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Improving Dissertation Management at Liberty U

The dissertation effort is long, and often those involved can feel like they've been abandoned to muddle through the process on their own. If not orchestrated well, the bond among student, advisor, and other doctoral committee participants can falter, resulting in abandonment of the initiative by one or another member. In fact, research has shown that about half of doctoral students don't graduate; attrition is even worse in online doctoral programs.

In an effort to improve the odds for its students pursuing an online doctor of education degree, Liberty University transformed its program for managing the dissertation process. Early results are showing great promise.

Previously, the fast-growing online program relied on e-mail and phone conversations to keep students and advisors in synch. That approach might work when the number of doctoral candidates is small, but Liberty's program was growing by leaps and bounds. In 2009, there were 250 students pursuing dissertations, and growth was doubling every year.

Currently, there are 400 students in the program. Each one of them works with a faculty member serving as dissertation chair, as well as a committee of at least two other faculty members along with a research consultant. Since each of those instructors could work with up to six doctoral students at a time, the potential for breakdown in communication could almost be predicted. Chapter revisions could get lost; e-mail might not go to everyone who needed to see it; committee members might be reviewing version six of a dissertation while the student was already on version eight.

Fundamentally, the e-mail approach to collaboration was proving inadequate to the job.

Seeking Process Efficiency

In 2009, the Lynchburg, VA-based university brought in Amanda Rockinson-Szapkiw as chair of its doctoral research division in the School of Education as a kind of faculty-oriented operational manager. Her mission: to develop a new solution to make sure communication was effective and that students were finishing their programs. "I oversee more the dissertation process to make sure it's running smoothly," she explains. "When I started looking at it, I targeted two primary things I wanted to accomplish: I wanted students and faculty to feel more connected and be able to get information in an efficient way about the dissertation process and new developments. I also wanted the review process to become more efficient, to cut down on the review time."

Both goals, she realized, could be accomplished through some type of system that allowed for collaborative document sharing and communication.

She considered multiple options, including Google Docs and WordPress, but neither application held up under scrutiny for the purposes of managing the dissertation process. For example, at that time moving a document into Google Docs would mess up Microsoft Word formatting; since Word was the standard for word processing on campus, that would be a problem. Also, the online application didn't handle security well; there was no way, says Rockinson-Szapkiw, to ensure that access to a given document could be limited only to members of a given committee.

Eventually, Rockinson-Szapkiw approached the campus IT organization for help. "I probably should have done this first," she admits. She asked them to name all of the possible software already owned by the institution that might be useful for the problem. One of them was SharePoint. She'd already used the collaboration software from Microsoft on another position she'd held elsewhere.

Dissertation portal at Liberty U

Multiple features in the program meshed well with school needs: the ability to set permissions for access at different levels for different users, file sharing through a document library, the use of e-mail alerts to notify users when content has been changed or added, and integration with campus favorites Microsoft Office and especially Outlook.

"I started thinking about faculty. I love working with faculty. They're sometimes averse to change. I was asking them to learn a new software and new technology. I knew if I was going to have buy-in, I had to choose something they were already familiar with," recounts Rockinson-Szapkiw. "That's why SharePoint became our option."

A big plus was the fact that faculty members, who were already accustomed to doing the doctoral work via e-mail, could continue doing the same work in Outlook and it would be saved right back into SharePoint. For example, posts to discussion forums would show up as e-mails; they could be replied to, and the replies would be automatically saved back to SharePoint.

Each student was issued his or her own SharePoint site -- a mini website -- with document library, discussion forum, and alerts and permissions set appropriately. Those are accessed through a candidate link in the main dissertation portal. "On that page there is a list. They click on their name on that list and it takes them directly to their own portal," explains Rockinson-Szapkiw. "The only people who have permission to access that portal are their chair, their [research] consultant, their two committee members, and those who administer the SharePoint site."

That main portal has all of the information that a faculty member needs to facilitate the dissertation process. That includes two- to five-minute tutorials recorded by Rockinson-Szapkiw "on every aspect of SharePoint," a library of research resources compiled by the school's research consultants, as well as the university's dissertation-related handbooks.

