Enabling Factors and Challenges for Successful Completion of Online Doctoral Dissertations

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Brief Abstract

Online doctoral programs are increasingly more popular with professionals and leaders. Doctoral dissertations in an online environment present a unique set of benefits and challenges. Join us in this discovery session as we discuss enabling factors and challenges gleaned from a detailed program evaluation of online dissertation processes.

Presenters

Dr. Andrew Lumpe serves as a faculty member, Manager of Dissertations and Projects, and he also chairs doctoral dissertations within the College of Graduate and Professional Studies at Abilene Christian University. His 35 years of service to education includes both teaching and administrative roles at the K-12 and higher education levels. He earned a bachelors degree in Biology from Washburn University and completed Masters and Ph.D. degrees in Education from Kansas State University. The focus of his scholarship includes digital learning, program evaluation, and professional development.
I've worked with Abilene Christian University for 22 years: 18 years in the English Department, and currently as Manager of Dissertations and Projects with the College of Graduate and Professional Studies.

Extended Abstract

Session Goals

Attendees of the discovery session will be able to identify innovative strategies for applying effective online learning in doctoral dissertation programming. They will be able to articulate the necessary components and support systems for implementing effective online doctoral dissertations. Finally, attendees will be able to describe how the systems align with the OLC’s Effective Practices of learning effectiveness, access, scale, student satisfaction, and faculty satisfaction.

Proposal

The demand for quality online doctoral degree programs is increasing particularly for working professionals and leaders. The rapid growth of these programs is especially noted in the non-profit sector among both public and private universities that traditionally offer residential programs. With this rapid growth comes a need for developing effective online strategies suited to the unique needs of doctoral students. As a culminating research project, the doctoral dissertation presents a unique context for online teaching, learning, and support systems.  

Our university is a private, nonprofit, church affiliated institution with a traditional campus in the southwest region of the United States. We offer in-person, undergraduate and graduate programs. A branch campus housed in a nearby major metropolitan city offers professional programs including masters and doctoral programs in business, education, nursing, marriage and family therapy, and several other areas. These programs are offered in a 100% online format. We recently expanded into offering 13 online undergraduate degree programs primarily in response to COVID-19. 

We currently have over 700 active doctoral students in two accredited online programs, a Doctorate of Education in Organizational Leadership (EdD) and a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). The programs experienced rapid growth over the past five years. 

The primary goal for these programs states that 100% of students successfully complete the dissertation/project requirements after being assigned a Chair. A comprehensive program evaluation plan with a logic model was developed and applied. The main evaluation questions were the following:

  1. What is the retention rate of doctoral students after being assigned a Chair?

  2. What is the average length of time to complete the dissertation through editorial review?

  3. How did the technology systems in place support or hinder the dissertation process?

  4. What factors or circumstances enabled students to successfully complete the dissertation?

  5. What factors or circumstances made it difficult or prevented students from completing the dissertation in a timely manner?

  6. Was feedback from the Chair effective for completing the dissertation?

  7. Were Chairs timely in their responses to students?

  8. How does the relationship with chairs impact success of completing dissertation?

Data sources used to answer the evaluation questions included internal records, mid-dissertation student interviews, post graduate surveys, interviews with chairs, and formal chair evaluations. Data were analyzed using qualitative and quantitative methods resulting in several major emerging themes. 

To date, the retention rate after being assigned a dissertation chair is 96.7%. Very few students withdraw from the program once assigned a dissertation chair. Most withdrawals occur early in the program during foundational coursework. The average time from beginning work with a chair to degree completion is 18.8 months. 

Several key enabling and restraining factors for dissertation success emerged from the data. 

Enabling Factors

1. Scaffolded coursework

The content and structure of the program coursework served as a strong scaffold to enable work on the dissertation. There were overwhelming positive beliefs expressed by students about the benefits of a proposal development seminar. These benefits include gaining feedback from other faculty members and peers, helping focus ideas, and organizing writing. 

2. Technology Systems

Graduates expressed overwhelmingly positive comments about the technology systems associated with the dissertation process. A Chair Workspace in Canvas is used by students and chairs to track progress and students upload drafts in that system periodically throughout the dissertation progress. One student stated, 

Canvas is superb. Keep using it. It's well-organized and it was consistent and allows you to visually keep track of what you are accomplishing as you progress through the journey (and see the milestones ahead). It helps you begin with the end in mind.

