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What every distance educator should be alerted to about PQDT (digital dissertations?).

I know what you are thinking after reading the title: can reading dissertations really be a credible best practice and a great professional development opportunity for a busy distance educator? (PQDT comes later.) Should I read on? The last thing I want to do is read about reading dissertations.

Just give me a chance to explain. Remember, I'm a busy distance education administrator like you and not a professor serving on six or seven dissertation committees. Like you, I never have enough time for my own professional development, and, even if I did, reading dissertations is probably not my idea of "fun" professional development. Besides, aren't dissertations "to be written but not read"?

While it is true that doctoral dissertations and master's theses are not at the top on our reading lists, I hope you would agree that at least some of them merit a quick perusal--especially those most relevant to your work as a distance educator. Since you likely prepared your own thesis/ dissertation back who knows when--it is one of those memories you are still trying to repress, right?--you know for yourself that it represented a significant effort by not only you but also your faculty committee. Nothing else you have ever done has probably been subjected to more scrutiny, been of higher quality, and taken more effort than that dissertation/thesis. For this reason alone, shouldn't somebody at least take a quick look at it?

Have you any idea how many dissertations/theses are written and archived each year with the keyword descriptor "distance education"? Take a guess. My own search revealed that for the past few years, the average number of dissertations having something to do with "distance education" is approximately 200 each year; the total number of dissertations in the database at this writing is 1,744 (the oldest is from 1956--it is also the only one dated before 1980; there are 80 from 1980 to 1990; 631 from 1990 to 2000; and 1,032 from 2000 to 2008). Do these numbers surprise you? They do me. Our field is coming of age and beginning to burgeon as a discipline with more dissertations on the topic in the past eight years than in all previous years combined.


Are you partially convinced that there might be something to this idea of quickly perusing at least titles of dissertations/theses, and maybe even a few of the more interesting abstracts, especially if there are only 200 of them each year (about four a week)? However, are you thinking now that it is still too much hassle each week to look for those two or three or four new dissertations/theses on distance education? What if I told you that by signing up for a weekly (or monthly) e-mail alert or RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feed, you never have to go looking (pull technology) for these new dissertations/theses again. Instead, they will come looking for you (push technology). This is exactly what happens, if you want it to.

Since I signed up for the free weekly alert, I receive an e-mail every Monday around 5:35 a.m. (MST) that notifies me of new dissertations/theses on distance education. In Figure 1, you see the actual e-mail I received on Monday, March 10, 2008, for two newly available dissertations/ theses on distance education. (Most of the 2007 dissertations/theses are already in the database, though a few more may trickle in through June 2008.) Do the two topics or the institutions from which these dissertations/theses were sponsored interest you like they did me? If the dissertation titles are of no interest, just delete the e-mail and go on to the next. If you want to know more about one of them, click the "abstract" button. How long do you think this whole process will take? 10 seconds? 20 seconds? At most, 30 seconds? Doesn't it feel good to know that you actually did some professional development, kept up on the latest research, and maybe even stumbled onto some insight that may benefit your own distance education program in so little time?

ProQuest is the company that collects, digitizes, archives, and publishes dissertations/theses and now provides e-mail alerts and RSS feeds as they are added to the database. This company is situated in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the name of its database is ProQuest Dissertations & Theses (PQDT). Some of you may be more familiar with its predecessor, University Microfilms (later known as UMI), which began storing scholarly material on microfilm in 1938 with the threat of war looming over Great Britain, than you are of its successor today, ProQuest.

At the time of this writing, PQDT "has archived over 2.4 million dissertations and master's theses. Some 2 million of them are available in full text in print, microform, and digital format" (personal communication, March 26, 2008). They also informed me that by October 2008, they will have begun allowing full-text searches (not just titles and abstracts) of all digital dissertations/theses dated 2007 and later.

The company has provided this general information about the database on its Web site (see
   for nearly 70 years, ... [ProQuest has] offered superior
   information services in electronic, microform, and print-on-demand
   formats to university libraries ... 95% to 98% of all U.S. doctoral
   dissertations are included.... Virtually every major research
   library in the world provides access to the ProQuest Dissertations
   & Theses (PQDT) database through one or another format.... [PQDT]
   database is the most comprehensive collection of dissertations and
   theses in the world.

