Negating distance: Enhancing the doctoral experience through a technology-mediated cohort model
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Introduction: Canada’s first fully online doctoral program is now in its fifth year of teaching and implementation at Athabasca University and the first doctoral students have graduated. This program comprises four content courses, research seminars, a research study and written dissertation, which are supervised and examined at a distance, using ICT tools and applications appropriate for both students and supervisors. Problem Statement: Increasing concern has been voiced in recent years about problems in doctoral programs relating to poor supervision (Connell, 1985), lack of support structures and processes for both staff and students (Malfroy, 2005), student isolation during the conduct of research projects (Denicolo, 2004; Knight & Zuber-Skerritt, 1986) and inadequate preparation of students for dissertation writing (Kamler & Thomson, 2004; Krathwohl & Smith, 2005). Attendant to these and other problems, increases are also reported in the number of doctoral candidates either not completing their dissertations or dropping out of programs prior to commencement of, or early into their research projects. Purpose of Study: This study aimed to identify aspects of the design and decision-making that have contributed to the successful implementation of this program through an initial evaluation of the program and processes, leading to progressive refinement. Research Methods: Using a qualitative approach, interviews with graduating students and recordings of student-supervisor sessions as well as course evaluation reports were analyzed for problems, solutions and suggested refinements. All documents used in this study were collected and analyzed using communications technologies and online applications. Findings: It appears that solutions to some problems reported previously have been achieved through the adoption of a cohort model and the use of a range of networking and communications tools. By these means, it seems that a greater level of support, interaction and success has been made possible than was typical of either face-to-face doctoral programs or distance learning programs. Alternatively, some issues have emerged that were also not typical of other doctoral programs discussed in the literature. Conclusions: The formulation of guidelines and modifications and refinements of these will be presented, as they evolved in response to student questions and concerns and the study findings.