The Open Cage: A Force for Transformative Learning in Professional Doctoral Studies During COVID-19

John Anthony Fulton, Lynne Hall, Derek Watson, Gillian Hagan-Green
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 17  •  2022  •  pp. 243-261

This paper explores how professional doctorate candidates responded to the restrictions and changed context of COVID-19. Using connectivism as a theoretical framework, it explores the ways in which their patterns of study were recalibrated in light of the restrictions caused by the pandemic. Specifically, this study aims to: explore the experience of the professional doctorate student during the pandemic; and demonstrate the ways in which networks are recalibrated and adapt to changing circumstances.

In 2020, in response to COVID-19 many countries, including the UK, went into lockdown resulting in most doctoral candidates being confined to their homes and restricted to online contact with peers and supervisors. Part-time students have a finely balanced pattern of work which was required to be recalibrated and refocused which required considerable adaptation on the part of the candidates.

A qualitative methodology was used comprising four focus groups, each consisting of four professional doctorate candidates. Participants were professional doctorate candidates and as such were all mid-career professionals from a variety of backgrounds. Purposeful sampling was combined with theoretical sampling, which ensures the sample is deliberately selected and ensures the emergent development of the theoretical ideas. The focus groups were recorded and transcribed. Thematic analysis was used to analyse the data and identify the main findings, allowing themes to be identified.

The findings indicated that professional doctorate candidates were highly adaptable and were able to adjust rapidly in response to COVID-19 restrictions. The networks they had previously established had to be refocused through adapting and adjusting patterns of study and developing digital skills to enable them to progress in their doctoral studies.

Three themes emerged from the analysis: recalibrating work-life-study balance; adaptivity in studies and research; and empowerment through Information and Communications Technology (ICT). To progress their doctoral studies, the networks they had previously established had to be refocused through adapting and adjusting patterns of study.

While lockdown was an unusual experience, some factors can inform future developments for doctoral education, mainly: the importance of establishing a pattern of study; the importance of connectivism and Information Technology (IT); and how such use can enhance and expand the research process.

Adaptivity achieved through IT; connectivity and the recalibration of networks were key to enabling doctoral candidates to continue their research. The use of connectivism as a theoretical framework for research merits further exploration, as do methods for online learning and approaches to incorporating digital skills into doctoral studies.

According to connectivism, learning is through the establishment of net-works, and these consist of both the means of gaining and accessing knowledge and the work-life study balance. It is important to examine and improve these networks. Many of the changes imposed by the COVID-19 restrictions are here to stay and this study highlights the ways in which the student experience can be enhanced through digital learning.

This research could be expanded through further analysis of how IT can enhance research practice. The interaction with digital learning sources could be explored and highlighted. The pattern of networks could also be explored and developed, and the positive and negative aspects could be highlighted.

professional doctorate, ICTs, digital, COVID-19, higher education
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