January 27th, 2011
A few weeks ago I issued a memo advising academic departments that the School of Graduate Studies is shifting to more webcasting for final doctoral examinations. The reason is straightforwardly economic. With great surges in graduate enrolment come great surges in final examinations. That’s great, except that it now costs more money to do what we have always done and done proudly—that is, fly external examiners into St. John’s for a couple of days to examine doctoral candidates.
There has been some chattering about this imminent shift, and a lively conversation, although sometimes a misinformed one, is starting to percolate.
Consider this: a scan of Canadian graduate schools shows us that most have long abandoned the practice of bringing examiners into the examination. I have been an examiner for some well regarded Canadian universities with pretty curious practices, having been asked to submit my questions in advance, but never hearing how the student performed, who was going to ask the questions on my behalf, or really anything at all about the examination event. It’s like submitting a well considered critique into a black hole. How fruitful is that for me or the student?
For some time, our graduate school has been able to hold its ground in the face of challenges from some in our senior administration, because we have appreciated the benefits and the privilege of introducing an external examiner to a PhD candidate, thereby, one would hope, cementing a fruitful future relationship, one on which the candidate could draw for letters of reference, advice on publishing, and so on.
None of those benefits will actually change under a new model, and we will save a lot of money, paper, jet fuel, and headaches while we are at it. Webcasting, especially with today’s professional expertise and hi-def tech capacities, ain’t what it used to be. We are not talking about Skype anymore. Real-time dialogue can now transpire without the impression you are conversing with someone from a Stanley Kubrick film.
What will change? The in-person DNA exchange, admittedly often—although not always—a satisfying experience; the opportunity to have a beer with the examiner, about which less said the better. Most examiners fly in, weather permitting, and then fly out almost immediately following an oral defense in time to prepare for their next class or seminar at their home institution. A few hang around to do seminars on our campus, but these are rare examples.
What will we gain? Time. It is much easier arranging a final examination when you do not have to worry about airplane schedules. Students on the whole will not have to wait as long as they have in the past to get the event scheduled and over with. They will also gain a much larger pool of potential examiners. Consider that because of the costs the trend has been to bring examiners in from somewhere on the mainland of Canada, and often restricted to Ontario because the further west one goes, the more money, inconvenience, and struggle we have to accommodate dates. As several graduate students have pointed out, the webcasting of examinations means that their external examiners can come from anywhere in the world. Right now we could hardly even begin to think about bringing someone highly qualified and distinguished in the field from the UK or Australia, for example, with the budget we have. Moreover, living where we do on the eastern edge of the continent it sometimes happens that scheduled examinations are canceled or postponed when the flights can’t get in, such as would be the case today, as I write this blog. We simply won’t have that hassle, extra costs—and attendant disappointment anymore.
We will also gain savings, which we can well channel into other services graduate students need, such as their own conference travel. My hunch is that if you put the option before graduate students as to whether they would prefer flying in an external examiner or having the opportunity to have their own conference travel supported they would choose the latter. Frankly, why wouldn’t they? I would have. Right now we are experimenting with the process, aiming to ramp up to at least half of our final examinations being webcasted in the next few months. I imagine a time when almost all defenses will be managed this way, once everyone realizes the benefits and gets used to the system. As with everything else technological, a transition period will relax anxieties or misunderstandings of the process.
Most important for Graduate Studies is maintaining the integrity of the examination experience. We believe we are moving in the right direction, leaving the door open for some special cases where departments might be able to pitch flying in an examiner, or sharing the cost with SGS, when there is obvious advantage to that person being present.
I am heartened by all those who are welcoming the new option, and look forward to seeing how this green experiment plays out.