A technology-based coach for the dissertation

Concurrent Session 7

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Completing a dissertation online is challenging, often compounded by feelings of isolation and uncertainty. To support online students as they dissertate, we designed an app—akin to theknot.com or thebump.com—to provide customized support and resources in a calendar. This session will provide innovative ideas about this pilot project.


Dr. Annie Pezalla has taught in online higher education for over 10 years. Her expertise is in areas of research methods, including qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods designs and in working with adult online learners. She currently serves as a full-time core faculty member within Walden University's College of Education.

Additional Authors

Laurel began her teaching life in 1994 as a high school English teacher in the Czech Republic. After completing her MFA in 2000, she taught developmental composition at the community college level for many years. While working toward her EdD at Hamline University, she took a job as a writing instructor for St. Scholastica’s MBA/MAM accelerated degree program. In that role, she taught APA writing and served as a capstone advisor. In 2008 Laurel took a job in Walden’s Center for Student Success (CSS) as a dissertation editor. For three years, she attended Walden Academic Residencies and worked face-to-face with Walden students. Upon completion of her doctoral degree in 2009, she became the program director for CSS courses. More recently, Laurel served as the General Education Coordinator in the Center for Undergraduate Studies supporting first term students and mentoring undergraduate faculty. Teaching is a form of learning. Laurel is a lifelong learner, and her students are her instructors. Creating cognitively nurturing spaces for adults in asynchronous settings has been the focus of her academic research and curricular development efforts. In 2014 Laurel co-authored the “Essential Guide to Critical Reading and Writing” with Drs. Annie Pezalla and Heidi Marshall. Writing is a form of thinking, and Laurel wants all of her students to be empowered to think well on the page.

Extended Abstract

Doctoral students finishing their long sequence of coursework are often faced with a new challenge: How can they stay organized and motivated now that their coursework is finished? How can they stay “on track” in their progress without the ongoing support found in a typical classroom? These struggles are universal in any doctoral program, but they are often exacerbated in an online doctoral program, where interactions with others are lessened and other competing commitments (both personal and professional) are magnified. There are some open-access dissertation calendars available online, which are useful in specifying deadlines a student must meet in order to stay on track, but those calendars provide little customized feedback or scaffolded support for each milestone.

Inspired by the apps of www.theknot.com and www.thebump.com, which both provide planning checklists and customized development updates for couples who are getting married and for expectant mothers, respectively, we collaborated with a digital innovation company to build a similar app with one important distinction: It would be for dissertation students. This app would provide customized, weekly guidance for students from Day 1 of their doctoral work to the day of graduation. Each week, a student will receive friendly reminders about past deadlines, encouraging messages about upcoming deadlines, and customized support from curated resources across our university on how to maintain demonstrable progress.

At the time of this proposed presentation submission, we are finalizing a beta version of this app for a small group of faculty and students within our university’s college of education. The aim is to gather qualitative feedback on the utility of this app before expanding its reach across the institution. Our hope with this Emerging Ideas session is to share the ideas of this pilot project, elicit critiques about how it could be rolled out and tested, and welcome feedback on its utility in other arenas (e.g., other online institutions, brick-and-mortar institutions, or for any other ambitious academic project with many broad deadlines).