What are PhDs and who is a PhD? An analysis of the learning modes of purely distance learning and online teaching

Charles Ka Shing Ko
The University of Hong Kong
Hong Kong SAR, China


The Hong Kong Education Bureau (2012) defined purely distance learning courses as those ' conducted solely through the delivery of mail, transmission of information by means of telecommunication (e.g. TV, radio or computer network), or sale of materials in commercial outlets, etc., but without the institutions, professional bodies or their agents being physically present in Hong Kong to deliver any lectures, tutorials or examinations, etc.' It also stated that 'while these courses are excluded from the registration requirement in consideration of the need to strike a balance between upholding the interests of consumer protection on the one hand and the need to avoid possible restriction on the freedom of expression (including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds), operators of these courses are encouraged to apply for registration to demonstrate that they fulfil the registration criteria.'

According to the National Science Foundation's (NSF) data report, nearly 50,000 doctorates were conferred in America in 2011 to students who attended a US university, and that number continues to rise each year. The website Onlinephdprograms.com (2014) describes PhD programmes as 'the highest degree level attainable in any subject and .. a mark of complete proficiency in the field'; and it adds 'While online PhD programmes allow students to achieve their educational goals without sacrificing their jobs or substantially cutting time from other priorities, such as raising a family, research and studying is typically conducted at times convenient to each student with little or no campus attendance requirements.' According to this website, earning an online PhD is slightly different from a traditional programme in: (1) how assignments are completed and submitted and (2) how studying is conducted.

The paper aims to analyse the popular PhD programmes in Hong Kong and America with a distance learning and online learning mode in terms of their learning and teaching structure, quality assurance and modes of programme delivery. The method is based on a systematic comparison between e-learning PhDs and traditional PhDs, and the result of the study is that e-PhDs seem to be the equivalent of the traditional PhDs.