Leveraging Collaborative Workspaces to Improve the Online Dissertation Process

Student-Generated Content
Author Information
Amanda J. Rockinson-Szapkiw
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
Liberty University
Effective Practice Abstract/Summary
Abstract/Summary of Effective Practice: 

In online, and even traditional doctoral programs, faculty have the opportunity to leverage technologies to facilitate collaboration and mentorship in the dissertation process.  To date, faculty have used e-mail, discussion forums, and content management systems (Hew & Knapczyk, 2007; Kelly, Gale, Wheeler, & Tucker, 2007), with e-mail being the most common. Unfortunately, discussion and document sharing via e-mail can result in lost emails, or incorrect versions of documents being reviewed.. For example, when reviewing manuscripts in multiple locations on multiple computers, multiple formats can easily become scattered. Consequently, the wrong versions can often be reviewed. Additionally, communication done via e-mail or verbally can be forgotten, thus, issues do not get addressed. Often candidates feel frustrated and the process can be lonely; this can result in attrition.

Collaborative Web-based workspaces may serve to minimize some of the weaknesses inherent in using an e-mail system for communication and document exchange in the dissertation process. Liberty University School of Education has found the adoption of a collaborative workspace for the dissertation process useful, specifically the adoption of Microsoft SharePoint. The workspaces set up via SharePoint provide a centralized location where all dissertation information is stored; they  also provide a workspace for candidates and their committee members to collaborate. Candidate and committee shared workspaces allow for all manuscript versions and comments to be stored in one location and accessed anythime, anywhere with internet access.  This ensures that the most recent version of manuscript is  being reviewed . All communication is logged, thus helping to  ensure that it is addressed.  How the the various features of SharePoint have been used to create a location for dissemination of dissertation information and for collaboration is discussed. Features that have been found useful include document libraries, lists, calendars, and discussion forums.

Description of the Effective Practice
Description of the Effective Practice: 

Candidates working on dissertations within the School of Education at the university are provided with access to a collaborative workspace hosted via the university intranet. The workspace is called the Dissertation Portal. The portal was created for disseminating dissertation information and encouraging collaboration. Using the tools of Windows SharePoint Services, the main Dissertation Portal and separate subsites for each candidate and his or her committee  were created.

The main Dissertation Portal consists of lists and libraries of needed information that is helpful for the dissertation process. It includes materials such as the Dissertation Handbook, manuscript templates, and research and analysis tutorials. The portal also has a calendar that lists everyone’s proposal and defense dates and several discussion forums designated to discuss dissertation logistics as well as research design and analysis. All faculty and candidates have access to the main portal.  Faculty and staff who oversee the dissertation process manage the site.

In addition to the main Dissertation Portal, each candidate is provided with his or her secured collaborative workspace that he or she shares with the university committee members. Using the tools of Windows SharePoint Services, one site was created and saved as a template. Each time a candidate enters the dissertation process, the template is duplicated for the individual.  Each candidates’ site consists of:

o Helpful Links. A list of links to Internet sites used for the dissertation process. 
o My Dissertation Portal Contact Information. A list of individuals involved directly with the candidate’s dissertation and their contact information.
o My Dissertation Portal Discussion Forum. A forum to post asynchronous, threaded messages. The forum can be synchronized and, thus,  managed with any Microsoft Outlook account. Alerts can be sent to any e-mail account when a new post is made.
o My Dissertation Portal Dissertation Timeline. A shared calendar used to post projected dissertation plans, deadlines, and other important dates related to the dissertation process.
o My Dissertation Portal Libraries (e.g. manuscript, IRB, Forms, proposal submission, etc.). File storage and collaboration space. Any file type may be stored, shared, and edited. Email alerts of new or edited content can be sent.
o My Dissertation Portal Status  Update  and Task Lists. A list of dissertation tasks within the dissertation process that the candidate or committee members can set to “not started,” “in progress,” or “completed.”

The Dissertation Portal and its subsites were created by a faculty and a few support staff members. Learning SharePoint and how to use it for development required time and the review of published tutorials and books. Where available, IT support and developers can develop SharePoint sites for educators and candidates desiring to use it in the dissertation process; however, it is not necessary. To setup the basic SharePoint workspace for the dissertation process, the template, called the Sites and Workspaces: Team Site template, was used and modified.

The document library feature, provides a medium for document sharing, storage, and retrieval. In simplest terms, a document library is a collection of files. The document library feature was used to create libraries to store and dispense information on the main dissertation portal (e.g. a form library, a template library). This feature was also used to create document libraries for the candidates’ portal to support file sharing. Candidates have document libraries for specific aspects of the dissertation project (e.g., proposal, IRB, final manuscript, etc.) and any person on the dissertation team can upload and share, store, or retrieve any type of file in the libraries. Settings of the document library feature allow for check-in and check-out of documents, versioning history of documents, alert that a document has been revised, and other custom properties for documents. For example, a candidate can upload a manuscript to the proposal library. When the candidate uploads the document, all the committee members receive an email alert. At the convenience of the committee member, he or she can access the library, check out the document, and provide feedback. The checking in and out feature ensures that the committee members do not edit the document simultaneously and mistakenly provide duplicate feedback. When a committee member finishes editing, another alert is sent informing the other committee members and the candidate that a new version of the manuscript has been saved and is now ready for additional comments or revisions. All versions of the document are saved within the library for easy reference when needed and the most recent version is always the one seen in the library.

