Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Doctoral Education in the 21st Century

Having completed courses in Assessment and online pedagogy at the University of Southern Queensland (USQ), it was time to move back to the Australian National University, to complete my postgraduate certificates in tertiary teaching, and study research supervision. The idea is to apply what I have learned about running course online to supervising research students.

What is a doctoral degree?

Before looking at issues with doctoral education, I needed to understand the basics of what a doctorate is. However, this proved difficult, as most academic witting assumes the reader knows what a traditional doctorate is and only describes divergence from this.

According to the Wikipedia, a doctorate is:

'... an academic degree or professional degree that in most countries qualifies the holder to teach in a specific field... from the Latin docere, meaning "to teach.'.
This is not a very useful description. The OED more usefully defines a Doctor as:

A person who, in any faculty or branch of learning, has attained to the highest degree conferred by a University; a title originally implying competency to teach such subject or subjects, but now merely regarded as a certificate of the highest proficiency therein.

A report to DEST in 2002 (Research Training in Doctoral Programs, by McWilliam, Taylor, Thomson, Green, Maxwell, Wildy Simons), quoted the definition of a professional doctorate from the Australian Council of Deans and Directors of Graduate Studies:

‘a program of research and advanced study, which enables the candidate to make a significant contribution to knowledge and practice in their professional context [and in which]…the candidate may also contribute more generally to scholarship within a discipline or field of study’ (CADDGS, 1998: 1).

Also I recently attended the University of Canberra workshop on Supervising a doctorate by published works (by publication). At this there was discussion of a PHD by coursework. What is evident from all this was that a doctoral education will likely involve coursework, publication and research, but the proportions may differ between types of doctorate.

National groupings and organizations

The Bologna Process (or "Bologna Accords") describes standardization of higher education qualifications by most European countries, plus some of Asia. Australian higher education qualifications come under the Bologna Accords through signing of the Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education in the European Region (the "Lisbon Recognition Convention") in 2002. Before reading this I thought "Bologna" was a type of sausage also known as "baloney". wink

The Bologna model has a three level model of degrees and the amount of full time study required for them:

  1. Undergraduate: two years
  2. Masters: two years,
  3. Doctoral: three years.

The major differences with existing Australian degrees, is at the undergraduate level, where there may be a fourth "Honors" year for professional qualifications. It is likely that the popularity of an honors year will decline with the Bologna Process, in favor of a two year masters.

Role of Professions in National and International Educational Standards

It should be noted that governments are not the only ones involved in international standardization of qualifications. My own professional body, the Australian Computer Society, is involved in setting educational standards, through accreditation of ICT courses at Australian universities (including ANU). ACS also carries out Migration Skills Assessment for the Australian Government (I wrote the Green ICT test for this assessment). Through the International Federation for Information Processing (IFIP) the IP3 initiative has set an international standard at the postgraduate level for IT, equivalent to an Australian graduate certificate (IP3: Progress Towards a Global ICT Profession, Johnson, 2010). My ICT Sustainability course is part of the Australian certification for the global program. However, ICT professional recognition of qualifications does not extend to masters or PHD level. The ACS Fellow grade of membership is defined in a similar way to a professional doctorate.

Bologna Model at University of Melbourne

Professor Iven Mareels, Dean of Engineering at University of Melbourne gave an overview of the changes to engineering and computer science programs brought about by the "Melbourne University Model", which is in part a response to the Bologna Model, in a talk he gave at ICCSE 2012 (which I attended). With this system, students choose from one of only six undergraduate degrees (engineering and computer science students would normally undertake a Bachelor of Science).

Unlike undergraduate degrees from other Australian universities, the Melbourne degrees do not meet the requirements of professional bodies, such as ACS, for entry. Students are expected to undertake a further 18 months study for CS or two years for Engineering to complete a masters.

Professor Mareels commented that this program was intended to meet the needs of international students. Many international students were undertaking the undergraduate degree in their own country and then coming to Melbourne University for the masters.

The courses are part student directed problem based learning. However, Professor Mareels commented that traditional lecture based courses have to be used in part, due to their lower cost. I though this a curious comment, as it is possible to design cost effective student directed problem based-courses by using on-line techniques.


The Research Supervision Global Developments used by ANU, Oxford University and others, lists seven issues:

  1. National groupings and organizations
  2. Focus on timely completions and research training
  3. Increased focus on quality assurance
  4. Increased mobility and transport
  5. The ubiquity of English
  6. Technology and changes in the nature of knowledge and research
  7. National security and terrorism issues

There does not appear to be any common theme to these issues. The first three topics (Internationalization, Professionalism and Quality) appear to naturally group together being about the process of standardizing degree processes. The other four topics (Mobility, English, Technology and Security) do not.

Some Readings

Auriol, L. (2007). Labour market characteristics and international mobility of doctorate holders: Results for seven countries. Paris: OECD.

