coverI was pleased to receive in the post a hard copy of a new book in the Issues in Distance Education book series, for which I continue to serve as the series editor. Now of course you can read all of the books in this series as they are available for download  under Creative Commons licensing. But it is nice to hold paper copy and a purchase ($39.95 Can.) makes the press and the authors happy (think $$$).

An Online Doctorate for Researching Professionals: Program Design, Implementation, and Evaluation by Swapna Kumar and Kara Dawson  is a great book on a very hot topic. I would characterize this monograph as a scholarly case study. This means that it is in large part a detailed explanation of a 5 year old Education Doctorate (EdD) program from the University of Florida.  The book begins with a historical review of function and form of the doctorate program in Universities. I was surprised to hear that the very first Doctor of Education program was begun here in Canada at the University of Toronto. But it was soon followed by many doctorate programs – in professional subjects such as medicine, dentistry, law and of course education.

Kumar and Dawson make the point that a professional degree(s) exists to train professionals to make contribution and conduct research into the profession and to the citizens that they serve. It was not then, and is not now, designed to train students to be full time researcher scholars nor faculty members at Universities – this is what the PhD is designed for.  This all makes sense EXCEPT that the public and many students perceive the PhD to be a “better’ degree, so the pressure from students, the public and the Universities to move towards offering PhD programs- regardless of the need of either the academy or the profession.

I note the topic is hot, not only for this contention of what a professional doctorate is, how it differs from a PhD but also because of degree inflation. Many professionals desire (or are required) to have the advanced training and the status of a doctoral title. As noted the professional doctorate in education is hardly a new degree, but at least when I began doctoral studies in 1987, there were no EdD or PhD programs available in Canada that one could complete without ‘residence’ attendance on campus.  The EdD program that I worked in and helped design at Athabasca University was one of the first to enter this domain, but it was soon followed by many other programs including the subject of this case study.

The first thing I did after opening the book was jump to the chapter “Dissertations in the Online Environment”  The dissertation is a defining characteristic of any doctoral program and the most challenging to deliver, to support and to complete.  It is not particularly difficult to design a program of courses  that are delivered online or that use some blended approach. But the dissertation process is individualized. This  not only challenges the student to design and undertake quality, original research but also challenges the faculty as a great deal of one-to-one support and mentoring is required of the supervisor and then a committee of examiners.  The economy of scale of courseware all of a sudden disappears and faculty can be overwhelmed with the work- especially as the number of candidates/faculty creeps into two digits.

The book is chock full of examples of ‘good practices” and a description of the research tools used to validate them that emerged and were implemented in the UF program.  I should be pleased to note that the pedagogical approach is grounded in Randy Garrison, Walter Archer and my- Community of Inquiry model – with the addition of Shea’s ‘learner presence’. In addition the program focuses on building community (and measuring it using Rovai’s (2002) community instrument. However, these days I am more intrigued with ways to develop self-directed and self-driven learning programs.  But perhaps that is too much to hope for, given the intense context and content to be mastered and the high expectations of doctoral studies. Indeed, the authors provide a quote from one student who notes that they were prepared for the intellectual rigour of the program, but blown away by the “opportunity to work alongside such incredible peers that has been more rewarding and fulfilling than I could have imagined.”  This intense community benefits (and is nurtured) in an entry ‘boot camp’, annual F2F meetings and regular synchronous and asynchronous classes.  Perhaps the search for  of a recognized, self directed, self-managed, MOOC-like doctorate is Quixotic!

To summarize, this a great text and I am proud to see it added to the AUPress Issues in Distance Education Series.  It is a scholarly exposition of an innovative doctoral program and as importantly it validates the findings with survey, completion data and examples from the cohorts. It also serves as fine example of the type of study and reflection that should accompany all new educational innovations.

Congrats to Swapna and Kara!