Last changed 9 Sept 2012 ............... Length about 3,000 words (18,000 bytes).
(Document started on 26 Aug 2012.) This is a WWW document maintained by Steve Draper, installed at You may copy it. How to refer to it.

Web site logical path: [] [~steve] [resources] [this page]

Distance learning for a PhD

By Steve Draper,   Department of Psychology,   University of Glasgow.

This page is some notes from thinking about how one might supervise a PhD at a distance. I don't intend to do it: my university doesn't allow it, and friends who have attempted it have all had varying degrees of bad experiences. But it's a great stimulus for thinking.
1. First it makes me ask myself: what would the online equivalent be for the things we feel are important for PhD students?
2. Then: do we provide this service in reality for our local PhD students? For all of them?

I'm putting down some notes here because I think it's interesting, but I want to stop thinking about it for now. The person I've come across so far with the most extensive and creative ideas on this is Cristina Costa.


While my university is old-fashioned and doesn't allow it, it probably will have to consider it in future; it is probably in fact being done sometimes regardless even here; and I'm told that in Australia it is common-place. There are, too, some programmes awarding a doctorate, but where taught courses predominate over the research project.

When I've asked friends about their experiences of supervising PhDs at a distance, they have been negative. E.g. "... is a distance course but you have to attend an induction meeting at the beginning with a 2 night stay. It's really difficult doing part time at a distance. I have done it before and got the students through but it requires so much time and effort on the part of the supervisor and feedback can so easily be misinterpreted. ... have stopped doing it as success rates are poor".

I'll be thinking of the most extreme, yet quite common, case: not only distance (say 4,000 miles away, not the 200 miles the UK calls distance); but part time PhD with a full time paid job; and where the job is not a research environment in the area of the PhD. (Even if your day job was in an engineering lab that wouldn't help with an Education PhD.) So the extreme but important case is:

So how might it be done, and done well? Here's a sketch.

Learning Aims

  1. Bring about the micro-time-management effects (discussed below) implicit in peer interaction. They are needed even more for a self-managed task like a PhD.
  2. Community of research. There is a wealth of informal knowledge that a student picks up unintentionally or on request if part of a lab. full of fellow PhD students: not just how to use the equipment or do the stats, but which new papers everyone should read, what is in fashion in the area, ...
  3. Discussion, much of it informal. Bacon argued that discussion is the third leg of the classic tripod in "learning" (reading, discussing, writing): and who is a PhD student going to argue with?
  4. Finding one's own voice. This may have nothing to do, really, with distance or part time. However talking to PhD students, it's clear that writing regularly is important; and just doing PhD chapter drafts is not what's required either for personal development or for preparation for a career (no-one writes a second PhD). Not least, because learners need low-stakes exercises: writing only refereed papers is not that. Book reviews, opinion pieces / blogs, the argument for rejecting some theory or paradigm in your area, .....
  5. Shielding fragile visions (i.e. ideas you can't remotely justify at this point). If you want any chance for any originality in your PhD students (many lab bosses don't, but those who do, produce the students who change the world), then this needs shielding and perhaps scaffolding. Long rambling conversations with the supervisor, not cut short by "productivity", "sticking to the point" (when do you have the other conversations which create new points?), the official learning agenda. (I got this Aim from another PhD student, discussing what he thought was really good about his supervisor.)

    5.2 You can replace "shielding visions" by "developing the 'thesis': the structure of the overall argument of the dissertation". This is a vital part of a PhD, yet seldom provided for by any kind of activity or plan.

  6. Learning each others' emotional expressions (explained below). How to ensure this for PhD students? Many PhDs end in a breakdown of communication. Many of the best supervisors have regular social outings with their whole group: an investment for better communication when it's difficult but important? How to organise the equivalent at a distance?

