08 September 2008


All universities in the UK have print-based requirements for the submission of PhDs in Education and the social sciences. Such formats will remain excellent in terms of suitability for the topic they are addressing, and for archiving and dissemination. However, the format may not be the most appropriate vehicle for research that addresses e-learning, nor may it be the best way to archive and disseminate the research. The issue is more complex and more urgent than it may at first appear. It is not only a matter of the relationship between the content of the research and its presentation; it is also a matter of the arrangement (in classical rhetoric, dispositio) of the research. The print-based thesis or dissertation assumes a linear sequence: chapter 1 is followed by chapter 2, and so on. The conventional shape of the PhD thesis is to set out an introduction followed by chapters on the literature, on context, on methodology, on results and thus on to the conclusion. There is thus an implied logic to the arrangement, and a framework for argumentation.

PhD research into e-learning (in which definition is included mobile and ubiquitous learning) looks at two dimensions which have implications for the presentation and format of theses. First, electronic media on handheld and desktop computers and software such as Word, dataprocessing programs etc provide a fluid, revisable approach to verbal language. Increasingly, users of these media are encouraged not to print their texts for reasons of sustainability and ecology. Second, the convergence of these new media with an increased attention to multimodal communication (the combination of verbal, visual, aural and other modes of communication) brings about a need to address research both about and through multimodality. Bringing e-learning together with multimodality (as evident on the computer screen, however large or small, desk-based or portable) provides a rich field for research and particularly the consideration of formats for PhD research.

These two dimensions have been considered in the regulations and guidelines for arts-based, computer-science-based and some practice-based PhDs (though not, on the whole, EdDs) at some universities, but they do not form part of conventional practice at most universities. Research students are therefore forced to compromise the intellectual momentum of their research into e-learning by using a print-based, linear format that is not always entirely suitable to their needs, or to the needs of the wider research and research transfer communities. Most literature to date (very little of it is research) is about the archiving of electronic theses. Copeland et al. (2007), JISC (2007), MacColl (2002), Key Services et al. (2006) and UNESCO (2007) all discuss the matter and propose solutions, the latter most comprehensively; but the UK response has been patchy to date, and social science has not addressed the key issue in the present proposal: the creation, supervision and administration of theses in and about electronic/digital multimodality, as well as the archiving of and access to them.


Andrews, R. and Haythornthwaite, C. (eds) (2007) The Handbook of E-learning Research London: Sage

Copeland, S., Siddhartha, S. and McMillan, G. (2007) Electronic Theses and Dissertations: pragmatic issues and practical solutions Oxford: Chandos

Index to Theses (2007) – available online and accessed 17.12.07

JISC (2007) Electronic Theses – available online and accessed 17.12.07

Key Services Ltd and UCL Library Services (2006) Evaluation of Options for a UK Electronic Thesis Service: findings from a study of EThOS

MacColl, J. (2002) Electronic Theses and Dissertations: a strategy for the UK, in Ariadne, issue 32 (July 2002)

Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations (2007) available online and accessed 17.12.07

UNESCO (2007) The Guide to Electronic Theses and Dissertations – available online and accessed 17.12.07

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