Challenges and Opportunities for Online Doctoral Students During COVID-19: Perspectives of Dissertation Chairs
COVID-19 has impacted teaching and learning at all levels. This presentation synthesizes research on challenges and opportunities faced by today’s online doctoral students and discusses how experiences during COVID-19 may impact online doctoral learning. Results of a qualitative study utilizing open-ended interviews with online Dissertation Chairs are presented.
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted teaching and learning in almost every context and at all levels of instruction. Most K-12 and higher education institutions in the United States were forced to provide emergency remote learning in place of traditional on-ground instruction beginning in March of 2020. Fairly early statistics in the United States’ pandemic timeline established that more than 4,000 U.S. colleges and universities were seriously impacted by COVID-19, with greater than 25 million students already affected at that time (Kelly, 2020). That number has grown over the ongoing pandemic, with the bulk of university students’ coursework being completed online during the fall of 2020. Supiano (2020) provided a current and timely look into these new realities for instructors and students in higher education. This abrupt and massive change toward online instruction will likely remain in some form as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, and perhaps beyond.
Some institutions, such as K-12 cyber schools and fully online universities, were already providing instruction entirely online before COVID-19, but still needed to make emergency modifications and adjustments for learners who were experiencing various personal, medical, and other life-related issues (COVID-19: Higher Education Resource Center, 2020). These challenges have required significant expertise in the three presences for online teaching, particularly the social presence (Rapanta et al., 2020). One group of students in this particular category is the sizable and growing number of doctoral degree-seeking students who attend programs that are designed to be entirely online. Being a doctoral student, and especially an online doctoral student, involves its own unique set of stressors and experiences. Exploring online doctoral students’ unique experiences during COVID-19 can enhance understanding of the challenges and opportunities faced by this unique group of students at this specific time of worldwide crisis.
One lens through which to view the challenges and opportunities of online doctoral students during COVID-19 is the perceptions and experiences of the Dissertation Chair, who plays a pivotal role in the life of a doctoral student. Dissertation Chairs have the specific role of guiding the doctoral student’s progress longitudinally, not only regarding academic outcomes, but also often in terms of social and emotional issues and outcomes. Simply put, the ongoing relationship between the doctoral student and the Chair is crucial. On the general topic of online learner-instructor interaction and engagement, Baker’s (2010) findings strongly suggested a positive relationship between instructor presence and the degree of instructor immediacy. Further, Baker found a linear relationship between both of these instructor qualities and students’ affective learning, cognition, and motivation, making them clear predictors of these desired outcomes. Furthermore, “Students perceive a sense of belonging when they can interact with instructors and perceive that they are at least accessible through multiple means” (Bolliger & Martin, 2018, p. 569). Research and recommendations from Peacock and Cowan (2019) and Meyer (2014) echoed these sentiments, with specific strategies and tips for online instruction.
The presenters for this session synthesize research on the unique challenges and opportunities that today’s online doctoral students typically face, along with a discussion of how the COVID-19 pandemic may impact the online doctoral learning experience. Qualitative analysis of open-ended interviews with 12 online Dissertation Chairs will be presented. The research methodology for this qualitative case study entailed recruiting volunteers from a fully-online, accredited, doctoral degree-granting institution. Twelve Dissertation Chairs participated in live, open-ended interviews via Zoom. Interviews followed a 13-question protocol of open-ended questions developed by the researchers/presenters. Regarding the use of Zoom as a data collection method, Gray, Wong-Wylie, Rempel, and Cook (2020) specified the current relevance of utilizing Zoom for one-on-one interviews for qualitative research when in-person interviews are not feasible. Interviews of the 12 Dissertation Chairs were divided between the three presenters for this session using a random order for who would conduct each interview. This design helped to ensure trustworthiness and dependability of data, while reducing any potential bias. The presenters for this session will discuss several themes that emerged from the qualitative inquiry and will explore how these emerging themes relate to the current research literature on doctoral student experiences, online learning, mentoring, social-emotional learning, student engagement, and persistence.
This presentation will be interactive, with opportunities for ongoing participant chat within the chat box. The presenters will engage the audience in a whole-group activity in which participants can relate the session material to their own specific contexts. For example, attendees who have switched abruptly to online teaching and learning from a more traditional modality could reflect on the specific challenges and opportunities that have been faced by doctoral candidates at those institutions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The presentation exemplifies effective practice by illustrating both the challenges and opportunities faced by online doctoral students during COVID-19. The use of a research site that is a fully-online, accredited, doctoral degree-granted institution helps to inform best practices in doctoral level education, especially with regard to serving all students’ social and emotional needs during the pandemic.
Baker, C. (2010). The impact of instructor immediacy and presence for online student affective learning, cognition, and motivation. Journal of Educators Online, 7(1), 1–30. Retrieved from https://www.thejeo.com
Bolliger, D. U., & Martin, F. (2018). Instructor and student perceptions of online student engagement strategies. Distance Education, 39(4), 568-583.
COVID-19: Higher Education Resource Center. (2020). Retrieved September 22, 2020, from http://www.entangled.solutions/coronavirus-he/
Gray, L. M., Wong-Wylie, G., Rempel, G. R., & Cook, K. (2020). Expanding Qualitative Research Interviewing Strategies: Zoom Video Communications. The Qualitative Report, 25(5), 1292-1301.
Kelly, R. (2020, April 16). 4,000 plus U.S. higher ed institutions impacted by COVID-19; more than 25 million students affected. Campus Technology. https://campustechnology.com/articles/2020/04/16/4000-plus-us-higher-ed-...
Meyer, K. A. (2014). Student engagement in online learning: What works and why. ASHE Higher Education Report, 40(6), 1–114.
Peacock, S. & Cowan, J. (2019). Promoting sense of belonging in online learning communities of inquiry at accredited courses. Online Learning, 23(2), 67-81.
Rapanta, C., Botturi, L., Goodyear, P. et al. (2020). Online University Teaching During and After the Covid-19 Crisis: Refocusing Teacher Presence and Learning Activity. Postdigit Sci Educ. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42438-020-00155-y
Supiano, B. (2020, April 07). 'On a Desert Island with Your Students': Professors Compare Notes on Teaching Remotely in a Pandemic. Retrieved June 25, 2020, from https://www.chronicle.com/article/On-a-Desert-Island-With/248452?fbclid=...