The shift to blended learning may have taken years, but the Covid-19 pandemic has quickly changed the playing field, accelerating the move to online approaches. As Marianna Bevova of the University of Liège explains, this transition is particularly interesting in the field of doctoral education.
The widespread use of new technologies in our society, combined with high-speed internet access, has created new opportunities for training in doctoral schools. The number of online courses is increasing rapidly. Online courses have many advantages, including a comfortable learning environment, convenience and flexibility, and could lead to reduced costs both for the university and for the participants.
After the initial wave of online courses a decade ago, it became clear that although this new approach has many advantages, it also has limitations. Perhaps the most pronounced limitation is the lack of feedback from face-to-face interactions. In addition, assessing what the participants have retained from an online course is not always straightforward.
This is where blended learning becomes interesting. Blended learning is a combination of online and face-to-face learning. Although this concept may appear to be relatively recent, a closer look shows us that many doctoral candidates have been informally practising some form of blended learning for years, by using online resources to supplement classic face-to-face education. Thus, it was only a matter of time before doctoral training would become “blended” by necessity.
Although blended learning is a suitable approach for all three Bologna cycles, it may especially meet the demands at the doctoral level. Doctoral candidates have limited time to obtain their degree and this time is divided between research and training. Thus, the courses doctoral candidates take must meet their needs, be efficient and time sensitive.
In the biomedical and life sciences sector, doctoral courses are usually less basic and more oriented towards questions relating to the research fields. The doctoral courses also have more in-depth discussions compared to the undergraduate level. Doctoral candidates are usually less accepting of the classical teaching format as they want to hear personal experience and opinion from their educators and trainers. Additionally, doctoral candidates are more diverse in their initial background knowledge compared to undergraduate students. One cannot expect the same level of knowledge on different topics among doctoral candidates who have focused on various elements in their specialisations. And last but not the least doctoral-level courses are more oriented towards communication within the group. Thus, doctoral education needs to be more personal, more tailored to the doctoral candidates’ needs and create enough time for in-depth discussion between the educators and trainers and the doctoral candidates.
Blended learning can be an answer to most of these issues. Most participants have a unique learning style, and a blended course is better suited to meet the participant’s needs compared to either a traditional course or an online-only course. With blended learning, a participant is more engaged and can drive his or her individual learning experience. Moreover, numerous education research studies have shown that the participant’s understanding and critical assessment of the course material are increased considerably if the course includes a self-study component followed by problem-solving exercises. In this respect, blended learning provides the time for this approach. First, the participants are given access to online components for self-study. The online components usually consist of a more basic knowledge, thus allowing more experienced doctoral candidates to quickly recap the topic, while giving doctoral candidates with different educational backgrounds the chance to spend more time learning the basics in order to be well prepared for face-to-face sessions. Face-to-face sessions then delve into the material in more depth, including discussions, problem solving, and in-class exercises. In addition, face-to-face sessions are used to assess the participants’ level of knowledge.
Despite the clear advantages of blended learning, this approach has only just begun to formally enter doctoral schools. The resistance to this approach stems from several factors. First, preparing a good online course for use in a blended setting requires a substantial investment of time and money, including investing in video equipment, video production and editing, graphics and visual support, and language editing. Second, on average, educators spend more time preparing an hour of online course material compared to a similar face-to-face class. In addition, because pre-recorded online lectures lack the freedom of improvisation, they are less forgiving of poor structure and they require solid planning. Once recorded and made available, an online lecture is “carved in stone”, at least until it is replaced by a new lecture. Thus, the information contained in the lecture must be carefully verified. Even a moderately sized online course can reach many more participants than a traditional course, thus increasing the educator’s sense of responsibility. Once the online course is prepared, it must then be combined effectively with the face-to-face component in order to create the blended course. Finally, many of us are inherently slow at changing our teaching style, preferring to stick with what we know rather than reaching beyond our comfort zone. Thus, the initial investment, combined with the organisational inertia, is a common obstacle for many educators and trainers who would like to design a blended course.
Nevertheless, investing in blended learning can result in time and money well spent. For educators, online lectures can save time after the initial investment, as many lectures regarding classic and/or basic topics may not require much updating. For doctoral candidates, a blended course becomes a sort of mix-and-match “Lego-blocks” collection that can be rearranged and expanded based on his or her particular needs.
Under normal circumstances, the shift to blended learning would likely have taken another decade in most doctoral schools. However, the Covid-19 pandemic quickly changed the playing field when almost all education was immediately shifted online. Although the transition was rapid and in many cases quite chaotic, universities and doctoral schools have risen to the challenge and now provide a much more organised structure. The current difficult and uncertain time will undoubtedly end, but it seems that the pandemic will continue to accelerate the development and implementation of online and blended learning, bringing its importance to the forefront of doctoral education.
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