Do Doctoral Students Use an Online Network for Mentoring?
To what extent do doctoral students use and benefit from online
social networks for their thesis work?
An investigation into the development and use of a personal
learning environment/social network for doctoral mentees
By E. Alana James, Ed.D.
• PLEs/social networks provide new forms of feedback loops.
• Data show student willingness and interested in participating in such a network but there
is a gap between that and logged activity.
• Implementing and supporting networked activities makes online mentoring more fun,
interesting as well as time efficient for both students and their professors.
This paper is a means of provoking professors who mentor doctoral students to consider the use of
new technologies in their work, especially if they work in online environments. The purpose of this
study is to investigate the development and use of a personal learning environment/social network
for doctoral mentees in education and management. A convenience sample of students across
three universities, all of whom are mentored by the author, comprise the scope of this study, n = 38.
Mixed data collection and analysis techniques weave into a participatory action research
methodology over the six-month development cycle. Findings show that, while it is a young project,
and while the learning environment is evolving, students are interested and buoyed by the
supporting technology in place. Conclusions are that it would be useful for a number of academics
to try similar techniques and share results and on a personal level t I enjoy the mix of students across
university boundaries and their interactions with each other. Limitations of this study are that, as in
all self-study, it is small in scope and conducted over a very short period of time. This research
contributes to the literature on personal learning environments, and the ways and means in which
professors may choose to use them.
mentoring & coaching, self-study, personal learning environments, networks, social networks,
graduate studies, doctoral studies
This research centres on the hypothesis that “If they need it, they will learn to use it, and will
come.” It is a self-study into my development of an online social network as a personal learning
environment for doctoral students.
One of the fastest growing populations of doctoral students is in online university environments. As
an independent academic, I work for three such universities. Our students interact with each other
in a moderated environment with a regimented set of criteria. As Attwell (2009) points out, ”What
is perhaps surprising is that the educational paradigm has been so successful in shaping the adoption
of education technology.” In other words, as an online professor I miss having a place where I can
get students to interact loosely and creatively – moving past the “what do you want?” position as
students, into working together as peers. Since these students are across the United States and
frequently in other parts of the world, I cannot suggest they all meet me at the local coffee shop
where we can explore provocative ideas. This took me to this investigation of what kind of an online
environment might duplicate patterns of communication feedback that would likewise engender
Siemens (2005), in his theory of Connectivism, postulates that because content is ubiquitous, the
learner becomes the centre and controller of connections , that he or she then chooses to use. It is
the importance of the connections rather than the more traditional curricula that become worthy of
measure. This correlates with, Granovetter who, as early as 1973, discussed the importance of the
‘weak ties, ’those links between networks, as crucial to communication in a wider sense. Social
network theory builds on this with its focus on the connections rather than the attributes of the
individual (Wade, 2005). Much has been written about web based learning environments and PLEs
(Downes, 2007; Ferguson et al., 2001; Scott Wilson, 2007; Scott Wilson et al., 2006) are discussed as
either a web environment that can be manipulated to encourage learning, or the choices the
individual makes as to what web-tools to use. The focus on connections and the interplay between
learner and the learning environment create the central focus of this study.
Doctoral students’ connections are constrained by the central tension in their lives: navigating
between the push towards transformation caused by education while simultaneously managing the
challenges of full professional lives. The most common reasons given for the massive growth in
online education, is its convenience for people who are already responsible for work, family, and
community, thus for them to pursue new connections they have to appear instantly beneficial. On
the other hand the relatively solitary world of the online learner does not engenders massive
creativity as pointed out by Sawyer (2007), as seldom is great genius reached in a solitary
environment. It seemed obvious that if the PLE of students could include creative work groups then
creative solutions for dissertation issues might be more easily found.
The literature suggests that supports such as these might be desireable. Hadjiioannou, Shelton, and
Fu (March 2007)) described the doctoral process as “perilous passage.” Likewise, Perez (2007)
comments that, “When I reflect back, it has been relationships and mentors who have encouraged
and supported me in my journey through life thus far.... This network has been a valuable support
system in this journey.” Lu (2007) in a presentation to a research fellowship group, concurs by
stating that “social networks are critical in everyone's information world, especially for people who
are in a transitional period of their lives.”