My own university librarians annotated our link to PQDT with this introduction: "PQD&T is the single, central, authoritative resource for information about doctoral dissertations and master's theses. Dissertations published from 1980 forward include 350-word abstracts written by the author. Master's theses published from 1988 forward include 150-word abstracts."

How do you set up e-mail alert and RSS feeds? It is easy. After you run a search query on PQDT, as shown in Figure 2, the "Set up alert" button appears in the top left-hand corner and the "Dissertations and Theses RSS Feeds" in the right-hand corner. These options enable, at your request, the company to automatically perform for you the same search you just conducted on either a daily, weekly, or monthly basis and then notify you of any additions to PQDT by e-mail or RSS feed. (See Figure 3 for an example of how to set up your own e-mail alert.)

What happens if your university or college is one of the few that does not subscribe to PQDT? Unfortunately the e-mail alert or RSS feed will not be available to you, but the company does provides a free keyword search service known as DATRIX; they send results by first-class mail to the requestor. Anyone interested in knowing more about this service may call ProQuest directly at 1-800-521-0600, ext. 7044 or 1-800-521-3042.

My 10 reasons for using (and recommending) PQDT alerts are the following:

1. The notification of new studies (and the search of existing studies) is not intrusive; I don't feel overwhelmed by new information.

2. It is only recently that full access to these studies has become so readily available to distance educators, and I can request digital copies of studies that I am most interested in (1,421, or 81% of the 1,744 studies about "distance education," are fully available through PQDT at the time of this writing).

3. I consider my brief weekly review of new dissertations/theses, if any, a good professional development exercise--I have a tendency not to attend to my own professional development unless it is scheduled.

4. I really do trust the literature review, methodology, and findings of most dissertations/theses--unlike some journal articles--since they are so care fully supervised and peer reviewed by those graduate committees comprised of seasoned research faculty.

5. My review of the title and the abstract (also known as executive summary), if I am interested, is a very efficient use of my time, since so much is packed into so few words.

6. So often most of the research on a relevant topic has been done by someone else. I am actually embarrassed by how much original research I have done in the past on practical and theoretical topics that had already been done (and at a higher level too) by a graduate student and his or her faculty committee.

7. Many times the dissertation will help answer a real-world, not just theoretical, research question. The implications and conclusion of the research and study findings inform my own efforts to improve our educational processes and, ultimately, enhance student learning.

8. It has helped my department and me to stay more connected with (1) some of our own university's graduate students (and potential research topics for them too) who may be interested in distance education, and also (2) the larger academic community.

9. I receive personal satisfaction from knowing that I am doing my utmost to stay current with what others are doing in the field and with what researchers have learned from their own study. I also find fascinating and somewhat engaging those new research questions and frontiers identified by the research of these graduate students (and their faculty committees).

10. I suppose it is really a reminder of the academic in me, either by nature or by adoption as a member of the university community. We all have at least a little of the academic still in us, and it just feels good to know that we haven't totally left our academic lives behind us in our current administrative positions.



In conclusion, are you persuaded to look into PQDT further? If not, what about inviting one of your colleagues to do it for you and your department? Maybe it is something that someone can briefly report on in your staff meetings.

Check with your library to make sure that your institution has subscribed to the PQDT database. After you conduct your own initial search of dissertations/theses using whatever keywords you choose, then you can activate the e-mail alert or RSS feed service to receive a daily, weekly, or monthly notification. I hope you find this new best practice helpful too--and I wouldn't be surprised either if you identified other reasons why this practice proves to be helpful in your own research, program improvement, and professional development.

Scott L. Howell, Director, Evening Classes, Brigham Young University, 105 Harman Continuing Education Building, Provo, UT 84602. E-mail:
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Author:Howell, Scott L.
Publication:Distance Learning
Geographic Code:1U8UT
Date:Apr 1, 2008
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