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Doctorates without borders

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The first time New Zealander Patricia Churchill stepped onto Curtin’s Perth campus was at her graduation. It was spring, and in the midst of the Perth Convention and Exhibition Centre, full of red regalia and Tudor bonnets, Patricia walked out onto stage to receive her Doctorate of Mathematics Education.

But the visit was monumental for another reason too. Less than twenty-four hours earlier after stepping off the plane, Patricia met her PhD supervisor, Dr Tony Rickards, in person for the first time.

With the advent of cloud technology and the ever-growing capacity of telecommunications, Patricia is one of a small, but growing, student body at Curtin – the ‘distance education collective’.

Distance education is different to studying a MOOC or a course through Blackboard, which are studied largely by correspondence. In contrast, distance education students experience the same rigours and interactivity as face-to-face students despite not being present on campus.

Where a student would normally go to the university campus to meet with their supervisor, instead Dr Rickards hosts these meetings over Skype, allowing students such as Patricia to complete a PhD at Curtin from another country – all they need is an internet connection.

“We can work as though we are in a face-to-face meeting,” Dr Rickards says, listing a few advantages: “The way we develop the thesis, share resources and collaborate during the writing process, is easier and quicker when done online than face-to-face.”

“For example, when we create a research paper draft, we both log in to the same text document and, over a live video link, we discuss and both edit the same document in real time,” says Dr Rickards. “It’s an improvement on the old paradigm where the student sends a draft document via email and then has to wait for a reply. Online, my feedback to the student is instant and explained, and via video, the student can respond with any questions immediately.”

This style of education is highly interactive, comprehensive and, with the flexibility of being able ‘meet-up’ from any combination of devices – phone, tablet, laptop, desktop device – it’s also highly personalised.

“I felt as if I was the only student my supervisor was working with although I know this is not the case,” reflects Patricia Churchill. “The level of contact I was able to maintain with my supervisor was superior to working at a local campus. In fact, I would say it was much more efficient than having to make appointments and physically attend meetings.”

Patricia’s PhD journey began when she decided to take some time out from her teaching career to explore some of her own ideas.

“I made enquiries locally but felt put off by the lack of enthusiasm,” she says. Having successfully completed a Curtin master degree by distance education while working overseas, she decided to ask Curtin.

“The support I received when I initially broached the idea of doing a Doctorate with Dr Rickards encouraged me to begin my PhD journey,” Patricia says. “The whole learning experience was a rich and productive one. The graduation ceremony and finally getting to physically meet with my supervisor at the end were the highlights.”

She hopes her thesis, which investigates the environment in which international students are learning mathematics, will make a difference to the future as well as help her clarify her teaching.

Patricia is just one success story, and Dr Rickards has many others to add to it. With the help of information and communications technology (ICT), he is currently supervising 25 doctoral and master students – two of whom have taken a special interest in ICT and its potential in the education sector.

Recent graduate, Dr Aaron Steele, and current PhD student, Jana Benson, have both been investigating (separately) how cloud-based technology can be used for student learning and assessment, from their New Zealand homes.

It’s something of a hot topic at the moment. According to IBISWorld’s September 2015 report, Online Education in Australia, the e-learning industry is in its growth phase, and between now and 2020 its contribution to the Australian economy is expected to grow by a compound annual rate of 7 per cent.

“When I began my PhD, cloud computing technologies had recently emerged and their application in the area of online assessment was only starting to be explored,” Aaron Steele says. “Their intrinsic collaborative sharing features made new approaches to assessment possible, however we didn’t know what students would think of using this enhanced approach to assessment.”

Jana too is interested in how cloud-based technology is perceived, particularly by parents, teachers and students. Still in the infancy of her PhD, she hopes to explore the potential of cloud technology in improving relationships between students and teachers, and teachers and parents, as well as enhancing learning outcomes and improving learning environments.

As for the decision to study long distance, for both Aaron and Jana it was a combination of Curtin’s reputation for ICT and education research, as well as something of a ‘practice what you preach’.

“It was an opportunity to use the cloud based technologies that I was studying for my thesis creation and supervision,” Aaron says.

“Doing my PhD online through Curtin was the most productive research experience I’ve had,” he adds. “I progressed faster and achieved more through being supervised by Dr Tony Rickards in Perth than I did for my master [degree] where I had a supervisor down the hall. Tony and I used Google Docs to collaboratively and rapidly develop my research plan early on. I had a great sense of accountability and was highly motivated to make progress from week to week.”

Skype session screen shot

Dr Tony Rickards (above) and Dr Aaron Steel (below) collaborating together in real time on a Google document during in a Skype video call.

For Dr Rickards’ New Zealand students, the time difference also turned out to be an additional benefit. “The fact that Perth is five hours behind New Zealand works in our favour,” Jana says. “I am able to arrange Skype conversations in the evenings, outside my working day.”

In Patricia’s case, afternoon Skype sessions with Dr Rickards gave her the time to do some writing in the morning.

Despite all its pros, Dr Rickards admits that there are a few things to consider before deciding to undergo distance education – both as a student and a supervisor.

“A constant challenge is bandwidth,” he says, and he recommends being familiar with any ICT system before engaging in study or supervision with it. Users should be prepared to be flexible with the kind of platform they use, because low bandwidth and unreliability can render some systems impractical.

“The focus should always be on the student and the study and not the technology,” he emphasises. “The best technology for the supervision of students should be something that is so intuitive to use that it enables effective teaching and learning, rather than distracting participants or becoming a focus in itself.”

With more pros than cons, Dr Rickards recommends the ‘distance doctorate’ to any fellow supervisors and students, either for true distance education or as a supplement to the more traditional face-to-face practice.

And despite having never been to Curtin or Perth, Aaron lists his doctorate as, “the most positive educational experience I’ve had.”

If that’s not enough to convince you to give it a go, nothing else will!

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