Threaded discussions, shared calendars, and task lists are additional features that assist in online collaboration and productivity during the dissertation process and were used to create other aspects of the portal and its subsites. The calendar  feature was used to create the calendar on the main Dissertation Portal and the timeline on each candidate portal. These calendars enable the entering and tracking of important dates.  A convenient feature of the calendar is that it is compatible across various systems and can be synchronized with individual Office Outlook calendars with a click of one button.
The task list feature was used to create task lists and status update within each candidate’s portal. Task lists are useful for assigning tasks and for keeping abreast of the progress of tasks. Tasks can be assigned both due dates and priorities. For example, after proposal defense in which the candidate was given approval with revisions, the candidate may be assigned the task of completing the required revisions in 30 days. The chair can enter the task and the due date into the list and the candidate can mark it as “in progress” or “complete.”  The basic list feature was used to create the contact and link areas of each candidate’s portal.

Finally, discussion boards are a medium for conversing about issues or topics of interest. The discussion forum feature within SharePoint is similar to those within most content management systems. There are multiple discussion forums on the main Dissertation Portal. There is also one private discussion forum within each candidate’s portal so that each candidate and committee can create threads and discuss issues specifically related to an individual candidate’s dissertation process. Using the forum helps organize and document all communication during the process.

Using a collaborative workspace, specifically SharePoint, is beneficial; however, not without a few challenges. The primary challenge is technical in nature as there is a learning curve. Whether it is a large or small learning curve really depends upon the technological competence of the individual using it. For those less familiar with technology, time and training is needed. In this university’s implementation of SharePoint, the development of tutorials using Adobe Captivate and customized instructions with screen shots assisted users in acquiring basic navigation skills. Users that are familiar with technology and Microsoft Office products find adoption of the workspace easy.

Supporting Information for this Effective Practice
Evidence of Effectiveness: 

Within both of these arenas, research has begun to emerge suggesting that “Microsoft’s SharePoint product is an internal information sharing solution that combines the best features of both intranets and cloud computing” (Diffin, Chirombo, & Nangle, 2010, p. 570).  One pretest post-test study suggested that doctoral candidates’ satisfaction and sense of community increased after adoption of Microsoft’s SharePoint to facilitate communication and file sharing in the dissertation process (Rockinson-Szapkiw, 2011). Additional research has demonstrated that candidates find the Dissertation Portal (SharePoint) useful for sharing and gaining information, improving the flow and organization of the dissertation process, and  collaborating with their faculty mentors. When compared to candidates who use SharePoint on a limited or moderate basis, candidates who use SharePoint for the dissertation process extensively exhibit a higher sense of student to student connectedness and student to faculty connectedness (Rockinson-Szapkiw, under review). 

How does this practice relate to pillars?: 

This practice is innovative. While SharePoint has been leveraged for a variety of purposes in the business arena; its uses have been less realized in the educational realm. Thus, using it to enhance the dissertation process is new and creative. The practice described uses the basic features of SharePoint making it easily replicable for any school having the system. The practice could be replicated using any collaborative workspace with similar features. Additionally, research has been conducted as to the potential impact of the practice and indicated that the adoption and use of SharePoint to support the dissertation process increases doctoral candidates’ satisfaction and sense of connectedness. Community and connectedness have been shown to be positively correlated with learning and persistence in online programs.

Equipment necessary to implement Effective Practice: 

University adoption of Microsoft SharePoint (Note that alternative open source collaborative workspaces with similar features could be used for the same purpose)

Estimate the probable costs associated with this practice: 

The cost of the collaborative workspace

An individual to develop and manage the system on a part-time basis

References, supporting documents: 
Diffin, J., Chirombo, F., & Nangle, D. (2010). Cloud collaboration: Using Microsoft SharePoint as a tool to enhance access services. Journal of Library Administration, 50(5-6), 570-580.
Doherty, W. (2006). An analysis of multiple factors affecting retention in web based community college courses. Internet and Higher Education, 9, 245-255.
Hew, K. F., & Knapczyk, D. (2007). Analysis of ill-structured problem solving, mentoring functions, and perceptions of practicum teachers and mentors toward online mentoring in a field-based practicum. Instructional Science, 35(1), 1-40.
Kelly, P., Gale, K., Wheeler, S., & Tucker, V. (2007). Taking a stance: Promoting deliberate action through online postgraduate professional development. Technology, Pedagogy and Education, 16(2), 153-176.
Rockinson-Szapkiw, A.J. (2011). Improving doctoral candidates’ persistence in the online dissertation process In Z. Abas et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of Global Learn Asia Pacific 2011.
Rockinson-Szapkiw, A. J. (2011, under review). Investigating uses and perceptions of an online collaborative workspace for dissertation process.
Supporting Documentation
Contact(s) for this Effective Practice
Effective Practice Contact: 
Amanda J Rockinson-Szapkiw
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