Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Doctoral Programs Online

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jul 12, 2000

Posted to DEOS-L, 12 July, 2000

I have commented from time to time about the urge to use new technology to do old things. The same applies in the recent discussion regarding doctoral degrees online. In a post a few of weeks ago, Dennis Roberts opined that such a program would:

A. not be as complete as an on campus program
B. will take shortcuts in what it requires you to do ...
C. and most importantly, it will NOT leave you with a very satisfied experience (overall) for a graduate of a doctoral program ...

Whether an online doctorate would suffer from such weaknesses depends, of course, on what it is intended to be.

Roberts asks,

  1. what is the doctoral degree?
  2. what are the essential components or facets of a doctoral education?
  3. what distinguishes a doctoral program from say ... what we try to accomplish in a bachelors degree ... or, for that matter, in a masters degree

Perhaps the best way to approach such a question is to ask ourselves what it is we allow a Ph.D. to do over and above what we will allow a Masters to do. The following list should suffice:

  1. Obtain a tenure-track position at a university, as expressed by Phil Rasmussen's criterion of "workforce development." True, there are some instances in which non-Ph.D.s are appointed to such positions, but in today's environment especially such appointments are rare.

  2. Teach higher level university courses. This is not the same as the above item, as legions of sessional instructors will attest. And though we appoint Masters to teach lower level courses, the teaching of higher level and graduate students is reserved for Ph.D.s.

  3. Call oneself a 'doctor'. This is not so trivial as one may at first suspect; the doctoral designation, unique among academic credentials, precedes the first name; it becomes a title, like 'Lord' or 'Sir' or 'Duke'.

Such a list may not look so impressive, but it embodies the goals and ambitions of droves of graduate students across North America. Especially the first, as a tenure-track position embodies a professional salary, job security, sabbatical, research opportunities, and faculty club membership. It represents the right and privilege to devote oneself solely to the pursuit of one's field of study without distraction, encumbered only by the need to teach and appoint others to do the same in the future.

Let's set this description aside the descriptions offered by Roberts and his critics:

Steve Eskow suggests, in passing: - mastery of a body of knowledge - practitioner skills, and a praxis of theory and practice undergirding those skills - oral defense of the dissertation, and a faculty verdict on the quality of the research and the defense

We assume that a Ph.D. has mastered a body of knowledge, the contents of which are set by comprehensive examination committees (in those programs which have comprehensive exams) or program curricula. As Tom Abeles notes, the standards - both in the nature of the knowledge to be mastered, and the definition of what constitutes 'mastered' - varies from program to program, institution to institution. But let us not be diverted by this.

Whether one studies online, or in person, or in a seminary or perhaps the deep dark woods (as did one acquaintance of mine), knowledge may be mastered in a variety of ways. And though personal instruction may be useful - to keep the student on track, as it were - it is neither a necessary nor a sufficient criterion of mastery.

But were the obtaining of a Ph.D. representative merely of the mastery of a body of knowledge, it would not be held up as a necessary condition for appointment to a tenure-track position (the ads would say, "Ph.D. or equivalent experience," as so many other employment advertisements do).

As Steve Eskow recognizes, we can judge the process by its results, and not its internal configuration:

Suppose candidates for a certain degree were required to pass a set of examinations designed by the university, or a consortium of universities, or the ABA or the AMA.....

Would be earners of the degree could then take a medley of courses from anywhere, or no courses: if they pass the examinations, they have demonstrated their worthiness for the degree.

Nurses, doctors, lawyers now get the right to practice in this way. Doesn't matter, in a sense, if a nursing faculty has inflated grades: the student who can't pass state boards can't practice nursing.

I think that the criterion of 'mastery of a body of knowledge' often carries with it an implicit supposition that the mastery of knowledge ought to occur "in the right way." Knowledge obtained by one's own wit and wisdom is viewed to be suspect; only knowledge obtained under the wing of a master is viewed with confidence. It is the master who maintains standards, who maintains the purity of the discipline.

As Donald Winieki comments,

It is the faculty member who keeps up with the literature. It is the faculty member who actively contributes to the field or discipline. Who else is qualified to know it, and to recognize when a student is straying or has actually got some important message to send? It is certainly not possible for bureaucratic standards committees to know these things, nor is it likely that a student will be able to navigate these matters in the absence of a good faculty supervisor.

