It was a sad day for me yesterday. I decided to withdraw from a professional doctorate in higher education after about 8 weeks.

I started a tradtional PhD a while ago, but withdrew from that because of a whole range of factors, best left to the past. So, I was excited to finally make the decision to enrol in an online professional doctorate. Apart from the academic content, I wanted to reflect on what it was like to be a student in an online program as I was studying online. I knew I’d be reflecting on the course content, and I also wanted to reflect on those reflections.  I started a blog to record those reflections, and to post what I was doing on the course.

I like online learning – my first experience was the first year of the Masters in Strategic Foresight at Swinburne University of Technology. Facilitated by Jenny Gidley, this was my  most intense learning experience ever, and it changed my life in a number of ways. I decided to divert my career from university management (where I’d spent the previous 28 years working my way up the ladder) to the futures/foresight field, and started planning for that. I realised the value of my voice in the online discussions and conversation (I loved the conversations), and started to realise I might no longer be afflicted by the imposter syndrome! I learned how to really reflect on my assumptions that underpinned my worldview, and as I said to someone at the time, “I know I think differently now, but I can’t tell you how…” I didn’t meet any of these people until the end of the year, yet I did feel like I knew them all as friends, and some of us are still in touch.

Fast forward about 7 years later and my current enrolment. Since this was a doctoral program, I had high expectations for the conversation and intellectual debate. I knew I had some coursework to do before getting on to the thesis, and that I would be working with a learning team.  That was all good. And the people involved in running this program are fantastic. I’ve only been doing the program for about 8 weeks. Now, why would I want to withdraw?

  • The conversation takes place on Blackboard (just like the Swinburne course). We post a response to a question, and then have to make 3-5 responses to the postings from our fellow students. There are guidelines for making the responses, down to suggested phrasing. Make more than 5 responses though, and you might be seen as dominating the discussion (as I found out).
  • You have to reference the set readings in your response as a way of proving that you have read the material – even if you don’t want to use that reading in your response.
  • When I suggested we might use social media as a way for our learning team to work together in real time, we were told to be careful since all the tools we needed were provided on Blackboard, which is true, but…
  • I guess I should have twigged when I read one of the early reference materials about research sources which said, more or less, that unless it was google scholar, electronic sources were a bit dubious and that Wikipedia has no value at all, as it’s terribly subjective;
  • Working in groups is just not my favourite way of learning, and this applies to online and face-to-face contexts.

A core element of this program is reflecting and writing a learning log. I have learned the difference between reflexive and reflective which seem to often be used interchangeably in the literature. Being reflexive, I realise now, is about taking a kind of third person view on my first person writing, and thinking that reminded me of this exact process that we used in the Integral Futures subject at Swinburne. While I was doing a lot of reflection on these issues in my learning log – that is, describing them and how I was reacting to them – I realised this week that I also needed to be reflexive about them. Why was I reacting to these issues as strongly as I was? What was going on in there in my consciousness that was causing me such grief? This has been uncomfortable and my brain has hurt this week – a lot. I’ve realised there’s a few issues here for me. One is trust. The other is structure. And finally conversation.

Trust surely underpins the learning relationship between teacher and student, particularly at doctoral level? Trusting that people have read the material and absorbed it. Trusting that if people make 1 response one week, they will probably make 5 the next week. Trusting them to take responsibility for their learning, and to support them in that process, not police them. And, why can’t we operate outside the confines of Blackboard? What is there to fear with that? I asked for some help to sort through all this on the Twitter #phdchat, a group of doctoral students who share their learning experiences – it’s a really active chat and immediately I had two offers of help. We’ve been in touch via email, and some of my issues have been clarified through that interaction.

Structure is an interesting thing, isn’t it? I chose this course because it was online and structured, and I knew I needed structure if I was going to work on it consistently while running my own business. The program is structured around action research principles I am told, which means the group work is core, which is fine. Any learning environment needs a structure, but it’s how the learning is facilitated in that structure that makes the difference. The facilitator is key – and the ones I have worked with on my current course are great, obviously know their stuff and operate at a high level intellectually. But they too have to work within the structure, and spend probably too much time maintaining that structure. I was told that the course is what is is, and I need to work out how to adapt to the structure and the rules – which was interesting, because I think it might be the first time I’ve ever been told that; I’m usually the one trying to make others work within the structure we have. And, I now realise, I don’t like the rules so I won’t adapt.

Conversation happens in lots of way – in a classroom and online, in formal and informal settings, but it needs to happen and it needs to flow. My benchmark for conversation stems from working with Joe Voros at Swinburne – we had flowing conversation, and when he left to be an academic, I realised that’s what I missed most – his brain 🙂  and those occasions when we would just talk about the future and foresight and how to engage Swinburne staff. Working so rigidly to a one post, 3-5 discussion responses, learning team work, and nothing else is constraining in terms of the conversation, and doesn’t really allow my synapses to fire. It’s those wonderful open ended conversations on a topic that seem to go all over the place that energise me, not the 3-5 responses approach.

Taken alone, this course is a good one. For me though, it seems to be underpinned by a traditional ‘control’ approach to learning and a ‘sage on stage’ delivery. Even though they say the learning emerges from the group, the learning is constrained by particular topics delivered in a particular way. No deviation allowed (particularly in using Turnitin and APA style!).   This, as Stuart Lee * says is because learning management systems like Blackboard tend to be “controlled, managed, restricted and channeled”, and that delivery choices have a lot to do with the pedagogical practices of the university. I do recognise this, but I also know now, it’s not how I want to learn.

My Swinburne experience felt open and collaborative and trusting, with intense conversation.  We could suggest things and ways of working together that weren’t on the original plan. I realise now I felt like I was collaborating and helping to shape my learning experience. I never felt like I was being controlled even though there was structure – I knew how I had to participate and by when, and due dates to submit work.  In my current course, I felt controlled, with no opportunity to shape my learning process, and two years of this process simply terrified me. I realise now my expectations for the course were probably wrong. Maybe I’m wrong in using the Swinburne experience as my online learning benchmark because maybe it just can’t be repeated?  Maybe it’s just the wrong course for me. Maybe I’m just being totally unreasonable.

What this experience has taught me, however, is that online programs need to treat doctoral students as partners in the learning process (see Tapscott and Williams* on collaborative learning), that delivery structures shouldn’t be viewed as fixed, but able to be shaped depending on the particular cohort, and that meaningful conversation can’t be structured, it needs to flow. The degree to which a university is willing to embrace the uncertainty that comes from an ‘open’ learning management system, and allowing learners into the learning and delivery process, drive decisions around these issues, and ultimately, of course, these sorts of decisions depend on the way people in the university think about learning and how it should be delivered. But that’s a topic for another post.

See also Steve Wheeler’s post on Conversation as Curriulum:


*Lee, S. (2008). The gates are shut.  In  Iiyoshi, T. & Vijay Kumar, M.S., Opening up education: The collective advancement of education through open technology, open content, and open knowledge (pp. 47-59).Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.
Tapscott, D., & Williams, A.D. Innovating the 21st century learner: It’s time. (2010). Educause Review, 45(1), 16-19.
(I did learn a new skill – citing using APA style!)