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22st Annual OLC International Conference
November 16-18, 2016 | Orlando, Florida | Walt Disney World Swan/Dolphin Resort

OLC Innovate 2016 - Innovations in Blended and Online Learning
April 20-22, 2016 | New Orleans, LA | Sheraton New Orleans Hotel

Structured Course Framework for Dissertations and More: Utilizing the LMS to Achieve Success

Elizabeth Crawford (The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, USA)
David Rausch (University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, USA)
Session Information
July 9, 2014 - 9:10am
Blended Models and Course Design
Areas of Special Interest: 
Blended Program/Degree
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Innovation and Experimentation
Institutional Level: 
Universities and Four Year Institutions
Audience Level: 
Session Type: 
Information Session
Governor's Square 11
Session Duration: 
50 Minutes
Information Session 4

This session will share the use of a Learning Management System to implement, maintain, and assess Student Learning Outcomes for a major culminating degree project.

Extended Abstract

In this session, we will share methods and strategies for utilizing a Learning Management System to create a structured, measured, and transparent delivery for graduate assessment projects. We have developed a process for hosting individual course spaces (not bound by specific semesters) for participants of graduate level programs with culminating projects (portfolios, theses, dissertations). In addition, the framework fosters the implementation, maintenance, and assessment of student learning outcomes on an ongoing basis.

Learning Outcomes for the session will include:

  1. Understanding the need for and value organization and structure can add
  2. An increased awareness of the role technological tools play in
    1. Organization of materials and ease of access
    2. Consistency of communication
    3. Management of cognitive load
  3. Knowledge of tools attendees can immediately put in place in their organization / programs

The presentation will utilize a facilitated discussion format. Presenters will make specific inquiries of attendees to determine scope of audience experience. For example, we will ask audience members to describe their current practice for graduate level learning and assessment during culminating projects / courses. The professional practice and expertise of the audience will be integrated as we identify and explore best and common practices related to this type of graduate process. Through active demonstration, we will share how we have addressed related learning issues through a structured Learning application.

Unlike a traditional course with specific content area, directed reading material, and directed assignments, a capstone project, thesis, or dissertation often begins as a broad journey of research and inquiry. While completing any major endeavor is best accomplished through planning and structure, students and candidates engaged in culminating graduate projects have long been subject to high rates of attrition.

The issue of attrition, a well-documented challenge, has been the subject of extensive conversation amongst researchers and graduate faculty, particularly at the doctoral level. Specifically, those tied closely to doctoral students through teaching and mentoring offer valid points in the consideration of causes of, and potential solutions to, attrition (Lovitts, 2008). Lovitts (2008) highlights the pronounced difficulty of the dissertation phase of doctoral work, noting that doctoral programs cannot predict which students will successfully make the transition and complete the doctorate, even with past academic performance records.

While doctoral studies are often characterized by a lack of structure in general, this becomes more pronounced during the dissertation stage. For many students, writing the dissertation becomes a seemingly endless passing of increasingly unstructured time. Coupled with delayed and/or contradicting feedback from faculty and committee members, this scenario breeds strained relationships, frustration, and candidate self-doubt. Becoming socially isolated is a frequent occurrence (Ali, Kohun, & Levy, 2007).

Students who spend extended amounts of time as ABD and/or who experience attrition may be troublesome for faculty as well, as they may represent lost time and wasted resources (Liechty et al., 2009). Mullen and Tuten (2010) assert that even when personal circumstances contribute to attrition rates, graduate faculty should be charged with identifying ways to assist candidates to progress through their degree programs.

In addition to exploring the causes of attrition, researchers explored steps to support candidates toward program completion (Di Pierro, 2007). One strategy they encourage is sharing of timelines and flow charts. They also stress that it is necessary for programs to conduct institution-specific research, discuss successes, and engage in dialogue for collaborative interchange and partnerships through which persistence can be enhanced through best practice (Di Pierro, 2007). Ali et al. (2007) note that the sharing of constant and consistent faculty feedback on submitted work may help prevent social isolation and eventual dropout. These and other innovative ideas may prove promising in the effort towards graduate program success.

While attrition occurs across academic disciplines and demographic variables, it has been noted that those in applied or work-embedded programs may be at an even higher risk than more traditional doctoral candidates. These programs are, by design, geared more toward professionals than traditional full-time doctoral programs. Thus, it may be important to focus on providing supports uniquely designed for these students in an effort to combat attrition.

To address these issues, coupled with rising needs to document and assess Student Learning Outcomes across degree programs, we recognized a need for a consistent method of organizing and documenting those activities that occur between faculty and candidate during a culminating project, and we have built delivery frameworks within the LMS. Specifically in our Doctoral program, as each participant transitions to Candidacy, we create a Dissertation course space that includes the Chair, the Candidate, the Program Director, and as appropriate, all members of the Committee. All communication for the Dissertation process is accomplished (and therefore documented) in the Discussion Forums and all drafts are submitted and feedback returned through a group File Exchange. These course spaces are not bound by traditional campus semesters and can be utilized throughout the Dissertation process.

Course spaces provide the following features:
• Update Forums (Chair and Candidate, Chair and Committee, and Full Committee and Candidate)
• Group File Exchanges
• Committee List
• Email
• Resources

Additionally, we have worked with other departments and programs at our university to establish similar (though tailored for the individual program) structured course spaces for culminating projects such as a Nurse Practitioner Applied Project, various Masters Theses, Digital Portfolios, Internships, and more.

Through software and technology, we take advantage of tools to document all communication and progress as we work through the Dissertation or other culminating projects. Timelines are created by candidates, which are shared, reviewed, revised, and tracked as the project proceeds. All deliverables (drafts, artifacts, forms, related materials) are submitted through File Share application providing access to all iterations for the benefit of all parties (students, faculty, committee, and external reviewers). In a similar manner, faculty / committee feedback is provided (and assessed) in the shared space to eliminate any confusion. This method of organizing, supporting, and memorializing the dissertation process has helped candidates to maintain momentum while achieving measureable progress throughout the dissertation.


Dr. Elizabeth K. Crawford is Assistant Professor and Program Advisor for the Learning and Leadership Doctoral program at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC). Formerly, she served as UTC Director of Continuing Education for 24 years. Her primary teaching responsibilities include research and instructional technology. Prior administrative duties included all aspects of distance learning and technology enhanced instruction, including interactive video and Internet based programs.

Dr. Crawford received her EdD from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville in December 2001. Her dissertation, An Investigation of the Learning Outcomes of Distance Learning Students Versus Traditional Classroom Students Attempting the Masters of Business Administration, was a study to determine if there were differences in GPA, graduation rates, and completion times of students in a distance learning setting compared to traditional classroom students. She received her M.S. in Psychology in 1988 and her B.A. in Communications in 1985, both from The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.