Sunday, January 4, 2015

Online Doctorates, degree designation, and misunderstanding of what it all means...



Happy new year to all! The other day I was catching up on some reading in my Pocket account when I read an article in eLearn Magazine about online doctorates. I feel like I should have a grumpy-cat image on this blog with a big "no" on it since there were a number of things that seemed really wrong to me about this article. Some of them are probably the author's interpretation, or way of explicating things, and other things are wide-spread academia myths (in my view). I think the article author intends well, as the crux of the article seems to be to research things well before you commit to any online program, but things seem to go awry in explanations.  First the author writes:

As the number of master's students from the initial flush of fully online degrees stabilizes, those interested in increased revenue streams have opened up the university gates wide and have started to look to doctoral-level education for the next big democratization of higher education.
I think that this is a gross misassessment of what online degrees do, including the doctorate.  I do think that there is a demand for more education, and because we are all busy during traditional school hours to attend MA and PhD program online programs are growing or expanding to fill in the gap.  That said this should not be mistaken with democratization of education. Just because higher education is now potentially available to more people, via online delivery, it does not mean that there is an actual democratization of knowledge and information.  People still have to pay tuition and fees in order to be able to take those online programs.  When the financial cost of attending school is not $0 then it's not democratization.  Democratization is when knowledge and information becomes available to all of those who want to partake in it, regardless of their socioeconomic background.  Online degrees, even the doctorate, is still only available to those elite who are able to pay for it!

The second thing that really didn't sit well with me is this artificial distinction between a "real" doctorate (PhD) and the "professional" doctorate (EdD in my discipline).  The distinction between the two, the one that I've heard over the years, and the one that the author uses is the following.  In a PhD (or academic doctorate as the author refers to them as):

The expectation for those in academic doctorates is that they will focus on the creation and dissemination of new knowledge in their disciplines. They will have experience in presenting their ideas to academic communities for criticism and feedback. Academic doctoral students are expected to publish their work in peer-reviewed journals with findings from their original research.
In a "professional" doctorate, like the EdD however:

[doctoral candidates] are trained differently. While much of the coursework will appear similar, those inside the academy can attest to the differences in the kinds of experiences for these two different tracks. Those with practical or professional doctoral preparation will focus on improving practice. They are more likely to learn to consume research rather than producing copious amounts of original research themselves. They focus on translating current research findings into practical implications for those in their fields. They tend to be leaders in their chosen practice areas, and typically don't work in academic appointments.
This to me is more or less bunk.  First of all, it seems to me that in most disciplines (i.e. those who are not considered lab sciences) that this distinction is irrelevant.  In academia one would never hire a PhD in any of the disciplines I've studied only to conduct research.  Being part of academia, on the tenure track, means that you are conducting research, peer reviewing, being a member of committees to provide service to the institution and to the profession, and teaching.  Teaching is about mentoring and about bringing the theoretical and the practical together so that students can see theory in application, and then in turn start hypothesizing and working things out on their own.  As a matter of fact, we've seen a whole alt-ac movement where PhDs who are thinking about not going into academia (because let's face it, there is a dearth of tenure track jobs available) need the skills required to put theory into practice and to translate that knowledge for other audiences.  Are you telling me that they should have gone for a professional doctorate instead?

On the other hand, you've got the professional doctorate who, by definition, seems to me to be the mama-bird who pre-digests food for her younglings.  This is also wrong. Professional doctorates might have more of a focus on practice (maybe skipping that required skilling for alt-ac) however this does not absolve them of research responsibilities, if they want to be taken seriously.  People who graduate from professional doctoral programs need to be every bit as much as thought leader, to borrow a phrase from a friend of mine, as those graduating from academic doctoral programs. They still need to be able to conduct research as part of their day-to-day job because that's how we determine if theoretical practice, put into day-to-day use actually works. No one needs to produce copious amounts of research to be an academic, they just need to produce good research.  Research isn't measured by the pound, but rather by impact. And, what if someone with a professional doctorate wants to pursue the tenure track? Should this degree designation prevent them from doing so?

Finally, the author cites a 2005 article on perceptions of hiring authorities, in academia, about online doctorates.  Leaving aside that this was 10 years ago and things will most likely have changes, I think the conclusion, that those who earned a doctorate by online means, are not welcomed to apply for academic postings.  I think this is looking at it in a manner that is too simplistic.  I think that we need to dive deeper into the nitty gritty here and see who was offering online doctorates ten years ago?  The only people I know who've earned online doctorates during that time period are people who went to Capella, or maybe even University of Phoenix.  The push-back felt in these cases is not because of the online doctorate, but because what that online doctorate is associated with: a for-profit institution who is seen to lack quality (in other words the perception of the diploma mill). Now if the degree were attained through Harvard Online (if that existed back then), I would say that an online degree would most likely be welcomed if it were associated with a positive name.  It's not the online degree, but rather the name.


There is no excuse for a poor academic program - period - be it BA, MA, or PhD level. The sense that I am getting from articles like this is that the difference between a PhD and an EdD basically translates to "PhD = more rigorous" and "EdD = be done quickly, call yourself a doc" - this to me is a false conclusion. I personally don't see a difference, from a theoretical perspective, between a PhD and an EdD.  your thoughts?
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