The current site is built on SharePoint 2007 that's hosted on premises. Although other instances of the application within Liberty U have been moved to SharePoint 2010, Rockinson-Szapkiw says, "I don't want to move there until we have all the kinks worked out." She notes that in the process of moving SharePoint sites from 2007 to 2010, links are lost, which is "challenging."

Faculty Resistance

Initially, faculty was resistant to changing how they operated in the doctoral process. "Everybody kept saying, 'E-mail works just fine. This is going to take more time,'" recalls Rockinson-Szapkiw. "I kept saying, 'Yes, but let me show you how this works.'"

Training started with the basics -- how the document library and discussion board worked. She estimates that about half of the faculty tried that. "Once they started using it, they realized it helped them stay better organized, and it made things move a lot faster and smoother. No longer did they have to go find a communication in their e-mail. It was just right there in the discussion board and easy to find," she says. "Once I had a few select faculty on board and starting to talk about how functional it was, it started to catch on."

At that point there were about 30 to 40 faculty chairing dissertations. Some of those long-timers are "still not completely on board," she acknowledges.

But the forces for change are compelling. Since SharePoint was introduced, the university has brought on an additional 50 new faculty who are chairing dissertations, and because they've been trained from the start of their jobs on the use of the software in their work, "they don't know any different." Also, doctoral students physically attend dissertation prep courses, where, among other topics, they're introduced to the use of SharePoint. During a research and writing weekend intensive, they're issued their SharePoint sites where they upload their manuscript and receive feedback for that course. That practice segues right into the rest of the doctoral process.

User Adoption Surprises

Of course, the original vision for the use of SharePoint hasn't played out precisely the way the university expected. For example, Rockinson-Szapkiw had set up forums on the main site that everybody using the portal could access for discussions about research and logistics. She was surprised to discover that students didn't use it. "I thought for sure they'd gravitate toward that discussion, and they didn't. I found out they have little communities on Facebook," she explains. "They said Facebook is part of their lives. They have communities that they stay in touch with there. They started explaining to me, if one of them contacts a research consultant [who] recommends a book or resource, they share it with everyone on Facebook."

On discovering that, the school created a Facebook page specifically where research consultants can post tips and strategies of use to the students. It also added a link to the Facebook page from the SharePoint-based candidate portal.

Another surprise: the popularity of a feature within the program that allows the user to save a copy of every version of a document placed in the document library. "You can keep on editing the same document over and over again, and it keeps every single edition of it. If students delete something, they can go back and get it. That has been a feature that a lot of people have really liked," says Rockinson-Szapkiw.

Expected Outcomes

As would be expected, the chair of doctoral research surveys students at the end of each semester regarding what's working and what isn't working for them in their program. "We definitely have seen increases in their sense of connectedness and their sense of community, which ultimately, the research would tell us, [will lead to] higher retention rates," Rockinson-Szapkiw says.

The probable benefits don't stop there. She believes the review process has also become more efficient. Everybody involved in a given dissertation can see everybody else's feedback. Multiple committee members can provide feedback at the same time, which speeds up the time reviews take. And because SharePoint has a check-in/check-out procedure for documents, version control conflicts are virtually eliminated.

Yet, Rockinson-Szapkiw is hesitant to put a number to any specific impact on the School of Education since implementation of the SharePoint system. She points out that the typical dissertation takes between a year and three years to complete. For example, since SharePoint has really only been in place for three years, she can't yet quantify how the retention numbers differ from 2009 to now or how much faster the dissertation process is.

"We're now just getting to the point where we can start looking at that data," she says. But even then, she doesn't expect a huge change in how much time the doctoral process takes. "Ultimately, dissertation research takes time. It's still going to take you one to three years, because it's a process."

What she hopes to discover is "more students "actually completing their doctoral efforts within that timeframe, because there's a sense of accountability hovering over them: 'Oh, wait, somebody's tracking what I'm doing.'"

And because faculty also need to feel that they're supported and connected, she believes that the efforts of her department and the use of SharePoint helps them become "more invested in the process."

That's not an unimportant consideration. By university mandate, each advisor is limited to chairing no more than six doctoral efforts simultaneously. Many take far fewer. "If they feel more supported, they're more motivated and more willing to take on more students and more willing to mentor. That's been the big thing," she says. "I have seen faculty go from mentoring one student to mentoring three or four, because they feel like they have that support. They know what's going on."

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