When Gertrude Rompré set out to gain a Doctorate in Education (EdD) – Higher Education from the University of Liverpool, the programme’s fully online format was a major consideration. She was living in Canada, working in a senior position at a higher education institution. At the time, work and family commitments made it unthinkable for her to travel to study on campus. That was in September 2013. As it turned out, she was able to attend two residencies in Liverpool, and spend six months in the city on study leave from July to December 2017.
Studying online is an attractive option for many EdD candidates, Gertrude has found. “A programme like this is geared for people who are professionals who are quite senior in their roles. But that being the case, it also means we often carry all sorts of other family responsibilities that make it very difficult for us to relocate,” she says. With its focus on collaboration and online scholarly debate, Liverpool’s online learning format impressed Gertrude. “I’ve been delightfully surprised about the effectiveness of the online format and the exchange of experiences between people who are in all sorts of different contexts,” she says. It gave her a sense of being part of a global network of like-minded professionals.
Being able to attend residencies in Liverpool added another dimension to an already satisfying learning experience for Gertrude. “The residencies have grounded the experience,” she says. “The residency adds something in the sense that what I experienced online became concrete: the dynamics between people, the sense of getting an overall view for the programme and its purpose.”
Meeting faculty, support staff and fellow students face-to-face brought the EdD programme to life. She was able to talk to people had previously communicated with exclusively in writing, and found that the mental image she had created was often quite accurate. “It showed the authenticity of the interactions we’d been having online, because when we did meet in person, it felt like we were friends, even though we had never met,” she says. “I think that shows the quality of the interactions generated by skillfully designed online courses.”
“I’ve enjoyed the networking that happens at the residency. The networking that happens at the residency, in my experience, has been the networking that’s endured,” she reflects. After two years Gertrude was still in contact with people she met at her first residency. In her account of that experience, she talked about conversations buzzing in the halls as students relished the opportunity to talk to people with similar interests in an intense and inspiring environment.
Gertrude describes being introduced to fellow students for the first time as energizing and exciting, but meeting the programme’s academic staff was also a highlight. She found that meeting faculty members in person gave her a greater appreciation for their dedication and professionalism.
“I’m not sure I knew before I met some of these people just what commitment and passion they had for the EdD,” she says. In the online classroom, the role of Liverpool’s online instructors is to facilitate interactions between students rather than leading the conversation as in a traditional lecture. At residencies, away from the focused discussions in the online classroom, students can find out more about their tutors’ research interests and have in-depth discussions about a range of topics.
Gertrude attended her first residency after finishing the sixth of nine modules, and her second just before starting to write her thesis. She has found that what she got out of each residency was different, reflecting the stage she was at during her EdD studies.
“The first time it gave me an overview of where I needed to go to get to the finish line. It really gave me a momentum that I didn’t have up till then. It was a really lovely way of pulling all the pieces together, and seeing what the finish line might look like,” she says.
Second time around, with the taught element of the EdD behind her and a thesis to write, Gertrude’s focus was different. “Doing the residency a second time, the experience was completely different,” she says. “I was looking more for practical advice about the mechanics of completing a dissertation. We may have heard similar content two years ago, but I was attuned to something completely different.”
With around 15 students in attendance, EdD residencies consist of workshops and presentations, as well as shared meals and networking opportunities. “It was a large enough group that you can have good discussions, but small enough that you can get to know people quite well,” according to Gertrude.
It’s given her the chance to discuss her thesis topic with people who really understand the issue she is investigating. “I’ve had some very good conversations with a number of people at the residency about the topic and how it might relate to their own experience,” she says.
Gertrude’s thesis investigates how individuals interact with the institutional identity of their workplace in a higher education context, especially where they may not be full alignment between the individual’s personal identity and the identity of their institution. The subject relates directly to Gertrude’s job as Director of Mission and Ministry at a Catholic college. It’s her role to ensure that faculty and staff understand the institutional mission of the college. Many of the college’s faculty and staff are not Catholics, which inspired Gertrude’s thesis research.
“My suspicion is that those questions of where does my personal identity mesh or not with an institutional mission and purpose happen with any institution,” she says. “I’m doing a comparative case study of three different institutions that have three slightly different structures, and doing interviews with five people in each.” “One of the things that came out of left field for me was how often people refer to the importance of architecture in influencing their understanding of institutional identity,” she says. “There’s a whole area there that I need to explore that I would not have anticipated at all.”
After the residency, Gertrude started a six-month period of study leave to focus on writing her thesis. She chose to spend that time in Liverpool, to be close to the University and her supervisor. She acknowledges the generosity of a lot of people in making this possible. “I’ve had a very generous employer and colleagues who are willing to take up the slack for six months,” she explains.
“I find that when you’re in a new environment, you see the everyday in a different way. Things that are ordinary to the people who live here become something interesting or different for me,” she says, reflecting on her stay in Liverpool. “It’s a nice space to be in coming to the writing phase of my thesis.”