Learning Activities: tactics that could be part of a solution

  1. Start with an explicit learning contract, saying explicitly what is required of both student and supervisor. Expect to revise it occasionally.
  2. Daily Twitter (#phdchat) by each student on what they did about their PhD today. "A progress diary".
    1. Local group only
    2. world wide PhD chat?
  3. Diary by Supervisor on contacts, formal and informal. Public? private? open to the group? only each student separately? I'm going to try this (privately): at the least it will show me what proportion of contacts are spontaneous (not planned because of the PhD), what we talked about, ...
  4. Weekly skype with supervisor 1:1 (unless/until a lower rate of contact is agreed).
  5. Weekly formal sessions with peer PhD students. Have to design a task for this.
    1. Peer critiquing of blog entries?
    2. Require weekly blog entry of 300-500 words by each student
    3. Perhaps formalise peer responses to each: patchwork text for PhD student groups?
  6. 12 hours per week informal sessions with peers e.g. Facebook time. This is to replace wandering into other students' offices and chatting about barely relevant stuff, that nevertheless may come in some time.
  7. Work out how to send a stream (one photo per week?) of the local group to the remote student. A reminder, showing the context, .... And vice versa, have photos from them streamed into the local group. I say "photos" but really, any reminder of the student's context.
  8. Do internal seminars where each researcher/student presents in turn e.g. one per week. External speakers are good for fresh air; but internal ones are vital to know what everyone is doing. And so you can feed them stuff of relevance when you come across it, .... And give them comments when you think of them: not only think for 5 mins on the spot then forget them forever. Basic for creating a community.
    1. Record them and post online (deal with time zones etc.)
    2. Require everyone to produce a paragraph of comment to a forum: can't see others' till you've submitted yours.
  9. ?Additionally, have everyone have one project on the go entirely secretly e.g. report only once a year. As a contrast to the other activities, and to teach us all how well we do / not do things autonomously.
  10. Online office outings. Synchronous activity of the whole group. E.g. sync online, and at time zero, you pick a topic out of the hat, and do a group construction of a communal page collecting innformation on the topic. E.g. 2: Take it in turn to introduce the rest of the group to your most fun online activity.

Which are most important?

My current guesses about what's the most important from these:
  1. Discussions. The number of minutes per day spent in discussion of ideas great and small is probably predictive of the rate of development of ideas, understanding, ....
  2. Both planned and unplanned discussions (so you sometimes learn stuff you didn't plan to learn).
  3. Both planned and unplanned reminders of the business of doing a PhD from seeing or interacting with others engaged in the business (as supervisors or students) is the best help for not forgetting it for days or weeks on end as your day job reminds you of its needs many times a day. Remember, the only deadline for a PhD is years ahead. Everything else is quite literally more urgent, more pressing, than that. How will you ever remember to do any of it?
  4. Regular small writing, with some response to it
  5. Learning contracts. And updating them occasionally over the course of the PhD.

Notes on underpinning ideas

Learning each others' emotional expressions

Why do we feel there's something missing if we don't meet face to face, but by phone, email, skype? We suppose that it is to do with "back channels", body language, etc. that are part of communication when available.

Why do so many businesses (and diplomats) spend significant money socialising with clients? An hypothesis about this is that, contrary to many crude published theories of emotion, in fact we learn to read familiar people much better than strangers: and socialising with others trains us to understand them better. This is useful when later, we are communicating about important stuff: negotiating contracts etc. For a PhD: when write up time comes and they go quiet. What does quiet mean for that person? Generally "feedback can so easily be misinterpreted" as one colleague put it in an email about how distance supervision is hard and failure prone. This hypothesis is consistent with the observation that many families and other groups spend considerable time playing games: and games are deliberately designed to be actually low stakes, yet to bring out emotions far more than average life. You have only to look at onlookers to sporting events to see this. Games, then, enhance the value of time together for learning each others' emotional expressions. Even just chatting in a pub you get a higher proportion of both jokes and horror stories than in average work interactions, and this probably operates as games do.

How to ensure this for PhD students? Many PhDs end in a breakdown of communication. Many of the best supervisors have regular social outings with their whole group: an investment for better future communication when it's difficult but important? How to organise the equivalent at a distance?

