by Maeve O’Regan
During the last two years, since March 2020, teaching and learning have moved from face-to-face interaction within educational institutions to online environments, to combat the spread of the Covid-19 virus worldwide. Many of us around the world at all stages of education, from young children to students and adult learners, became accustomed to a world previously more familiar to remote workers and distance learners (O’ Regan 2020). This involved working from home, often from a home office or kitchen table, with companionship and engagement with others experienced through screens, webinars, online meetings and virtual coffee mornings. What I noticed, as I worked on writing up my doctoral research on learners’ experiences of completing a PhD on a part-time basis, was how much I and others craved human contact and missed interaction with others on a face-to-face basis. I also noticed that doctoral discussion boards, social media, online conferences, webinars and WhatsApp groups provided an opportunity to engage and communicate with others who were also working from home. The psychological benefits – in terms of motivation, sense of connection and opportunity to move away from the physical surroundings of my study space (kitchen table), and the ability to connect with others via online doctoral communities around the world – were invaluable in helping me progress with my studies, in what was otherwise quite a socially and academically isolated experience.
My doctoral research (2016-2022) explored the experiences of learners’ who completed a PhD on a part-time basis, often in the context of limited access to campus resources and communities during their studies, due to a tendency to manage studies in tandem with other work and personal responsibilities (Watts, 2008). I was influenced by Margaret Archer’s work, particularly the book ‘Structure, Agency and the Internal Conversation’ (Archer, 2003). Archer highlights the role of personal agency as influencing how humans reflect on and respond to constraints and enablers in the social environment in order to realise a personal, occupational or educational goal. In the case of my research the personal goal identified was the successful completion of a PhD on a part-time basis by (18) different learners in Ireland. I sought to understand, via questionnaires and interviews, if the participants had experienced any barriers or enablers to advancing their doctoral studies (e.g. personal, academic, institutional), and if individuals demonstrated agency, and harnessed resources and support to progress with their studies. I was also interested in exploring if individuals who were completing a PhD on a part-time basis sourced help from online resources and communities, potentially to compensate for limited opportunities for interaction with peers and colleagues on a face-to-face basis within the physical campus setting during candidature.
The emphasis on personal agency, for example seeking help from online, as well as face-to-face communities within this study illustrated the unique worlds of different learners and the diverse experiences of interacting with people and resources, or ploughing on alone to complete a PhD on a part-time basis. In many cases, individuals with limited access to an academic institution during their studies cited the importance of support from individuals, for example the supervisor, and fellow, usually full-time, doctoral candidates, to help navigate the structural and system-based aspects of the doctoral process. Examples included help from staff and peers with interpreting doctoral guidelines and procedures, and support with resolving financial, academic, administrative and technological issues. The findings from this study highlighted the difficulties of navigating a doctoral programme in the absence of regular contact with academic communities and limited access to campus-based resources and services (O’ Regan, 2020, 2021).
Many of the participants demonstrated ingenuity and resourcefulness to advance with and complete their studies. This was often in the context of limited opportunities to access research communities, training and support on campus, on account of existing, usually full-time, work commitments during business hours (e.g. 9am to 5pm). Examples included establishing self-generated peer networks, primarily via email and social media with other doctoral candidates who also felt academically and socially isolated. Other individuals joined existing online doctoral discussion groups to enhance motivation and to advance their studies. All of the participants mentioned the importance of personal agency, for example resilience, self-management and organisational skills, as positively impacting on progress with the doctoral process.
I finished gathering data (interviews and questionnaires) in February 2020, just prior to the lockdown (in response to the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020. The respondents had completed doctoral studies in the months or years prior to participating in the study. However, the stories shared by participants, namely studying alone at the kitchen table, connecting with colleagues and peers via screens and email, and juggling family and work commitments, became familiar to me and many others over the last two years. The findings from this study illustrate the importance of moving from an assumption that the learner will have access to communities and support on a face-to-face basis during the pursuit of academic studies.
In conclusion, I think we need to move away from an emphasis on the physical environment of an academic institution as the hub of activity where learning and social interaction takes place. This no longer fits the reality of many learners’ worlds, even prior to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, as many learners have juggled work, family and commuting with the pursuit of studies, both at undergraduate and postgraduate level. Moving forward, I think we need to look at the learner’s world and explore how interaction with academic resources and communities, both face-to-face and online, can help learners to take ownership of the learning process and demonstrate agency to advance with their studies, often in the absence of regular face-to-face contact with peers and staff in the academic institution.
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Maeve is a part-time PhD candidate (2016-2022) in the School of Education Trinity College Dublin. She is a Chartered Occupational Psychologist with experience working as a Student Learning Advisor (Trinity College Dublin) and as a Careers Advisor (Dublin City University). Her PhD topic explores learners’ experiences of pursuing a PhD on a part-time basis, in the context of access to doctoral programme information and supportive networks (online and face-to-face) and the role of personal agency and help-seeking as influencing progression and completion of studies.