This study covers the six months from February to July 2009. During that period, in order to offer
new options for connections and communications across university and departmental boundaries, I
worked at developing a participatory group for doctoral students. I added a discussion forum and
social networking components to my website: www.reinventinglife.org. I also began to work with an
online meeting space from dimdim.com that allows a synchronous web-based meeting for two video
feeds, 3 additional audio feeds, and up to 15 students using chat. I built it. Would they find it useful?
Methodology and Scope
Zuber-Skerritt and Perry (2002) have written on the efficacy of action research as it helps develop
new practices and ideas within organizations and in thesis writing. I use it as an underlying
methodology because I find its cycles of action/measurement and reflection a good balance for my
discovery as I learn. Shown in Figure 1 below, I describe the steps as 1) discovery, 2)
action/measurement, and 3) reflection. I have found that by putting action and measurements
together it encourages the new action researcher to consider more thoroughly how they will
measure what they do. Figure 1 (below) shows the process as it worked in this study.
Figure 1: The PAR cycle and its components in this study
The scope of this project includes evidence from 38 adult doctoral students majoring in either
educational leadership or business and attending one of the three universities for which I consult.
The amount of time and energy allotted towards mentoring doctoral students per university varies
widely, and for some the relationship is highly connected and for others less so. Evidence evaluated
in this study included: web logs, analytics, activity charts, student emails and comments. Findings
were triangulated against survey data and conclusions verified with one-on-one interviews with both
users and non-users of the system.
I am currently working with 38 students, 23 of whom fit the more normal student-advisor
relationship, with my responsibilities to the other 15 being a mentor to their entire cohort. Twenty-
four students (63%) completed the survey, of which 13 were male and 11 female. Of those, 1 was
20-29 years old, 7 were 30-39, 10 between 40-49, and 6 over 50 years of age.
Do they want it? Are they interested?
There is little doubt that students find interaction with each other helpful in their learning. This is
not only a constant in end–of-course evaluation but data here validate it as well (92% reporting that
interaction was helpful to their learning). The respondents’ enthusiasm for the tools and
opportunities given to them is less inclusivewith only 82% somewhat satisfied. Most (74%) look for
outside resources either frequently or very frequently. The students are interested in online social
networks as a tool (94% reporting interest in online social networks), yet their comfort with online
social networks in general was varied (only 60% reporting mid-range comfort levels or better).
How did it develop?
Previous studies have shown doctoral work to be lonely and frustrating (Hadjioannou et al., March
2007; Perez, 2007). An advantage in online doctoral work may be the encouraged development of
cohorts. Two of the three universities, whose students participated in this study, have forced cohorts
to develop because of their grouping students in course shells for their work. Figure 2 below shows
the loose grouping of students in this study with the professor/instructor in the middle, as it would
have looked before I started to work with them. The different colours represent different types of
arrangements by the universities – some of which, but not all, aid students in forming at least
tertiary relationships with each other.
Figure 2: Pre participatory grouping of students
A data timeline, triangulating activity logs with other data uncovers three steps to the development
process in the first six months: First, the development of connection with me. This happened
primarily in their university spaces and through email, web meetings, and in discussions on the site.
This process starts over again with every new individual or group, creating a wide range of types of
relationships. Second, I set up systems to encourage students to investigate and use the tools on
the website. The fact that the site was seen as useful was confirmed by the increase on the number
of hits of key artefacts and tools. Finally, they begin to see potential value in each other and
friendships online and special interest groups (SIGs) emerge. I was interested to note that students
who are not mentored by me, and one who attends one of the three universities but whom I have
never had in class, posted to one of the special interest groups. Figures 3 and 4 below demonstrate
those developmental stages.
Figure 3: Students connect first to mentor Figure 4: Special Interest Groups (SIGs) start and
participants show up who are not mentored by me
Developing out of a cross tabulation of notes, emails, logs of activity and hits on the site the
1. The requirement of posting questions in the discussion forum prior to a one-on-one session
also increased the cross-university conversations and feedback loops. This gradually
developed into a standalone tool as a Frequently Asked Questions list.
2. 24/7 access was useful as many logged in late at night.
3. Social Network Log data show some spontaneous work after 4 months, including the
development of linkages (friendships) and special interest groups (SIGs). These later efforts
attracted students outside of those I mentor.