Now this is a fascinating statement and one wonders how a professors themselves are able to keep learning in the absence of such enlightened guidance. As Jerry Linnins comments,

What I hear is an awful lot of personal preference being passed off as documented fact. Each of us learn differently and the best education, training, and instructional events take that fact into consideration in both their design AND delivery.

It ought to be possible, at least in principle, for a person to learn on their own, in the absence of professorial mentoring. Certainly, before committing to the need for such an intensive and expensive system of education, one ought to be required to prove that it is necessary.

The point of Robert's remarks is that no bureaucratic decision-making procedure can assess whether a graduate student has mastered the knowledge required to become a Ph.D. And yet, isn't this exactly the point of the third criterion - an oral defense of a thesis?

An oral defense does not take that long - usually no more than a day - and thus could easily be a component of a job interview or the subject of an independent review board (indeed, most of the committee just is an such a board). Moreover, I avow that many non-Ph.D.s could survive an oral defense of their theses in their chosen disciplines, just as many non-Ph.D.s could - given the time and motivation - author a dissertation on their field of interest. All this without the mentoring of a professorial master.

Indeed, the only criterion in Eskow's list which can NOT be measured at the job interview process, and which therefore is must be a necessary condition for appointment to a tenure-track position, and hence constitutes at least a part of the essence of a Ph.D., is "practitioner skills, and a praxis of theory and practice undergirding those skills."

The problem - despite comments by Tom Abeles and others - is not grade inflation or similar matters of academic administration. The problem lies in the question of whether professors are willing to accept forms of instruction over which they do not have direct control, on the grounds that they will not pass on the "practitioner skills" they deem essential to the discipline.

Indeed, it seems that these skills - rather than the amassing of a certain body of knowledge, which could be accomplished by anybody - are what distinguish a Ph.D. from a non-Ph.D. As Tom Abeles asserts,

McLuhan was right. The medium is the message- again, how materials are structured, presented and engaged with makes a difference whether we are working out a math problem with chalk and board or using mathematica, whether we are doing it in a classroom or in virtual space where representations can be "touched" and moved by hands rather than keyboards and equations. Geographical information systems change our views of the world and impact on global cultures.

The metaphysical underpinnings are crucial and to have a Ph.D. without metaphysical and cross cultural study, perhaps sociology of knowledge integrated with the experience starts to really separate the philosopher from the practitioner and differentiate institutions.

What the Ph.D. asserts about a person is not merely that they have acquired a body of knowledge, but also, that they have been immersed in a particular culture, that they have accepted the values of that culture and demonstrated a certain fluency in its rites and rituals, that they view knowledge in a certain way, as being a certain kind of entity, the result of a certain process of enquiry, deliberation, and reflection.

And I think that Abeles is absolutely right when he suggests that the medium changes this message. Knowledge - as taught, transmitted, discussed and reproduced on the internet carries with it a different set of cultural baggage than the same knowledge taught, transmitted, discussed and reproduced in traditional academic fora.

In one sense, this baggage is needed. Dennis Roberts observes,

where online ... in a practical way ... will a doctoral candidate ... who aspires to be a university faculty member ... get real live teaching experience ... NOT online ... but, in a classroom ... facing live students every day ... having to learn to deliver ... make up tests ... assign

grades to students ... handle disgruntled students ... [?]

...someone taking a doctorate online ... who aspires to work in a university as a faculty member ... they NEED that experience ... not once but, several times hopefully ... so, where does a doctoral student get that experience?

i would suggest that, someone pursuing a doctoral degree online ... will be putting his/herself at a real disadvantage when competing for these kinds of university positions...

But in another sense, it is very much not needed.

We need to ask - as Dennis Roberts and even his critics do not ask - is this what we should be doing? Should the goal of an online Ph.D. program be to prepare students to work in a pre-internet environment, performing the tasks university professors have always performed, working in the hallowed halls of academe as they always have?

Even for tenured professors, life in the future will be very different. Even for a professor working in a traditional residential university, direct person- to-person contact with students will become the exception rather than the rule. No doubt may professors reject this prediction - for face-to-face learning is in their opinion better than any alternative. But it is not demonstrably better (and in many cases demonstrably worse).

