Success Stories from Online Learners: An Interview with Doctoral Candidate Apostolos Koutropoulos

Apostolos Koutropoulos’ advice for fellow online students: Don’t take summers off! While it is okay to give yourself a break, preparing for the next step in your education journey will pay off.

Though most higher education institutions are in recess it is a summer pause unlike in past years. For most, the logistics of the fall have yet to be determined. Will it be entirely online, partially online, socially distanced? Some combination of all three? The one certainty is the 2020-2021 term will be like none other.

As online learning in some format will most likely play into any scenario, this series of interviews share successful online learning stories. The goal of this series is to help us all remember our online learners’ humanity, reiterating in the words of our second interviewee, “Even if you can’t see someone’s face, through conversation and connection, they become real.”

The first interview was with Alison Freeman (http://www.aace.org/review/pivoting-to-online-e-learning-distance-education-remote-teaching-remote-learning-success-stories-from-online-learners/), who completed her undergraduate degree from Thomas Edison State University in March of 2016. In this interview, we will move to the other end of the education spectrum, checking in with Apostolos Koutropoulos, who is in the latter stages in completing his doctorate with Athabasca University in Alberta. Koutropoulos is a seasoned educator, currently working with the University of Massachusetts Boston as the Online Program Manager of the Applied Linguistics Program. His journey is one of becoming reacquainted with all the complexities and time management learnings of life in the student role.

How did you learn about the program?

When I was considering doctoral programs, there needed to be an alignment between my interests and the program’s faculty. I was looking at books on my bookshelf that enjoyed, and that intrigued me. I looked at authors of academic articles I’ve been reading since the days I was an MEd student, and I looked at who was offering MOOCs on specific topics of interest. Using this information, I started looking up where authors taught, and I started putting together a spreadsheet of programs.

Why did you choose this program?

I chose the EdD program in Distance Education from Athabasca University for three reasons: First, many of the faculty were people whose work I’d been reading for years and who I could see as potential mentors. Second, the doctoral program at Athabasca University (AU) was a bit of a hybrid between North American and European doctorates. This program flow means that while there was a coursework component, it wasn’t overbearing. Most programs in my spreadsheet were in the US, and the coursework component was quickly 12-15 courses before one even gets to submit a doctoral dissertation proposal. Comparatively, my program expects students to enter with a Masters’s degree already in hand, and the coursework component is only 6-8 courses. Lastly, cost and convenience were significant factors. If I were able to leave my job to be a student full-time, I might have found a graduate assistant position at another school, in a residential program, which would have made the cost of the degree free. But that is

a big ask for a working professional. It is simply not possible to drop everything to have the “college experience” at this stage in my professional life. Other online programs were quite expensive and heavy on the coursework. Comparatively, AU was not as expensive, it was convenient (fully online), and many of the faculty were experts in my field who I knew from their published work (win, win, win)

Did you have any online learning experience before enrolling?

Yes. My MEd was a blended program. One-quarter of the courses were fully on-campus, and three-quarters were online. Also, I took many MOOCs in the four years between graduating with my MEd and applying to my EdD.

What were (very broadly and in general) the best + worst parts?

As much as I initially hated the idea of a required in-person orientation in Alberta, I ended up loving it. I think it built camaraderie amongst members of our cohort that continues to this day. It was also an opportunity to visit a part of Canada that I would otherwise not have the chance to visit. In one of our courses, we needed to get some practical experience teaching as part of the course. Even though I had teaching experience before this program, I took the opportunity to be a TA in AU’s MEd “Greek Cohort,” which allowed me to see how Masters courses are done elsewhere. I don’t have many complaints about the program. Administrators within the program take student feedback seriously. This immediate action is refreshing, as I’ve seen direct changes to the program resulting from this feedback over the years. I appreciate that the student experience is honored.

One thing I continue to recommend but has yet to be implemented is not having summer “off.” I think the summers in years 1, 2, and 3 should have expectations for students to have some deliverable each September that connects to the eventual dissertation proposal. This way summers become a constructive part of the whole experience as opposed to three months totally off 🙂

Did you feel like you knew your instructors? If so, how did they become “real” to you? If not, did you feel like anything was missing, or were you happy as-is?

My instructors felt real to me. This realness happened partly because of the required weekly sessions, but also because I “grew up” on internet forums, chat services like Yahoo! Chat, and instant messenger. Even if you can’t see someone’s face, through conversation and connection, they become real.

Did you feel like you knew your fellow students? If so, how did they become “real” to you? If not, did you feel like anything was missing, or were you happy as-is?

Our program is cohort-based (i.e., we take the same classes with one another for all three years). Our cohort got to know each other during our required residential week at the start of our studies. Because we interacted with each other both in the class forums and on Facebook (in a private group), this extended contact sustained us through the educational experience.

What advice would you give to a future online student?

Don’t take summers off 🙂

It’s perfectly fine to slow things down a bit, or even take a few weeks off completely, but make sure you’re moving the peg forward with your dissertation proposal before reaching dissertation-specific seminars. I think you’ll do your future self an incredible favor this way 🙂

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