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Making the Thesis an Option for Online MPA Students

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Sue Neal
August 31, 2018

Online education is continuing to gain popularity. New students have many high-quality online MPA programs to choose from. One factor that can set a program apart from the pack is the opportunity for students to engage in a capstone research project, such as the Master’s Thesis. There are some important ways structuring and mentoring can differ between traditional brick and mortar and online programs. Being aware of the special challenges for online student researchers can help minimize frustration among students and faculty alike. Some areas of consideration include the level of structure, clarity of expectation, transparency of deadlines, and buy-in from support staff. Universities may also want to consider the faculty time involved and the isolation of online students.

  • Structure: In an article appearing in Volume 27 of the International Journal of E-Learning & Distance Education titled “Dissertations at a Distance,” Swapna Kumar et al. state online student researchers benefit greatly from a well-structured mentorship process. This includes mentor-initiated contact, regular deadlines and routine progress monitoring. This structure can be very formal. For example, in the online DPA program at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, students register for courses that guide them through the research project in a very step-wise manner. From a first course in framing the literature to a final course in interpreting and presenting results, students are led through the research process in a more regimented format.
  • Clear Expectations: An advisor that takes some time to discuss the option of a research track with their students may allow students to develop a realistic understanding of the expectations of them versus the expectations of their mentoring faculty. As an online student, knowing what is expected of you is just as important as what can be expected of the mentor. It is helpful for students to know the type of feedback they should expect at each phase as well as a reasonable estimate of how much time it should take before they get the feedback.
  • Transparent deadlines: There can be many deadlines associated with a Thesis project. A single place listing all applicable deadlines can be very helpful for the online student. There is nothing more frustrating than realizing you missed a deadline for a part of the process that you weren’t even aware of! This can be a good place to also list any important forms and a list of support staff with contact information.
  • Support staff: Through the course of completing a Thesis, a student may work with several support staff of various departments at the university. If the university is new to having online students working on theses, it is important that these staff are aware of this and have a basic understanding of how to work with online students effectively and timely.
  • Faculty time: Faculty may feel overwhelmed by the idea of working with online student research supervision. While the total time required for faculty to supervise an online MPA student thesis versus a traditional student thesis do not differ considerably, it may not feel that way for faculty. According to Dr. Jeremy Phillips, Doctor of Public Administration Program Director at West Chester University: “With online students, consultation and research mentoring require a designated time that is convenient for both the supervising professor and the student (who may live several time zones away) and takes a concerted effort. With traditional students there are often just quick exchange in the hall after class or during office hours. This difference may lead to the perception by faculty that mentoring online student research takes more staff time than mentoring traditional brick and mortar students.”
  • Isolation: Being an online student is often associated with feelings of isolation and this can exacerbate the feelings of disconnectedness when working on an independent project. It may really help students to have a research cohort they can commiserate with. Alternatively, having students or former students who can act in a supporting role may help to keep students on track and ensure they successfully complete their projects. This can help minimize the time the supervising faculty has to dedicate to this function as well.
  • Conclusion: Research opportunities can be a valuable experience for students. I was honored to be the first online student to complete a Master’s Thesis at Arkansas State University in their MPA program. I remain forever grateful for the opportunity. The experience was certainly the highlight of my Master’s program and one of the biggest factors in deciding to continue on to a doctoral program. I hope more online MPA programs will adopt the Thesis as an option for online students. Some thoughtful preparation will help make the experience a positive one for students and faculty alike.

Author: Sue M. Neal is a DPA student at West Chester University. She has been the Executive Director of a nonprofit nature preserve in Michigan for over 18 years. Sue completed her MPA at Arkansas State University. She shares her home with several rescued tortoises and quite a few cats. She can be reached at: [email protected]

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