What's up doc?

Phil Revell joins a 'select group of masochists' who are studying for the ultimate academic prize

With classroom teachers finding it increasingly difficult to manage the countless demands on their time, it takes a special breed of masochist to study for a doctorate. Surprisingly large numbers still manage to take diplomas and masters degrees. but only the bravest take this extra, giant, step.

An invitation to join 40 teachers who have just committed themselves to doctorates was therefore not to be missed.

This was a residential weekend at the University of Manch-ester Institute of Technology for students on the Open University's Doctorate in Education, a three-year taught course offered for the first time this year. Saturday morning saw a wide-awake group of teachers getting to grips with a literature review, a session to assist them with the vast amount of reading and research they will have to undertake.

Angela Major, head of music at Christleton High School in Cheshire, intends to research the role of "listening and appraising" in the teaching of music. Angela is stimulated by the challenge the course poses and enjoys the practical research and studying. She "caught the bug of studying" after completing an MEd with her local college - and she is not looking for a cure.

The extra workload does not worry her, particularly as her three children are grown-up. "If you think you're burdened down with work you're never going to attempt something like this." In any case, she does not consider the doctorate is divorced from classroom practice. "It's not pure academic work, it's very practically based," she says.

In the afternoon the OU students were led through the computer-based communications and resources that are a feature of the course. Each student is expected to liaise with their tutor via e-mail and use the OU's own dial-up system to access library resources.

This is one aspect of the course that Ian Thomas criticises. "I'm not IT literate and this has been a thorn in my side. There's been an assumption that we'd be up to speed on the IT skills." Ian is deputy head of Dale Grove, an EBD school in Tameside, and an OU veteran who completed an advanced diploma after moving into special education, then went on to do a masters. He is going for the doctorate partly to increase his chances of becoming a headteacher, and partly for the intellectual challenge. "My job is emotionally and physically challenging, but I was looking for intellectual stimulation."

Ian finds the res-earch focus of the doctorate particularly in-teresting. "There's the opportunity to influence what happens, to challenge the norms people work to."

He believes the doctorate is a significant step-up from the masters. His initial research proposal was heavily criticised and had to be rewritten. "It was a bit of a blow to the ego. I'd never been challenged that way before, but it's been a constructive process because it has made me more aware of what I need to do."

He argues that the OU approach is more suitable for teachers than more traditional PhD courses. The OU has had 30 years to perfect distance learning techniques and it shows. Both Angela and Ian are enthusiastic about the support and resources the OU has provided.

"I couldn't recommend it highly enough," he said. Angela added: "It is a course that has been designed for teachers, not to be easier, but to be more structured." Certain research routes are obviously easier for the university to support, but students have a fairly open choice. The current crop of research topics ranges from the culture of the EBD school to an investigation of the OFSTED grading system for teachers. Like Angela, Ian spoke of the course's direct relevance to his teaching practice. "When teachers are the subject of the research, they feel engaged. To me if it doesn't affect what is happening in the school it's not worth doing."

Only for the DEdicated

The OU Doctorate in Education (DEd not PhD) is a part-time degree combining taught courses, research methods and a 30,000-word dissertation. The normal route of entry is through the OU Masters in Education, but equivalent degrees from other institutions are acceptable. There is a strong structure to the course - one student called it "education in bite-sized chunks". Students in the current cohort can expect to earn their doctorate in 2000. Each has a personal tutor who supervises their progress through the course. The IT element of the course allows computer-conferencing, e-mailing of work and feedback, access to the OU library and to other online databases. With fees averaging Pounds 2,000 a year, the course is a major financial commitment. The requirement to have free access to a PC potentially adds another Pounds 1,000 to the cost.

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