Roberts talks about the need to work in a university environment in order to prepare oneself for the teaching experience. But very few Ph.D. programs include a pedagogical component, and very many practising professors are demonstrably poor teachers (one reason why faculty almost traditionally resist teaching evaluations). Roberts talks about the need to be able to deal with a "disgruntled students" yet it is the rare Ph.D. who has any training in mediation or conflict resolution.

Professors of the future will find themselves under increasing pressure to work as a part of education delivery teams. Specialists in various disciplines will work with professors to:

  • handle conflicts and disputes
  • prepare fair and unbiased evaluations
  • prepare in-class demonstrations and simulations
  • manage an online discussion and presentation forum and more.

With the advance in educational theory, with the advance in legislation requiring demonstrable accountability and fairness, with the advance of alternative communications tools, professors will find themselves increasingly unprepared to work in today's networked environment.

And students will need to work in a different sort of society as well. Students, especially those aspiring to be professors, will have to learn to work more independently, to be able to read and interpret documents on the fly. As Steve Eskow comments,

One of the goals of learning ought to be to make students less and less dependent on directly supervised instruction, and more and more able to learn at a distance: to learn from Moses and Jesus and Plato and Aristotle and Copernicus and Newton and Einstein: to learn from teachers we never experience except through the records they have left us of their life and thought.

Information in today's environment flies at you at the rate of hundreds of emails a day. To be able to comprehend, assess, evaluate, and absorb the dozens of articles published weekly in any discipline, a student must be able to work on his or her own, relying on communications technology to clarify points of contention, to synthesize new arguments almost as they are presented.

Drilling a student in old-fashioned one-to-one communication is probably a very useful exercise, and the skill should be taught at about Grade Five or so. But preparing a person to work in today's information-rich environment requires that they conduct their studies in that environment, and whether they live on campus or in a log cabin in northern Canada, they will need to work online.

The same holds true for research and publication. In the traditional era, authors carefully composed academic papers, submitted them safely to anonymous referees, revised as necessary, and only when they had passed academic muster, published the papers in a recognized journal. Longer publications such a books, received even more careful scrutiny. The whole process could take years from original draft to eventual circulation.

Academics who today rely exclusively on this method of publication and research distinguish themselves solely by being three years out of date.

Research in any field - including this one - now progresses at internet speed. New developments are circulated around the globe in a matter of days. Keeping abreast of the field means tapping into - and interacting with - a steady stream of online messages.

The comfortable academic conference is also yielding to the online format. It is now almost unthinkable for any respectable conference to operate in the in-person mode only. The contents of such conferences, unless published online, are relegated to obscurity, inaccessible as they are to academics around the world. Research today cannot wait for the telegraph to announce the latest new insight; we want to see it as it is posted, and preferably, in a live video stream as it is presented.

Today's changing environment requires that academics learn not only to read and publish in a new medium, but also, in a wider range of contexts. The traditional academic, working with his colleagues in an exclusively campus-based setting, could depend on cultural surround and shared assumptions to place his work in an understandable context. No longer.

Largely because of the information revolution, the separate cultures of business, academia, government (including the great demos), and media are becoming largely intertwined. Much quality research and development is conducted outside academic circles; the professor who rejects these alternative sources of ideas does so at his peril.

My own discipline - the one I spent ten years working toward, including four years of Ph.D. level studies - revolves around the study of knowledge and concept formation. There is to be sure a deep academic tradition here - an academic tradition which is being swept up by the many business and government agencies researching the new discipline of knowledge management. The conclusions reached by these non-academic researchers will be crucial, because they will define the tools and standards by which knowledge is represented from this day forward. I ignore such developments at my own peril; I inform them only by moving outside the culture and language of traditional philosophy.

At this juncture in history, we have to as a society look at Dennis Roberts' proposition and turn it around. Does it make any sense to promote an on-campus Ph.D.? Do such things as residency requirements, for example, or an in-class component make any sense at all? On what grounds do we deviate from the much more efficient and effective online Ph.D.? For as some writers (such as Kathleen A. Ellis and Kim Munich have pointed out, a campus-based doctorate demands a considerable sacrifice on the part of the student. Before we demand such a sacrifice, we should ask, do we really need traditional learning?

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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