Learning contracts

Most PhD students aren't aware of fixed ideas about contact and interaction; and where these exist, these probably aren't the same as the tacit assumption of their supervisor. And in any case: distance means doing things differently.

These need to be reviewed and renegotiated periodically. The needs and work of a PhD student changes during their PhD. Any fixed, prescribed recipe will at the very best be quite wrong for some of that period. Furthermore the circumstances / context are likely to change for a distance, part-time student, as well as the stage of their PhD.

Micro time management

The key idea I'm considering here is that among other things, frequent interaction in a community keeps related things active in your mind. Just as if a colleague mentions milk, I might silently check with myself whether I meant to buy milk on the way home; so frequent contact however trivial with a PhD student group will remind the distance learner to think for an instant about where they are in their plans for this.

Why do I think this kind of thing matters in education?

When a parent or teacher engages a child in a Vygotskian dialogue, or piece of contingent tutoring or scaffolded action, it is not just object level knowledge (what action they should take) which is being assisted, but also the management level of making sure all the little actions complete with corrections and backtracking nevertheless add up to a successful whole. The child has little idea of this whole and certainly isn't worrying about it. The adult makes sure they have something to do at each stage, and that it all comes out OK. When a physician is in their surgery or clinic, their assistants have organised a single stream of appointments and all they have to do is to pick up the patient's notes, deal with them, then on to the next: they don't spend any effort in wondering what to do next, or whether they have missed someone out. When I look at busy administrators (say my head of department, or the Principal of a university) much of their life is also organised for them in just this way. When Julie Clow designed a distance learning course for full time employees of Google, she used software that divided up their learning actions into chunks that took about 20 mins each, and fed them out one at a time. I felt horrified at this "spoon feeding": the failure to require them to be self-starting, organised etc., and to pretend this would be a feature not a bug in the course design. But when I realised that some of the most highly paid and productive people run their lives like this, it made me think it is we educators who are wrong.

Furthermore, Clow's course is built around weekly synchronous tutorials (online, cross-continent) and she didn't even feel the need to justify this, so obvious was it to her that this is important. (And many others do not have this in their distance learning courses: these are the courses with high dropout / failure rates.) Why? because every week the group sees each other on video conference, and furthermore a spreadsheet shows everyone in the group how much work each has done as a starting point. No-one wants to have done more or less than the rest: groups will "coordinate" i.e. align their work. This is human, natural, and shows that groups are powerful (usually without a word being spoken) at the management level. But without that, few can keep their work going, any more than a human deprived of daylight can keep their body clock synchronised to a 24 hour rhythm. Exercise classes work in the same way.

In supervising PhD students, probably an accidental and informal version of this is significant; particularly given that a PhD is inherently one of the biggest and least collaborative of all human activities. Where such students work around a group of peers, they will be prompted frequently by seeing what others are doing. When a distance student is in an environment full of other-job prompts, and devoid of all part time PhD-prompts, we must expect trouble. How to keep it present to their attention?

Being reminded of the business of doing a PhD by seeing or interacting with others engaged in the business (as supervisors or students) is the best help for not forgetting it for days or weeks on end in favour of your day job. Remember, the only deadline for a PhD is years ahead. Everything, even though perhaps less important in terms of values, is quite literally more urgent, more pressing, than that. How will you ever remember to do any of it?

I call all of this "micro time management" to myself. I think many learning activities are great because they are effective in this respect, as well as in other aspects. It is also interesting because it suggests that some of the things we attribute to the magic of "communities" are automatic, not spoken about, and do not necessarily depend on knowing the other people (just as members of a school of fish do not know each other as individuals). Many of my suggestions for activities above are simplistic ideas about creating online substitutes that might help with distance-PhDs; replacing what physical communities have as an automatic, unplanned, unintended property.


Thanks to the following for prompting or helping me to think about this topic, and who may well recognise their ideas, experiences and comments being appropriated here without attribution. (On the other hand, no credit is due to them for the spelling and punctuation errors, which were all freshly created just for this page.)


Implicit L-goals?

Web site logical path: [] [~steve] [resources] [this page]
[Top of this page]