Virtual School Meanderings

December 14, 2010

More Dissertation Advice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?


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  3. I am going through a dissertation myself and I really cringed when I read what you wrote. When you said that you might have been a little ‘direct’ well…your understatement is hilarious in the extreme. How much harder would it have been to have used a more congenial and helpful tone? That is what the student asked for-help. Maybe you have forgotten, but those of us who are undergoing the doctoral process are acutely aware of how powerless we are. While your suggestions are helpful and definitely worth getting when they are sprinkled with this kind of directness it can be pretty unpalatable and even poisonous. So my advice is to consider your audience when you are giving advice. This means that you might consider your tone of voice and the power stance from which you offer that advice. You can crush if that suits you, but I would not recommend it, karmically speaking.

    Comment by Terry C Elliott — December 16, 2010 @ 4:14 pm | Reply

  4. Terry, I used the term “direct” on purpose (and took this approach specifically) because of the way in which the student presented their question. While it was only four years ago that I was a student myself, I don’t think I ever contacted a faculty member at the time and told them that there were only two dissertations in the field that were worthwhile. I did consider my audience, and if you look at other times I have provided advice to doctoral students who have written to me (see the dissertation tag) I think you’ll find I have tried to be as constructive as possible.

    It is interesting that you leave these comments, because they message was forwarded to me an several of my colleagues while we were all at a gathering together. So we were actually able to talk to each other before any of us responded, and the general conscious amongst ourselves was that we were struck by the audacity of this particular student – compared to the other requests we have received. In this instance, a cocky request received a – as you call it – “unpalatable and even poisonous” response. I’m reminded of an old say about sugar and vinegar that I think it appropriate.

    Comment by mkbnl — December 16, 2010 @ 4:59 pm | Reply

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  7. I’m reading this page and posts because I too am seeking research in a dissertation topic on K-12 online education. I found this post and comments interesting simply because in my 15 years of public school it seems that there is a direct correlation in the level of educational snobbery and level/grade of instruction that we are associated with. It seems that middle school teachers feel they are quite superior to elementary, high school teachers feel they are much more superior in knowledge to middle and well higher education professors seem to have an aura of superiority to match no other. The reality is that we are all called to be teachers, mentors, or guides to assist those who are seeking our help in the pursuit of knowledge. If I had mirrored the response to every student that gave me a cocky question as a public secondary educator- well let’s just say I wouldn’t have been in the field for 15 years. I think the point of the response comment was that when a student seeks assistance in learning, the response should not be guided by how correctly it was sought. Smiling to yourself at the “cocky” request is appropriate. Maybe even laughing at it over a drink with colleagues is appropriate. But mimicking the actions of the learner in your response is not appropriate. Compassion in the response should be based on your maturity as the guide/teacher not the immaturity of the learner. Your response to the student’s question was VERY helpful in content, but I agree that the tone was inappropriate and would plead that Post-Secondary instructors try harder to see themselves as teachers in the full meaning of the word.

    Comment by Pam-Dissertation Student — April 2, 2011 @ 12:49 pm | Reply

  8. Pam, I’m sorry you’ve had such bad experiences with professionals disrespecting each other in the educational contexts you have worked it. It has been my experience that if you want to be respected you have to treat others with respect. For example, if you had bothered to go back and look through the entries I have posted over the years to dissertating students (see dissertation tag), you’d see that in almost all instances I have attempted to be helpful and respect – but the key is that they were the same in their approach.

    I’ll be quite honest and say that I was a bit of a cocky doctoral student myself (and those who have known me for any length of time, this won’t come as a shock to you). Part of the role that my own doctoral advisors needed to play for to humble me a bit, and they did that with great success (thanks to Drs. Reeves, Hill, Rieber, and many others who played a role in that process). As I indicated to Terry above, if you ask an arrogant questions you’re likely to get an arrogant response – and it shouldn’t surprise you when you receive exactly what you gave. There are times to turn the other cheek and there are times to attempt to correct a behaviour.

    Having said that, I take offense to the notion that because I attempted to put this student in their place (in much the same way I was put into my place not that many years ago), that represents educational snobbery and an aura of superiority. I think all you’d have to do is bother to look at the previous requests I have fielded (again see dissertation tag, with another examples scheduled to be posted on Tuesday) or bother to look at my CV you’ll see that I regularly publish and present with students (generally more than often than by myself), and have just finished serving as the external committee member for a student at another institution and have just joined another student’s committee in a similar capacity because they didn’t have faculty with a background in K-12 online learning at their own institutions.

    Part of the educational process or pursuit of knowledge is learning that we don’t have all of the answers, a lesson that I was trying to teach the student above in much the same way as they approached me. As someone who was taught that lesson themselves, I suspect someday they’ll thank me for it.

    Comment by mkbnl — April 2, 2011 @ 5:35 pm | Reply

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