for everyone. My preferred learning styles are reading and writing. The way I learned in these classes was by rapidly absorbing information about a new area by reading, writing, and online discussion (more reading and writing.) I encountered the same new concepts in all those class activities, and integrated new knowledge with what I already knew, reflecting on my experience as a librarian and administrator, weaving it all together and then producing a paper as a culminating product. All that reading and writing probably made it easier for me to get a dissertation written and completed. I never found the online environment isolating or impersonal. I really felt that I got to know people better than I would have in person. I met some of them at graduation! Also, in this particular kind of graduate program, nearly everyone already had a career in higher education. We had plenty of interaction in our daily lives and were often dealing with the same issues that we were studying – budgeting, planning, and dealing with trends and challenges.

Ten years after enrolling in the program at UNL and six years after completing it (and five years after beginning to teach for the SLIS), I have a very different view of what makes a good online program. I still view my PhD experience very positively, and I see that the principles of andragogy were very strong in that program: co-learning, the instructor as guide and coach, and self-directed learning. Since I’ve been teaching for the SLIS, however, I have learned a great deal about newer learning technology and the learning styles it supports. I have included more kinds of interaction in my teaching and I’m looking forward to learning more and newer techniques. I’ve had a very good response from students, whose learning styles lead them to enjoy reading, listening, visual learning, and so on. I’ve tried not to privilege my own learning style over others that are equally effective and important.

Mary Ann, how do you view the international aspect of your PhD program as having influenced your experience in that program?

Mary Ann: It is interesting that you asked about the international aspect because I feel strongly that it did influence my experience. Early on in the program I used the QUT library as an access point, and the theses database alone introduced me to research I might not have accessed in the US. One thing that stands out to me is that there are different cultural understandings and relationships to youth. Australia has an open conversation about how policy is shaped by moral panics, and to meet the needs of adults, not the realities of youth. While there are researchers who discuss this in the US it isn’t as prevalent in their work. And it isn’t always explicitly stated in their work, the role of youth in shaping their research.

Additionally I think the reading that I did early on introduced me to frameworks and theories I might not have otherwise considered. There is a very strong phenomenographic research community at QUT and while that isn’t the way I eventually went, their understandings of information, and information literacy, certainly shaped my experience in the program. My supervisors were great at letting me develop my own path, but their questions and suggestions certainly influenced the directions I went. I suspect that is likely true of North American programs as well.

The relationship with my research team (or supervisors – I had 2 Aussies, one American) also introduced me to opportunities to talk with researchers I might not have otherwise. For instance, I Skyped in on informal meetings around topics that the research community at QUT was interested in regarding information practice, and experiences of information. There were researchers from Europe visiting so it was a broad international conversation and frankly, a lot of fun. When people ask me about the online nature of the program interfering with the collegiality of being on campus, I always point out that the team in Australia provided opportunity for those conversations. Sure we had to schedule it, but it was informal. In fact, my husband always was amazed at how much laughing we could do about information science topics.

There were times during the program when I was acutely aware of the differences in the program model, although I felt as if it was the best fit for me. It does have different cultural implications, the process of becoming a scholar in the Gateway model. I think the questions about the program have subsided a bit, as people have become aware of the Gateway program, so I didn’t necessarily feel those differences later on. Or maybe I was just more comfortable answering them so I forgot to notice.

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