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Q&A with Andrea Gregg About Getting a Ph.D. in Learning, Design, and Technology

A conversation about non-traditional academic paths, learning science, and the emergence of a new discipline.

October 4, 2017
 
 

Dr. Andrea Gregg is the Associate Director for Research, Penn State World Campus at Penn State University.  Andrea graciously agreed to answer some of my questions about her academic path, and her PhD in Learning, Design, and Technology.

Q1:  To set the stage, give us the quick story of your role at Penn State.  What do you do?

That question always sounds so easy until I sit down to actually answer it!  :-)  I am in a relatively new unit made up individuals who have worked in different roles in online learning and are now charged with research and development to support the strategic initiatives of World Campus and Penn State.  Our group is charged to conduct applied research and evaluation in areas of pedagogy, technology, and student experience toward the end of improving the online, distance learning experience.

My role currently involves a number of diverse and interesting projects.  I’ll focus on two to give a sense of the types of work I’m doing.  I’m currently leading a project to better understand retention in online learning, generally and specifically within our institution.  We are looking at reasons students stop out and interventions to help them stay enrolled. It’s a great project because I’m working with very talented graduate students doing a lot of fun qualitative work with students’ perspectives on their experience and also working with our data scientists to look at behavioral patterns of retention.  It’s truly a mixed methods project. 

I’m also part of a project piloting and evaluating adaptive systems, which is also mixed methods.  I’m collecting data from those involved -- students, faculty, and designers -- on their experiences teaching, designing, and learning in adaptive platforms.  And, we are partnering with a data scientist to look at actual trends over multiple semesters. Since I could go on all day about the projects, I think I’ll stop here and go to your next question.

Q2:  You have your PhD was Penn State's Doctor of Philosophy program in Learning, Design, and Technology.  Tell us about your PhD program.  What are the big areas of specialization?  What sorts of people go through the program?  What sorts of jobs do they end up in?

The program and its faculty is amazingly diverse.  For example, there is a lot of work done that uses a design-based research (DBR) methodology where design interventions are done, explicitly grounded in the research, evaluated, iteratively improved, with explicit grounding in the research, and then evaluated again. The ultimate goal of DBR (and I’d say my graduate program) is to improve practice and inform theory. 

When I was first studying DBR and had my “day job” as a manager of an instructional design team, I remember asking, isn’t this what we already do?  We design courses, get feedback, and make improvements.  The big difference with DBR, though, is that it has to be explicitly grounded in the research.  So, you might intuitively believe that having a weekly online discussion is best and as a designer you would suggest that based on your experience and the experience of your colleagues.  DBR disciplines you to also look at empirical work in that area, based on theories of learning and technology, to learn more about your area. 

Of course, there is also work done using traditional qualitative methods (my dissertation study was a qualitative, interview-based study) and traditional quantitative methods, mixed methods, and exciting new work using big data and data modeling.  I will say what ties everything together in the program is that the research needs to live at the intersection of learning, design, and technology.  What people study varies greatly.  There are research lines considering identity (like gender and ethnicity) and video gaming.  There are research lines looking at family discourse practices at STEM museums.  There are research lines looking at automated modeling of discourse patterns.  I had good friends in the program who did their doctoral work in a number of different areas.  My focus was on online graduate students’ experiences with their asynchronous course discussions (qualitative).  A close friend developed and then evaluated an augmented reality mobile app for a nature center (DBR).

Q3:  What was your path before going into the Doctor of Philosophy program in Learning, Design, and Technology program?  Why did you decide to do that degree?  How long did it take you to finish?  What was your dissertation on?

Like many of us in the learning design field, I completely fell into this by fortune.  I was a math and history double major at Northwestern.  And wrote an honors thesis on the history of social movement identity.  My masters was in Rhetoric and my thesis was on rhetoric and feminist identity.  I had originally intended to become a faculty member but in taking time between completing my masters and starting a PhD, I started working as an instructional designer and fell in love with the field.  I was never bored and as an added bonus, I was exposed to so many discipline areas.  I then moved into management and learned a tremendous amount hiring and managing designers and support staff.  I always knew I would get my PhD and by that point it was obvious which field fit. 

What I ended up loving was that I was able to draw on my humanities background and intense training in critical thinking in doing my qualitative dissertation.  For a while I thought that work wouldn’t come back but I’d like to make a quick plug for the humanities - my training in both History at Northwestern and Rhetoric at Penn State prepared me very well for doing a social sciences dissertation in terms of the thinking and the writing.  I worked full time as a manager while doing my degree and I think it took me about 6 years in total.  The last year and half were a bit of a blur and I think my friends actually did forget what I looked like during that time!  

Q4:  What do you call yourself?  For instance, my training makes me a "sociologist" - but the work I do now in higher ed seems closer to your PhD training.  What is someone with your terminal degree called?

That’s a great question.  Some people call themselves “learning scientists” and that brings with it some disciplinary alliances.  I currently describe myself as a “higher education researcher” as I think that best fits what I do.  More broadly speaking I might describe folks like us as “learning design professionals” or something similar. 

Q5:  My final question is about disciplines.  There are those of us who think that there is an academic discipline at the intersection between organizational change, learning design,and technology.  What do you think?

I think yes, in some ways, but the nature of the doctorate is that you have to go very deep into a particular area for your study.  So I can easily imagine a program that covered maybe a combination of my program (Learning, Design, and Technology) and Higher Education Administration (which we also have here at Penn State).  Where I’m not as clear on is the type of dissertation research folks would need to do to qualify for that degree.  I’m sure there are options, though, and especially as the field grows and we have more professional organizations and certificates--like Institute for Emerging Leaders in Online Learning and many others--that such a degree would be very applicable. 

One thing I’ve observed is that I tend to be in communities that are almost entirely pragmatic and there is almost no acknowledgement of the rich empirical work being done and the importance of being explicit with theoretical frameworks or are almost entirely research and theoretical with little acknowledgement of real-world constraints.  What I love about my job now is that I get to be at the intersection of research and practice.  I get to use my academic degree and research skills and my many years of professional experience to work towards improving practice and contribute to the literature in the online learning domain.

Do you have any questions for Dr. Gregg?

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