Making Research Vibrant, and Real
One of the moments Ronald Black, Ed.D., savors is when his learners finally meet face-to-face. “I see it in my doctoral residencies, when they all come together in a room,” he says. “There’s a little hesitancy at first. But then they realize, ‘Oh, we met online!’”
They may not know each other’s faces, but they do know each other’s minds. “Our classes are peer-driven and discussion-driven, so they already know each other quite well,” Dr. Black explains. “They become good friends. And those friendships continue long after commencement, well into their professional lives.”
Access is Only the Beginning
A teacher of doctoral-level research courses - and an authority in technology and distance learning - Dr. Black was once skeptical about the merits of online instruction. “I went through the traditional university system. So, I used to look at the University of Phoenix model and say, ‘You can’t learn that way.’” Back then, he didn’t like the passive quality of other, still nascent online teaching formats. Now, Dr. Black hails the University of Phoenix model for—of all its myriad offerings—its vigorous social dimension. “I’ve taken a 180-degree turn on how it can work,” he asserts. “Now, lots of people are doing the same thing.”
Flexible class scheduling and online learning have dramatically increased the opportunity for under-served populations to access higher education. As a University of Phoenix instructor, Dr. Black says discussion of new learning models focus too much on aspects of technology. “Technology is the back-end of the program,” he says. “The front-end is the benefits that come with it.” He believes models like the University of Phoenix format can lead learners to a greater depth of intense study, a broader field for their research, and additional possibilities for their work in the future.
“I’ve been connected with online education since the early 90s, when the technology wasn’t really there.” He says. “The traditional online setting was very teacher-centric. You would post a lecture and some assignments, and that would be about it. There was not a lot of discussion about the lesson.” Since then, the learning platform has transformed to meet the shifting needs of today’s working learners.
Today, discussion is the watchword in Dr. Black’s classes. “That really is the focus. When a learner comes into a research class, they really know little about how to conduct a research study, [or] identify a topic, methodology or problem to develop the purpose to study. Our model gets the learner involved. Participation is required. They’re graded on it.” The extended online discussion format hones skills such as individual thinking while exposing learners to a variety of approaches and points of view. “We practice the three C’s: communication, collaboration and cooperation,” Dr. Black says. “That’s how we learn.”
Lessons Paced to Move
Learners tend to be more invested and enthusiastic when discussion propels the lesson. But structure and momentum are critical. Dr. Black says that University of Phoenix’s five to eight-week, single-class structures facilitate that, along with the flexible aspect of course scheduling. “They maintain that heightened intensity—and you want that in a learning environment. You want a discussion every day. The key to online instruction is getting the learners involved and having them do something every single day. You can’t do that over a 12-week semester model. In that time frame, there are going to be days where there is just not a lot happening.” The University of Phoenix format fosters internal momentum, day-to-day and class-to-class, as learners progress through their degree programs. “In a doctoral format, you can talk [on a subject] five days out of the week. We normally get a lot of people, with good opinions. And a lot of feedback is posted every week to keep lessons moving along.”
The interactive emphasis inherent in the University of Phoenix learning platform promotes a deeper level of study. But intense study has limited value if the subject range is too narrow. “That’s why we provide lots of opportunities for doctoral learners to take courses and workshops outside of their regular coursework,” Dr. Black explains. His research students have access to seminars and participate in workshops that cast additional light on their doctoral work. “There’s no comparison to when I did my doctoral studies,” he says. “Back then, you concentrated on topic and methodology. There were no extra opportunities. [This] opens up a lot of doors. Learners go beyond the topics in the classroom, with their chosen subject leading them.”
Increased access—to the educational system, and the resources within it—has put the learning experience into more of a real-world context, allowing the student to take charge of his or her future; “A lot is happening, especially for the doctoral learner,” Dr. Black says.
“It isn’t just about writing your dissertation. Learners think more about how to take the next step. They want to publish. They want to take their research and do something with it. I have helped a number of students put their studies into articles and presentations. They’ll put it to use in the workplace: to set up policies, or create a curriculum. They look at their degree as something they can do more with.”
This article originally appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education.