The OECD and UNESCO compared doctorate holders in Argentina, Australia, Canada, Germany, Portugal, Switzerland and the United-States. They found Germany and Switzerland had two to three times the number of doctorate holders, as a proportion of the workforce, as Australia, Canada or the USA. Germany has 2% of the workforce with doctorates, versus 0.78% for Australia. This suggests scope for more Australian PHDs. The report also points out that the USA has many foreign PHD working and that these contribute a significant amount of the USA's research output. There may be some lessons for Australia's overseas education markets of India and China in this.

Department of Education, Science and Training (2006). The Bologna Process and Australia: Next steps.

Note that this document was not available from the DEST website, but is in the Google cache.

DEST list the objectives of the Bologna Process as:

  1. Easily readable and comparable degrees - the foremost tools for achieving this are the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) and the Diploma Supplement.
  2. Uniform degree structures - initially, it was agreed that the degree structure would be mainly based on a two-cycle model. The first cycle, lasting a minimum of three years, ends in a Bachelor-level degree. Masters degrees are the second cycle. There has since been agreement (Berlin 2003) to the inclusion of third cycle degrees (doctorates) within the Bologna framework.
  3. Establishment of a system of credits - such as in the ECTS system - many countries do not have a system of study credits and determine their degrees only in years or semesters. The objective of a establishing a system of credits is to promote widespread student mobility.
  4. Increased mobility - obstacles to the effective mobility of students, teachers, researchers and administrative staff will be removed.
  5. Promotion of European co-operation in quality assurance with a view to developing comparable criteria and methodologies - the European Network of Quality Assurance in Higher Education plays a key role in this.
  6. Promotion of the European dimension in higher education - closer international cooperation and networks; language and cultural education.

While DEST refers to promotion of European educational objectives, the same clearly apply to Australia. The "Diploma Supplement" mentioned is an EU/UNESCO initiative to provide a standardized mode detailed description of each graduate's qualifications. The 2007 Review of Higher Degree Research at ANU recommended the ANU testamur be reviewed with a view to incorporating such supplement. ANU is now issuing eTranscripts through the company Digitary, which was setup up by Dublin City University. But it is not clear if ANU is using the system to provide Bologna Process compliant Diploma Supplement.

Other nations hacve worked on internationalization of their higher education, such as Malaysia, with the "Internationalization Policy for Higher Education Malaysian 2011" (Ministry of Higher Education, Malaysia, 2011).

Enders, J. (2005). Border crossings: Research training, knowledge dissemination and the transformation of academic work. Higher Education, 49(1-2), 119-133.

Enders describes a shift from the Humboldtian to a professional model of education.

Enders points out that many doctoral graduates go on to work in industry, suggesting a need for alternatives to a "doctorate by thesis".

However, I suggest the Humboldtian model, with its emphases on the teacher's role in guiding the student's own research, has strong parallels with modern educational theories. This suggests a way research and coursework could be harmoniously combined in a doctoral program.

McEachern, D. (2004). Postgraduate research re-imagined: A balance between the pursuit of excellences and real world needs of students. In M. Kiley & G. Mullins (Eds.), Quality in postgraduate research: Re-imagining research education (pp. 45-52). Canberra: CELTS University of Canberra.

McEachern supports Australian reforms to the doctoral process, but proposes further changes to examination process, in particular challenging the Australian custom of requiring at least one "overseas" assessor. Also they propose the members of the supervisory panel also be examiners.

McEachern proposes the supervisory panel meet on-line to allow for external experts and suggests the same technology could be used for .a "face-to-face" defense of the thesis. This suggests to me a limited understanding of how on-line technology can be used. On-line courses do not tend to use real-time communication as their primary teaching method. This would be expensive in staff time and also very inconvenient for the staff and students. Similarly it would make more sense to use store-and-forward communication (called "asynchronous" in pedagogy), rather than real-time ("synchronous") for supervision and examination.

Also, before a"face to face" examination is used, any underlying biases in the process need to be considered. As an example, it would not be possible to disguise the gender and identity of the student with a face to face examination. Also poor spoken English may count against the student, even though this is not a criterion for a doctorate.

McEachern discusses the need for computing skills by doctoral candidates, suggesting some skills are needed in databases, informatics, modeling, and simulation. However, my experience as an ICT professional working with other disciplines suggest a more basic level of ICT skills are needed by students, in how to read and write on-line and undertake basic on-line searches. A suitable standard would be the Europe as the European Driver's License (ECDL), also known as the International Computer Driver's License (ICDL).

Also a UK study looked at the research behaviour of higher education research students ("The research behaviour of Generation Y doctoral students" (JISC, 2012). This found that students favoured secondary online sources of information and rarely looked at source data.

