Doctoral Journey – Part 6
This is the last part of my reflection on the doctoral journey. It started in 2010 and ended in 2015.
Written: July 2014
Edited: January 2023
Several readers, and the university, have asked me if I would recommend University of Phoenix. It depends. I had searched for an accredited, online, healthcare-related doctoral program. U of P was the best one I could find. The structure of the program, with 25 online courses and three 7–10-day residencies in your choice of Phoenix, Washington, or Atlanta, was well organized and rigorous. I will also describe my prior college education and the method of learning at the University of Phoenix, and discuss pros and cons.
I earned an LLB in law in 1971 from LaSalle Extension University (LSEU). LSEU was a nationally accredited private university based in Chicago, Illinois. Courses were delivered by “distance learning”. I read a library of printed law books, wrote assignments with a pen and paper, submitted them by the U.S. Postal Service, and received grades in letters delivered to my physical mailbox. I started the courses in 1969 while I was in the U.S. Army and finished the degree in 1973. (LSEU was founded in 1908 and ceased operations in 1982). An LLB degree is no longer relevant, but I did learn a lot, and gained respect for today’s lawyers who earn a Doctor of Jurisprudence (J.D.) degree. It is a bit hard to imagine how archaic the LSEU method of learning was compared to what is available today at a massive open online course (MOOC) or other online education programs such as EdX.
I attended “brick and mortar” universities for a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at Lehigh University (1967) and a master’s degree in management at the University of South Florida (1971). During my years at these schools, there were no Macs, PCs, iPhones, Android, Google or the World Wide Web. The word “device” meant an object, machine, or piece of equipment made for some special purpose. There was no concept of a computer that fit in your pocket or purse. The two universities each had one computer. Lehigh had a GE 225 and USF had an IBM System 360 Model 67. Neither would fit in the house where I am writing this post.
University of Phoenix is predominantly an e-learning school. The online courses are taken at the e-campus. Twenty-five courses taken over 43 months had an average of 15 students in each. The courses were each eight weeks in duration. For most of the course, the first two weeks were dedicated to reading three to five text books, mostly e-books. The professor of a course posted weekly discussion questions which each student answered in an online post. Each student was required to write at least a half-dozen posts responding to what other students had written.
A weekly paper of 1,500 to 5,000 words served as a basis for the course grade. The most significant benefit of the e-learning environment derives from learning from the other 14 students, some of which had vast personal and professional experience. In the traditional university, 15 students learn from one professor. At the e-campus, I felt I was learning from one professor and from 14 students each of whom worked in healthcare for 10-30 years. Like a traditional university, University of Phoenix students and faculty had a bell curve of capability. Online learning is not for everyone. The learning model is very good, but it requires a significant commitment of time on the part of the student, and support from friends and family. Although the online model offers flexibility, the eight-week courses have deadlines and participation requirements. The textbook reading assignments required significant amounts of time. It is hard to take a vacation or a business trip while you are taking a course.
Most of the courses have learning team assignments. These require active participation on a timely basis. Many of the students in my cohort held full-time jobs while meeting family and caregiving responsibilities. I marvel at the commitment of many of my fellow learners. The area of greatest concern during the entire doctoral journey was the administrative and information technology (IT) processes of the university. For a university which has a College of Information Systems and Technology and offers both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in IT, they do not totally practice what I assume they teach.
The e-campus is online but rather than utilize contemporary cloud computing approaches such as Google Docs or Dropbox, the classes used attachments of Word and PowerPoint documents. When collaborating as part of a “learning team”, it was awkward at best. A typical posting would contain “who has the latest version of the team paper?”
A second admin/IT concern was with the process for submitting and gaining approval of the research dissertation. After the dissertation committee members all approved my draft by January 12, the next step was to submit the dissertation and a half-dozen related documents to a new workflow system at the university called the Editorial Manager. In theory the new system would eliminate email-tag and uncertainty plus provide 24×7 status information. This turned out to be untrue.
A central and essential element of a doctoral program is the dissertation committee. I was fortunate to have an outstanding, supportive, and constructive committee. The chair of the committee was a member of the faculty and was my advisor throughout the process. The other two members of the committee included another faculty member and a medical doctor from a hospital. After my submission of the dissertation on January 12, the committee members were asked to review the manuscript again following a detailed rating scale. They completed their review and approvals on January 14. At that point, the system showed a dissertation status of “Under Review”. It remained that way for 45 days. No feedback. No target review completion date.
A fourth reviewer had been appointed by the university. The committee members nor I would know who the reviewer was. This independent review is appropriate and adds integrity to the overall process. However, there was a lack of accountability and no expectation as to how long such a review should take. After the 45 days, I received an email outlining 16 requested changes to the dissertation. Some were trivial and some were substantive. I spent a week researching the questions and editing the document. The committee members then approved the revised dissertation, and I submitted it to the Editorial Manger with all the related documents again.
Included with the updated dissertation was a change matrix which I used to list each of the 16 requested revisions and an explanation of what changes I had made. The “process” now indicated “Under Review” for a second time. No feedback. No expectations as to how long it would take for the reviewer to look at my changes. It took the three committee members one day. It took the external reviewer 13 days, not hours, days. I am surely not alone in observing the doctoral dissertation process is not an efficient business process. My tuition was paid in full. I had completed 62 credit hours of academic studies.
At this stage, I was powerless, and the university was unresponsive. The administrative delay caused me to receive an email from the university saying, “According to our records, it appears you may no longer be with University of Phoenix.” On March 25, I received an email saying the reviewer had approved the dissertation “with changes”. The six additional changes were reasonable and mostly constructive. Since no resubmission was required, I made the changes and scheduled the oral defense for the following Friday.
The purpose of the oral defense was to provide a final checkpoint in the journey, to validate if the doctoral candidate can explain his or her research, conclusions, implications, and recommendations. I made a 26-slide presentation to the committee by teleconference, which was then followed by a Q&A session. I then dropped out of the conference call to allow the committee to decide pass, pass with changes, or fail.
Ten minutes later, I received a call from the committee chair informing me the dissertation was accepted without changes. Following his call, I received the email saying “Congratulations Dr. Patrick! Enjoy your weekend.”
On March 28, the doctoral journey was over, almost. The last step is to get the dissertation published. I uploaded the final approved dissertation on March 28, immediately after the oral defense. It took six months o bureaucracy to get it published.
Since I completed my doctorate eight years ago, online education has come a long way, pushed forward significantly by the pandemic. Unfortunately, the shift was not highly successful. Many students and schools had insufficient computer. Network connectivity was poor at many locations. Teachers were not trained, and, unlike University of Phoenix, the syllabuses were not designed for online learning. I see online learning as here to stay, but the biggest threat to its effectiveness may turn out to be AI (artificial intelligence).