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How to Run a Rigorous Online Psychology Ph.D. Program

2013 February 27

Recently, there was a brief discussion about online Ph.D. psychology programs on the PSYTEACH listserv. Generally, it was met with disbelief that an online psychology doctoral degree could be rigorous for a variety of reasons – a lack of teaching experience, a lack of lab experience, and a lack of face-to-face interaction with faculty and other students, to name a few.

I think it’s important to recognize that online doctoral programs as they exist now and online doctoral programs as they could exist, even given current technology, are very different. We currently have the technology available to have the traditionally rigorous, intensive doctoral experience for most students – I just don’t know of any programs that actually do so now. There are several online Psy.D. programs, but requirements for such programs are not as intense, as the degree is practice-oriented – the requirements for a Ph.D. program are more stringent.

So as a thought experiment, I decided to map  traditional Ph.D. student experiences onto the technologies and program structure  that would be required to realize that program online effectively.  In doing so, I came up with five dimensions – the three traditional components of academic performance (teaching, research, and service) plus an instructional component and a community component. I’ll discuss each in turn.

  1. Teaching Experience.
    1. Challenge. In a traditional Ph.D. program, students often (although not always) gain teaching experience by being assigned as teaching assistants (TAs), lab/section leaders, and full-blown instructors.  Many schools use a ramp-up program such that earlier students (1st and 2nd year, for example) are TAs or lab leaders, and after proving themselves in that role (or after getting their MA/MS), move up to teach their own courses. If students wish to gain experience in online courses, they sometimes have that freedom; in an in-person program, one can teach in-person or online courses.  In an online program, students can still certainly work as TAs or instructors of online courses, but since there are no in-person classes, they cannot gain experience teaching one.
    2. Roadmap. The dirty secret that no one wants to admit to is that, to a certain degree, teaching is teaching. If you look at programs designed to assess the quality of online courses, you’ll find that what makes a high quality course online is very similar to what makes a high quality course in person.  For example, Quality Matters is a “certification” program designed to assess such quality.  Here are the dimensions it uses to make evaluations: inclusion of a course overview and introduction, statement of learning objectives, appropriate assessment strategies, informative instructional materials, tools to encourage interaction and engagement with and between students, appropriate use of technology, support for learners, and accessibility.  On its own, this list could apply to either an in-person or an online course.  The reason that online courses are often lower quality is that, for the instructor, it is often more difficult to realize these goals online.  In an in-person course, I can split people into small groups to discuss a difficult question; online, I need to adequately plan ahead to set up a discussion area, ensure it’s communicated to everyone appropriately, identify any technology roadblocks and proactively work to circumvent them, and then monitor the discussion over a long period of time.  If they are different, teaching online is more difficult than teaching in person.  It requires most of the same skills and then several additional technology skills.  Where online teaching is less difficult for the instructor is the face-to-face interaction component.  You don’t need to be “on”, excited and engaged at 8AM.  You don’t need to learn to watch and interpret subtle facial cues that indicate students don’t quite grasp the concept you are discussing.  But this is a relatively minor aspect of teaching, in the grand scheme of required skills.
    3. Ideal Solution.  Given that teaching online is more difficult than teaching in-person except in terms of interpersonal interaction, the ideal online Ph.D. program would have the Ph.D. student start as an online TA and move to online instruction.  After “proving” themselves online, the Ph.D. student should teach as an adjunct professor at local universities or community colleges, and the online university should cover the host university’s salary requirements. For example, if the student’s local institution pays $3000 for an adjunct to teach a class, the online university should pay $3000 to the student to teach on behalf of the host institution.
  2. Research Experience
    1. Challenge.  In a traditional Ph.D program, students gain research experience by actively designing, running, analyzing, interpreting, and writing up research studies. Most of these experiences involve working closely with an academic adviser who creates these studies and runs them. Such studies are often run by Ph.D. student in in-person laboratories, which require direct oversight of research participants.
    2. Roadmap. In truth, a lot of research in psychology these days is conducted through online surveys. This would be ideal for an online Ph.D. student, requiring few special accommodations. Much research (my own included) incorporates experimental designs but does so online – for example, assigning different research participants to different stimulus materials and measuring outcomes through a follow-up survey. For research that is in-person and experimental in nature, requiring fine timings or specialized equipment, there is currently no easy (or more critically, valid) way to conduct such studies online.
    3. Ideal Solution. For Ph.D. programs that absolutely require in-person experience or equipment (e.g. if an fMRI must be used, or if clinical populations must be interacted with, etc.), such programs should not have online programs without partnerships with universities local to the student.  Ideally, a network of such inter-relationships between universities could be established to facilitate this, but I don’t see this happening any time soon.  If a program relies primarily on survey research, Skype or other videoconferencing software can be used to interact with the adviser and with the various necessary committees (e.g. dissertation committees).  Research experiences must be integrated as of the first year of study.  I can’t even count the number of times I’ve seen students in online Ph.D. programs asking for advice on LinkedIn or on Listservs on how to design studies or conduct analyses for their dissertations because it was the first time they ever had to conduct a research study in their entire graduate program.  This is not acceptable.  A Ph.D. program must incorporate research from Day 1.  Perhaps most critically, universities must keep the student-to-faculty-adviser ratios similar to that of in-person classes (for Ph.D. students, I’d characterize 8 advisees per faculty member as a large program; ideally, this would be in the 3-6 area).  The workload is no lower for faculty, and for quality standards to remain high, a high degree of individual attention is critical.
  3. Service Experience
