Yesterday, I gave some dissertation advice for one doctoral student and invited my colleagues to provide additional details (see Dissertation Advice: K-12 Online Learning Support Services). Today, let’s help another student. This particular student contacted one of my organizational colleagues with the following query:
I am entering my second year of doctorate studies at [university name] in computer science, emerging media. My dissertation involves virtual learning K12. My mentor has instructed me that I need to include more dissertations but I have only found two that were worthwhile. I have cited these but am looking for others if you could perhaps point me in the right direction. I appreciate your help with this matter.
My colleague, cc’ed a bunch of us on the interaction, and asked that student for more information about what they were interested in. The student responded with:
Thank you for your response. First, I might add that I see you added Michael Barbour to the email list. Mr. Barbour, I would like to tell you that I have several of your pieces that you have either authored or co-authored in my annotated bibliography and they are very good. Secondly, [colleague's name] I am narrowing my dissertation research focus down to a mixed method methodology and seem to gravitate towards quantitative data on completion of first year virtual high school students vs. that of traditional 9-12 students in national standardized testing scores. In addition, the qualitative portion should contain students perception of their first year of virtual studies vs. their last year of traditional studies, including but not limited to perception of their instructor, quality of their studies, do they participate in any public school activities such as sports, perception of their time spent learning, among others. I am copying my mentor, [advisor's name] on this email as well. Thank you for your time and I look forward to your continued response and time in this effort to obtain my doctorate degree.
My response to the student was:
First of all, let me say that if you could only find two dissertations that were worthwhile you haven’t been looking hard enough. If you do a quick search of the ProQuest Dissertation database on the term “virtual school” it yields 51 dissertations. “Cyber school” has another 5, “cyberschool” another 8, K-12+”online learning” generates another 45, online+”high school” another 408 dissertations. While there may be some overlap between these 517 dissertations, I suspect that more than two of them are worthwhile. There are four people listed on this message who have dissertations in that database, so I suspect that would double your number right off the bat.
Second, you don’t want to do a comparison of student performance between online vs. classroom-based students. It is a strawman’s argument. At some point in your doctoral studies, someone should have directed you to Clark’s (1983) article that discusses the impact of technology on education – which basically says that technology doesn’t impact learning, that it is simply a medium that delivers the instruction. It is the changes in pedagogy that affect learning. Clark’s famous line is that technology affects learning as much as the delivery truck carrying your groceries affects the nutritional value of the food it carries. This is the dominant view in education/instructional technology, and one you should follow-up on yourself. The citation for it is:
Clark, R. E. (1983). Reconsidering research on learning with media. Review of Educational Research, 53(4), 445–459. Retrieved from http://rer.sagepub.com/content/53/4/445.abstract
The second reason is because it has already been done – multiple times over.
Barbour, M. K., & Mulcahy, D. (2008). How are they doing? Examining student achievement in virtual schooling. Education in Rural Australia, 18(2), 63-74.
Barbour, M. K., & Mulcahy, D. (2009). Student performance in virtual schooling: Looking beyond the numbers. ERS Spectrum, 27(1), 23-30.
Cavanaugh, C. (2001). The effectiveness of interactive distance education technologies in K–12 learning: A meta-analysis. International Journal of Educational Telecommunications, 7(1), 73–88.
Cavanaugh, C., Gillan, K. J., Kromrey, J., Hess, M., & Blomeyer, R. (2004). The effects of distance education on k–12 student outcomes: A meta-analysis. Naperville, IL: Learning Point Associates. Retrieved from http://www.ncrel.org/tech/distance/k12distance.pdf
Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., & Jones K. (2009). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/tech/evidence-based-practices/finalreport.pdf
Simply put, a dissertation on this topic wouldn’t be worth the paper it is written on in terms of advancing the field, assisting in our understanding of K-12 online learning, or being of any use to any individual involved in the practice of K-12 online learning.
As you begin to think about think about a dissertation topic, let me recommend that you look at the major reviews of the state of research into K-12 online learning and look at what those folks have recommended for future research. These include:
Barbour, M. K. (2009). Today’s student and virtual schooling: The reality, the challenges, the promise… Journal of Distance Learning, 13(1), 5-25.
Barbour, M. K., & Reeves, T. C. (2009). The reality of virtual schools: A review of the literature. Computers and Education, 52(2), 402–416.
Blomeyer, R. L. (2002). Online learning for K-12 students: What do we know now? Naperville, IL: North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. Retrieved from http://tinyurl.com/29h38v5
Cavanaugh, C., Barbour, M. K., & Clark, T. (2009). Research and practice in K-12 online learning: A review of literature. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(1). Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/607
Rice, K. L. (2006). A comprehensive look at distance education in the K-12 context. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 38(4), 425-448.
Smith, R., Clark, T., & Blomeyer, R. L. (2005). A synthesis of new research on K-12 online learning. Naperville, IL: Learning Point Associates. Retrieved from http://www.ncrel.org/tech/synthesis/synthesis.pdf
Beyond what these folks have recommended, let me suggest a more general resource to help guide you in the types of research questions that you want to be asking in any educational technology research project.
Reeves, T. C. (1995). Questioning the questions of instructional technology research. A paper presented at the National Convention of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology, Anaheim, CA. Retrieved from http://www2.gsu.edu/~wwwitr/docs/dean/index.html
I suspect that much of this is not what you’d like to hear (e.g., that your initial dissertation idea isn’t really something that is worth pursuing and would largely be a waste of time), but I also hope that you’ll find some use in these other suggestions for getting on the right track.
While I may have been a bit direct – and given the student was from computer science maybe some of this literature was outside of the scope of their regular plan of work, I think that the advice is sound for many doctoral students interested in doing research into K-12 online learning. But as I did yesterday, let me throw it out to my research-focused colleagues… Is there additional advice that you’d provide this student?