4. Synchronous online meetings provided the most direct positive feedback. As an example,
the following note from a student after working with me in the meeting room space one on
At lunch, I was telling my family about our meeting this morning with great enthusiasm. I
thought it was amazing to be able to view documents with you and receive feedback as we
look at it together. My mother-in-law could not believe I was able to do this simultaneously
with someone in Ireland, while I live in Colorado.
With our previous meetings on Skype, I felt like we had productive sessions. However when
they were over all I had were my chicken scratch notes and what seemed so clear while we
were talking ended up being much more confusing. With the meeting room we used this
morning, I am able to take away much more see the visual component of what I am hearing
as we talk. I appreciate being able to look at a copy of my questions together with you and
then viewing your endnote library helped me tremendously.
65% had used the synchronous online meeting room and 87% of those rated it 4 or 5 on
PLEs/social networks provide new forms of feedback loops.
Several means of communicating and asking for feedback developed. These include: a cross-
university discussion forum, video practices of proposal defence, recorded video and chat from
online meetings, and special interest groups.
Data show student willingness and interested in participating in such a network but there is a gap
between that and logged activity.
To address my hypothesis of: If they need it, they will learn to use it and will come. Do doctoral
students need an online social network as part of their personal learning environments? Did they
learn to use it and did they come? As with many early studies, the answers are less than conclusive
but promising. It appears that they think they need it, some have used it, and they are beginning to
This makes online mentoring more fun, interesting and useful for both students and their
Reflective notes taken over this snapshot of the first six months of development, display the
interplay between tools and ideas, and the gradual process of learning one in order to advance the
other. While some students signed on and participated in the discussion forum or read the blogs,
made comments etc. the first strong positive response was to the use of the synchronous online
meeting tool. After that positive response, use of all the other tools increased. A year from now
many of the current configurations are likely to have been updated due to new ideas which will also
As was pointed out in the introduction, Connectivism and Social Network Theory both suggest that
the connections themselves are worthy of study. The variety of connection between my students
and I have increased, dramatically in some cases. I enjoy the economy of scale by holding one
meeting to go over main discussion points, helping them all peer critique each other before I have
to, and moderating a discussion rather than leading it one on one.
Connections between students, across cohorts, universities, and fields of study are beginning. SIGs
are interesting to students and even those outside of the core network of the students I mentor
began to join in these discussions, sharing resources and the like. This may indicate that the group
aspect of the social network tool will prove to accelerate activity. Whether the groups thrive and
become sustainable however, remains to be seen.
I will continue to question students, monitor activity, and study more about what is known to
increase use of these tools. Unequivocally my life as a doctoral mentor is more interesting as
students connect across Universities, bring forth ideas around which I would never have otherwise
thought, and generally develop bonds or relationships with each other which I would not have
imagined. Online social networks provide a new learning environment in which that can happen.
Several next steps present themselves:
1. My own self-study will continue for at least one more year. I intend to investigate the
relationship of these tools and my pedagogical/theoretical beliefs. I will also work to close
the gap between the percentage of students declaring interest in participating and those
who are actively involved.
2. I will begin to both broadcast the website address through my broader network and
encourage others to do the same. This should encourage rhyzomatic growth potential,
decentralizing my influence.
3. I would encourage the growth of a network of professors involved in similar activities, who
can also either work with these tools on my site or develop similar situations of their own.
Much can be learned from sharing. I would be interested in working with others to
implement a neutral web environment for this purpose.
4. As new tools develop I will continue to explore their usefulness and adopt them as
There are many limitations to this study. First, it only covers a six-month period of time. If the
network grows to the same curve/time, as would be predicted, the next six months will show
striking development in student/student connections. Second, I purposefully limited access to the
survey to students I mentor. This will allow me later to survey a wider group for comparison, but as
of now, there are no comparative data as to whether and to what extent the ideas and behaviours of
these students are within the norm. Finally, as with any self-study, there are questions as to whether
and to what extent my experience would be, in any way, duplicated by others.
The development of online personal learning environments continues to have both micro (hence the
self study) and macro effects on any and all of us who are involved in education and intend to
maintain that involvement over the next twenty years. This study contributes to the conversation
that many of us in higher education are having, as we sort out how we will merge new tools into our
existing pedagogy to best serve our students and ourselves.
Attwell, G. (2009). Social software, personal learning environments and the future of teaching and
learning (pp. 1-13): Scribd.