    1. Challenge. Graduate school often brings with it a myriad of service opportunities. In my graduate school experience, this included things like hosting students for welcome/interview weekend, running a student group, organizing brownbags, and so on. This communicates the shared mental model of academia to students: everyone pitches in a little bit to get things done, and so that everyone’s voice is heard.
    2. Roadmap. In an online environment, there is no reason that service opportunities would be lessened. For example, there should be an online student association that organizes online brownbags through Skype or Google Hangouts. A leading scholar could give a talk, with individual live cameras on every other student, all organized by a team of online students. Students could take turns manning the live video “Q&A” area during the official day set aside for interviews of upcoming graduate students. The opportunities to pitch in are endless for a motivated student.
    3. Ideal Solution. Of the five dimensions I’ve listed here, service is probably the easiest. It only requires a faculty willing to be creative and open-minded about the activities that students take part in. At a minimum, students should run their own graduate student association and hold regular online events.
  4. Instruction/Learning
    1. Challenge. One of the most difficult aspects of teaching graduate students is the actual act of teaching. It is generally not effective to teach Ph.D. students the same way you teach undergraduates. With undergraduates, there’s a certain amount of memorization required (e.g. who were the important figures in the development of psychology?), with deeper understanding lightly layered on top of that memorization. If students came out of my I/O Psychology class able to tell me the major functions of I/O, the important controversies surrounding those functions, and be able to apply some of the principles to their own workplaces, I would be thrilled.  At the Ph.D. level, the requirements are much more intense. Not only must Ph.D. students be able to tell you about the controversies, but they must also be able to propose research studies to solve the problems that those principles introduce.  They must be able to read and critically evaluate a research literature for gaps and limitations. These are skills that are not transferred easily in lecture, which is why most Ph.D. programs make heavy use of seminars (for content courses) and labs (for statistics courses).
    2. Roadmap. Recently, my department floated the idea of taking online Master’s students without disrupting pre-existing graduate courses. The biggest challenge in this idea is the integration – having in-person and online students in classes concurrently. But I am confident it is possible. For example, a computer could be set up with Google Hangouts (so that each attending online student would be visible with a webcam on that computer), and that computer could be wheeled into each class where online students are needed to participate.  These systems are actually quite easy to use; when someone starts talking, the focal video window switches to that person so that you can see them full-screen. To the instructor, a window would appear with a person’s face whenever they wanted to ask a question; it would only require turning their head and talking to the camera to talk to that student. Intense, interpersonally-oriented seminars are possible and even simple once set up given current video technology.  This is no longer a limitation of online.  If the in-person component is not required, it gets even easier; instead of rolling a computer in, everyone in the class (professor included) can see each other face-to-face with video streaming.
    3. Ideal Solution. The university’s IT group should invest in a high-reliability high-quality small group video streaming technology. One example is Cisco Jabber. For blended classrooms (with both in-person and online students), a mobile computer should be set up that can be transported from classroom to classroom as needed. Real-time instant support must be provided for the technology to both faculty and students.  Class sizes should be kept under 10 for most topics; exceptions might include some “core” courses, like various statistics courses, research fundamentals, and proposal-writing courses.
  5. Community Participation
    1. Challenge. Perhaps the most subtle indirect benefit to attending an in-person institution is immersion within the academic community. When you walk to class, you run into professors who may stop you in the hall to chat. When you conduct research, you interact with faculty to get your IRB approvals, to work within the departmental subject pool, and attend research talks. When you conduct service, you are working directly to the benefit of other graduate students and faculty within your department, college, or university. All of these activities teach you to be part of a larger scholarly community. In many online programs, this sense of community is missing.
    2. RoadmapTo this point, psychology faculty have been lucky in terms of community. By bringing in a graduate student, that student will be exposed to the local scholarly community by default. It requires little or no extra work on part of the faculty. Online, this is not true. Community must be actively built. Videoconferencing is perhaps the most cost effective way to do this. For example, lab meetings could be held weekly or biweekly through videoconferencing to encourage people to make such connections. But this alone is probably not enough to provide a real sense of community.
    3. Ideal Solution. To build community, I recommend a multi-pronged approach. First, videoconferencing should be used within lab groups to encourage small-scale community. Second, a student association with regular meetings should be established and run by the students themselves. Third, regular online brownbags should be established with a technology enabling both participant-to-participant and participant-to-presenter interaction. Fourth, students should be required to attend one conference per year (probably APA), where a hospitality suite would be rented by the online institution to enable everyone to meet face-to-face at least once per year. Preferably, these events would be broken down further to give ample opportunities for labs to meet together as well. Fifth, a regular retreat should be held once per year at a physical location outside of the context of a conference for two to three days, to enable long-term planning among labs and conduct teambuilding exercises more broadly.

So as you can hopefully see, what I would consider a high-quality rigorous online psychology Ph.D. program would require quite a great deal of effort on the part of a department chair and likely several committees. It is not something that can be started lightly, or else your program will end up with the reputation of current online Psychology programs, which is frankly pretty terrible.  And that doesn’t serve anyone well, faculty or students.  While I’d love to see or develop such a program, I doubt we will see anyone willing to make the sort of investment required to realize such a program for many years – which is a shame, because many high-quality students that can’t move (for whatever reason; typically family-related) currently have no way to complete a Psychology Ph.D.  And that is something we should try our best to correct.

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  1. Paul Thoresen permalink
    February 27, 2013

    As someone who just used Google Hangouts for the first time today, this is an interesting take. Thank you Richard.

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