3. Student Support Systems 

Formal student support systems were seen as positive enabling factors and include a Writing Center and Graduate Online Librarian. For example, two students stated, 

“...every member of the Graduate Writing Center deserves the highest praise for their tireless assistance with paper reviews, mechanical review, coaching in the use of APA format and the quality of scholarly writing. The writing center coaches were helpful with specific writing assignments for many of the courses and by creating video tutorials.”

“At any hour of the day or night, I found helpful library staff to be available. I could count on them to always assist me with difficult citations and search challenges.”

4. Administrative Processes

Systems for the dissertation process provided structural support for completing the dissertation. Post graduates rated the processes as either good or excellent. Dissertation Managers who oversee the dissertation faculty and processes were viewed as a valuable contributing factor for completing the dissertation through organizing processes, providing encouragement, providing regular communication, and scheduling time to connect. One student stated,

“[The] program structure to keep you moving to complete your dissertation prospectus (Ch. 1, 2 & 3) in conjunction with courses proved very productive and beneficial for me. The expectation guidelines, documents, etc.and check-in points were also extremely helpful.”

5. Faculty Chairs and Committee Members

Effective chair mentoring was the most positive factor cited by students followed closely by support from family. Students agreed that chairs provided substantive feedback, that the feedback contributed to necessary revisions, that chairs were knowledgeable about the topic and research methods. Students agreed that their chairs responded to submitted drafts in a timely manner. A positive relationship between the student and chair appears to be one of the most crucial factors for completing the dissertation. This view was routinely expressed by both students and chairs at various times during the dissertation process. Students rated chairs positively for having a listening ear, felt they could trust their chair, and that their chairs helped build their confidence about research. In the vast majority of cases, students regularly expressed the critical nature of the positive impact of their chair on completing the dissertation. One student stated,

“She was kind, patient, very knowledgeable, and pushed me to think outside of the box. Her availability was awesome, as she always responded within 72 hours with revisions, suggestions, questions, etc. We conferenced on Canvas, over the phone, anything that worked for me and where I may have been at the time. Any student who is blessed to get [Chair] is getting a true angel. She is someone who thoroughly understands the process and has a calm spirit that is so beneficial to an overly anxious student like me. SHE IS THE BEST!

In addition to the chair, committee members provided support to students. One student’s comments illustrate the critical role of committee members. 

I thought the collective feedback that I received from my committee was crucial to my success. Each member provided useful insights and suggestions, which enabled me to improve my dissertation. Each member also encouraged me, which motivated me to keep going during the challenging stages.

Restraining Factors

By far the most critical factor cited by students for hindering completion of the dissertation was personal life circumstances. These factors included work and family commitments. Given the life stage of a majority of the students, illness, family loss and job pressures commonly became hindrances for completing the dissertation. One student stated, 

“There were only personal matters that slowed my progress at times. There were no ACU factors or circumstances that prevented me from completing the dissertation in a timely manner. The length of the process was appropriate for me.”

Several university related factors were cited as factors for hindering completion of the dissertation. In some cases, unresponsive chairs or disagreement amongst committee members created friction.

Level of Session Participation

As a Discovery session, we will use Voicethread to foster collaborative interaction between our presentation team and attendees. Our team will present our work, ask discussion questions, and elicit ideas from attendees. The following discussion questions will be utilized:

  1. What factors enabled you to be successful in your own doctoral dissertation journey?

  2. What factors hindered your dissertation success?

  3. How are dissertations conducted in 100% online settings similar to or different than dissertations conducted in person?

  4. How can positive, beneficial relationships between a student and dissertation chair be fostered?

  5. What systems enable learning effectiveness within an online doctoral dissertation? (OLC Learning Effectiveness)

  6. How can online doctoral dissertations impact access to graduate level research and education? (OLC Access)

  7. What systems allow scaling of online dissertations to large numbers of students? (OLC Scale)

  8. How satisfied are faculty and students with online doctoral dissertation processes? (OLC Faculty and Student Satisfaction)

Materials

Materials provided to attendees will include our dissertation program evaluation plan and logic model, the most recent evaluation report, and readings related to online doctoral dissertation work.