Friday 20 January 2017

Tips for a PhD defense or viva #phd

It is with quite some pleasure that I was awarded the PhD in Educational Technologies last week.

The UK version of a PhD defense is called a Viva, which resembles a closed oral examination (open book) with one external examiner (connected to another University than the one you are at) and an internal examiner (affiliated to your own University, but with whom nor yourself, nor your supervisors have co-authored a paper – so not closely professionally related). In addition to that, you have one observer (normally that is one of your supervisors, she or he will take notes on what is said, and possible recommendations) and a chair (Doug Clow, who explains all the details of the viva and who sees to it that everyone stays hydrated and in an objective state of mind). In my case the external examiner was Neil Morris (Leeds University), the internal examiner was Allison Littlejohn (The Open University, UK). The external examiner usually leads the questioning, which was also the case in my viva. Btw the central question to my PhD thesis was 'what characterizes the informal, self-directed learning of experienced adult, online learners engaged in individual or social learning using any device to follow a FutureLearn MOOC'. It resulted in a conceptual framework for informal self-directed learning, using a method that provided the voices (experiences) of the learners to come through, as such providing a theory from the ground up (in most cases a framework starts from theory, providing a top down dynamic to come to the conclusions). A draft version of the thesis can be read here. The picture shows my two supervisors (Mike Sharples and Agnes Kukulska-Hulme) and Rebecca Ferguson (who was kind enough to be my main examiner during the mock viva) and my wonderful colleagues Janesh Sanzgiri, Jenna Mittelmeier and Garron Hilaire.

The questions started off mildly (with a fair question, which aims at making you feel comfortable, so along the lines of: briefly describe your research, why were you interested in the topic you investigated). From there the questions tend to become more complex and they tend to demand a more in-depth answer. Normally the questions will start at the beginning of your thesis, and consist of overall (e.g. how did you select your literature) as well as very detailed questions (why did you select only that fragment here) which the examiner found either of interest, confusing, or lacking. This means you really need to understand why you did what you did, throughout your thesis.
These are some of the questions I got, with some additional information:  
  • How do your research questions follow from your literature review? During preparation I linked all of my research questions to the most influential paper I mentioned in my literature review. This is also handy for other literature related questions, as you memorise core papers and their subsequent authors.
  • Which element of your findings gave rise to the most poignant discussion; and can you list the main authors for that discussion reflecting on that part of your findings? Why did you limit yourself to these authors for the discussion on that part of X findings? I can tell you, this was a tough question. It means you relate the literature of your literature review and use some of those papers to fuel the scientific discussions on your findings taking into account what the literature already pointed to, as opposed to what your findings show to be different (or similar, as you will most likely find that your findings have commonalities as well as differences with prior research).   
  • What is the relation between the research of your pilot study and the main study? In my case the pilot study had different research questions (and sub-questions) than the main study, this had to be explained, and this had an effect on the findings. This change resulted from the qualitative, exploratory starting point of my study, and the resulting findings from the pilot which urged me to rephrase the research questions of my main study a bit.
  • Is there a theory runs through your investigation, and has an effect on the literature you choose to focus on, the methodology, and research instruments? In my case that was socio-constructivism, briefly: one of the theories I used (connected to the pedagogical design of FutureLearn) is Laurillards conversational framework, specifically the informal conversational framework, which is related to the socio-constructivist view of the world. Additionally, I choose to use Charmaz’s constructing Grounded Theory approach, which also is deeply embedded in the socio-constructivist heritage, and I used multiple learner voices to look at emerging codes, categories and concepts coming from multiple viewpoints (as I used multiple data sources provided to me over time by the participants in my study – participants were asked to self-report their learning through learning logs, sent at different moments throughout their learning experience with FutureLearn MOOCs.
  • Questions could also be limited in scope, for instance: what is your definition of socio-constructivism? Prepare core definitions that are key to your thesis.
  • How did your research questions guide your coding? Tough one, as there is a tension between qualitative research which starts from the concept of no-assumption, to research questions inevitably guiding codes (e.g. codes related to the sub-question of technology for learning).
  • Or considering one area of my findings: what type of definition are you using for social learning? And how does it differ from other social learning definitions? In my case, I used social learning as it is defined by Laurillard, which fits FutureLearn, and is based on the notion of Socratic dialogue, which means it involves at least two active people. This stands in contrast with for instance Bandura (who goes back to a behaviorist view as well, as Bandura’s definition of social learning can be traced back to Pavlov), where Bandura also sees passive learning (e.g. lurking) also as a form of social learning, as it is still embedded in a the whole of society as the learning environment and is part of observing.
  • Two difficult questions were raised during my mock viva. A mock viva is a sort of general rehearsal for your viva. It usually involves your supervisors, as well as a colleague who wishes you well and wants to strengthen your viva skills. In my case, I head the pleasure of having Rebecca Ferguson as my mock viva examiner and she is fabulous! I also used some of her tips in preparation for the mock viva, have a look at the top 40 viva questions she listed as important here. One of the questions she asked me was: what is the difference between MOOC learning and other online learning? E.g. active presence of a facilitator, scale, length of course versus length of curriculum, prerequisites, compulsory or not. Another difficult question was: why did not you taken into account the MOOC educators? Where the better answer would have been: I did take them into account educators, but only in the roles in which they were seen by the learners, not in their classical roles as defined by educational institutes.

Some general remarks:
Make sure you know your thesis, and use parts of it when looking for answers to the questions you are getting. I mean, physically point to your thesis, this will buy you some time to find the right answer, and will give you some additional content support.

Look confident and be succinct. This gives the idea of professionalism to your person, a research professionalism. It does not matter if you belief it, just know that you are indeed the expert on that topic, so you can and must be confident.

The questions you get can come from a variety of thoughts: interest in the approach, doubt on what you wrote, or simple trickery to see whether you do really understand what you are doing. This means that at times you might here a question, which prompts an internal voice to say “Hey! But I did do that, or I do have an argument for doing it that way!”, in that case voice your answer and do not be afraid to stick with your thesis, or correct the examiners. Of course, it is essential to always stay polite, also when you are entering a discussion. But really, the examiners are there to strengthen your thesis, so they are in a way trying to let you grasp how you can make your thesis even stronger, and you are the one who is the real expert in what you have investigated, you know the processes you used to get to your main conclusions.