McEachern argues for a combination of graduate course work and a thesis, as an option for PHD programs. This is described as being "based on the American model", but does not detail the model further. It is a surprise to me that in 2004 no Australian university was offering a program where the student could undertake coursework as part of a doctorate.

McWilliam, E., Singh, P., & Taylor, P. (2002). Doctoral Education, Danger and Risk Management. Higher Education Research and Development, 21(2), 119-129.

McWilliam, Taylor and Singh's failed in their attempt to "make explicit connections between risk management systems, universities and doctoral education". They use terms such as "danger", "audit" and "risk" with a lack of clarity and precision. Some familiarity with the terminology and techniques of the risk management discipline may have helped the analysis, in particular use of the ISO 31000 series of risk management standards.

Nerad, M. (2006). Globalisation and its impact on research education: Trends and Emerging Best Practices for the Doctorate of the Future. In M. Kiley & G. Mullins (Eds.), Quality in Postgraduate Research: Knowledge creation in testing times (pp. 11-12). Canberra, The Australian National University.

Nerad argues that globalisation of industry has resulted in an increase in demand for knowledge workers with PhDs. The strength of this demand and the global standards in industry has resulted in global competition by companies and countries for personnel with PHDs. It is also argued that this is one motivation for the Bologna Process.

The increase in Chinese PHDs is cited: from 2,556 in 1991, to 12,500 in 2001, with two thirds in science and engineering.

Nerad's analysis of the reasons for the large number of Chinese and Indian PHD students in US universities is equally applicable to Australia. Few local students went on to a doctorate previously, as an undergraduate degree was sufficient for a well paying job in industry. Therefore university turned to overseas students for a poorly of winning and well qualified applicants. As a bonus, these students return more revenue to the university than local ones.

They list eighteen best practices for doctoral education. These could be summarized as:

About the student:

  1. Students will be prepared for careers in research, teaching and industry.
  2. Competitive admission.
  3. Multi-year funding, subject to progress being shown by the student.
  4. Students required to have at least two languages (?).

About the supervisory process by the institution:

  1. A code of practice for supervision.
  2. Multiple supervisors for each student.
  3. Introductory courses on research methods and implications.
  4. Students examined on broad understanding.
  5. Interdisciplinary work
  6. Training in teamwork and project skills.
  7. Dissertation or by publication
  8. Overseas research experience required
  9. International culture in curriculum (?)
  10. Internal formative reviews of doctoral candidates, with external summative examination
  11. "world citizenship education" for students (?)

Between institutions:

  1. Collaborative projects between institutions
  2. International program reviews.
  3. Structured international collaborations on global issues

Most of these best practices for doctoral education would not be controversial. However, some would impose considerable burdens on the student, supervisors and the institution. In particular, the requirement for students to have at least two languages and the requirement for overseas research experience as part of the program would would take up a considerable proportion of the resources available for a PHD. It is difficult enough to find a supervisor for a student without requiring them to speak two languages and to arrange overseas postings.

To lower the cost of internationalizing programs, Sinclair gives the example of the University of Melbourne and University of Washington holding a joint workshop for doctoral students. However, this is not very adventurously cross cultural, with Australia and US institutions speaking (approximately) the same language and having very similar cultures. A more adventurous approach might be to team a Western university with institutions in their target markets of India and China.

Also Sinclair does not discuss the option of bringing students together on-line, rather than face to face. ICT graduates will need to get used to a workplace with personnel around the world who they may rarely, if ever, see in person. So the doctoral education may as well make a virtue of necessity, by using virtual global teams of students and supervisors.

The "Student Perceptions of Research Supervision" (SPORS) asked both the students and their supervisors what is expected and then compared the results. This suggests that a team workplace like imprisonment would benefit the students. The research by CAPA also shows that students collaborating are happier. Also I suggest that programs such as Innovation ACT, that encourage budding inventors, would be of value (the program is incorporated in some Multiversity of Canberra, but not ANU courses).

Sinclair, M. (2004). The pedagogy of 'good' PhD supervision: A national cross-disciplinary investigation of PhD supervision. Canberra: Department of Education Science and Training.

Note that this document was not available from the DEST website, but is in the Google cache.

Sinclair found that the discipline had more effect on how long a PHD took to complete than the university it was undertaken at. The argue that PhD supervision is a form of pedagogy, however the later discussion of the independence and confidence needed by students suggests the terms andragogy, or heutagogy, would be more applicable.

Sinclair's analysis provides some useful ideas for the use of on-line systems to support the supervision process. As an example, the 'hands on' supervisors' warning signals could easily be automated, with an absence of on-line activity by the student aromatically alerting the supervisor.

Perhaps more importantly, the same automated technique could be used to warn of an absence of supervision. The lack of input from a supervisor could first be flagged to their co-supervisors and then to senior academic staff. This process could be extended to be part of the audit process with the most senior levels of the university, external bodies and as a publicly reported performance measure.

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