University of Calgary

Online PhDs

October 22, 2009

Value of e-PhDs probed


Liam Rourke says one-to-one mentoring is an important part of PhD programs. / Photo: Ken Bendiktsen
It was only a matter of time before e-learning reached the highest echelons of education: the PhD. And while the availability and convenience of such top-level, online graduate programs could help Canada to compete in the global knowledge economy, U of C Faculty of Nursing researcher Liam Rourke is concerned about their effectiveness.

“The primary training ground for researchers has been PhD programs—programs that have traditionally imposed residency requirements,” explains Rourke. “The capacity of e-learning methods to produce world-class researchers is an open question.”

Undergraduate and master’s degrees have been available online for the past decade, but the e-PhD is a very recent development, says Rourke, who received an $86,000 Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) grant earlier this year to study retention and socialization in online doctoral programs.

“Data collected in the U.S. and Canada over the past 20 years indicates that most doctoral candidates do not successfully complete their programs,” says Rourke. “Half make it to candidacy, but take on average seven or eight years to complete the degree. And, on average, it takes them five years to withdraw from the program. Distance education has an even higher rate of incompletion at around 70 percent.”

Rourke says provincial accreditation agencies have recently approved PhD programs that could be delivered entirely online. He also believes the trend is likely a response to the federal government’s 2006 Advantage Canada plan that ties Canada’s participation in the new economy to the development of globally competitive researchers.

Another area where online education seems to be lacking is in the socialization of students. “The educational objectives of doctoral education are not about memorization. The course of study is more like an apprenticeship and like an apprentice, there needs to be one-to-one mentoring. A lot of what supervisors need to do to mentor students can’t be put into words.”

Rourke’s SSHRC study is a continuation of his research which began in late 2008 with a U of C University Research Grants Committee award of $12,000. Results from that study indentified Canadian institutions that offered online doctoral programs. Rourke hopes to research those programs and the students within them to get a sense of how successful they really are.

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