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PhD Defenses around the World: a Viva in Education in COVID-19 times

Today, I have the pleasure of inviting Ipek Saralar-Aras to share her experience in the PhD Defense. Ipek is a qualified mathematics teacher who works on designing lessons to improve students’ understanding of spatial geometry. She has worked, volunteered and trained in numerous schools in Turkey and England. She graduated from the Middle East Technical University in June 2014 with a BSc and in April 2016 with an MSc in Mathematics Education. She joined the University of Nottingham’s Learning Science Research Institute in September 2015 as an MA student in Learning, Technology and Education. Successfully completing the requirements for her MA degree in September 2016, she continued her studies with a PhD in Education in the same institute. She worked as a doctoral researcher and a research assistant at the University of Nottingham in the School of Education. She successfully defended her PhD thesis in March 2020 and received her doctorate in Education from the University of Nottingham, England. She is currently an academician and an education expert at the Turkish Ministry of National Education.

Everybody prepares themselves for their PhD defence differently. After submitting my thesis, I had about two months prior to my Viva Voce Exam (this is how PhD defence is called in the UK) to get prepared. I read and reread my thesis many times, practiced possible viva questions in front of a mirror, and had a mock viva experience with a professor from my university (thank you Dr Freydis Vogel). Finally, I practiced possible viva questions with my main supervisor, Prof Dr Shaaron Ainsworth. Just to note, if you have a supervisor who might guess some of the questions, your viva experience gets quite better. I had one, thanks, Shaaron.

I was an international student at the University of Nottingham in the UK, England and I decided to wait for my viva in my home country, Turkey. Immediately after the university informed me about the date of my PhD viva, I booked my flight and accommodation to stay for a week in Nottingham. The date was the 23rd of March 2020. For some, this was just a day, for me, this was the day of my life, so I tried to plan everything perfectly. There was just one thing that I could not think of: CoVid-19 Pandemic. My flight was cancelled and both Turkey and the UK closed their borders for travelling.

My supervisors (Shaaron Ainsworth and Geoff Wake) and I decided for a virtual viva about ten days before things got worse. I wrote a formal email to head of department Dr Jane Medwell (who also chaired my viva) saying that given the situation with CoVid-19, I prefer a remote viva (video conference). Then, the university sent me an updated viva protocol which tells me what to do – which software I should use, who to have with me etc. The University was absolutely supportive on not requiring me to travel. Luckily, all the examiners also accepted our remote viva request.

Mentioning examiners, both examiners and the chair were people I met before. One of my examiners, my external (Dr Gwen Ineson) was a senior lecturer in Primary Mathematics Education at the London Brunel University. I met her in the British Society for Learning into Mathematics Education Conferences, three to four times. She attended one of my presentations at the conference together with one of her PhD students, and we had time to chat about my research at the time. The internal examiner (Prof Dr Charles Crook) was an Information and Communication Technology and Education professor at the University of Nottingham. I met him in 2015 and took two courses from him during MA in Learning, Technology and Education. My independent chair (Dr Jane Medwell) was a professor of primary education and literacy.

But, having a remote viva? I did not imagine this before. This made my PhD defence experience even harder as it was not originally planned in this way at all. The original plan was to go out to a restaurant for lunch with my supervisors (and maybe together with the examiners), to spend some time with them and then to go to the planned class for the viva. I was planning to be in a class with people (my supervisors and examiners) who are interested in reading my 100.000 words thesis, discussing how it was done physically face-to-face, and looking at their eyes while answering their questions. Alternatively, on the day, I was in Turkey at home by myself, and praying not only for passing my viva but also for technology to work to actually have a viva. We had many back-up technology plans in case they do not work (suggested by the university’s IT people) as everybody was connecting to the viva separately from their homes. Nobody wanted to come together because of CoVid-19 so I sat my Viva Voce exam by a 5-way video conference. This was not easy to set up at the beginning. I installed Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Skype and had a Whereby link ready. The chair, first, invited us to a Microsoft Teams talk for the viva but the video bandwidth and the voice created some issues. Microsoft Teams did not work. We, then, tried Whereby which created some other issues. When we started to try the third option, it had already been half an hour, and I could not save myself thinking from that “The worst was about to happen, my viva was about to be postponed.”. The third option was Zoom and it worked! All trials were in just half an hour, but, for me, they took ages. I was happy that Zoom was working and only then I believed that the viva was happening.

All the process took about two and a half hours. The viva started with a common question which asked me to summarize my PhD work in a few sentences. I practiced this question many times before, and while answering the question, I felt like this is the first time that I am doing this. I said the aim of my thesis and summarized my studies one by one. Then, Gwen asked me some details about one of my studies, and I kept talking after this. This was the breaking point that I understand that it is the time to talk about the things I feel confident about. Yes, I was still nervous but despite this, I was able to answer a question, so why not answering the next question. The viva continued with questions coming from examiners one by one. Charles asked a question, I replied, he either asked for some explanation or said something like okay or alright, and let us pass to the next question. Then, Gwen asked a question, I replied, she (as Charles did) either asked a follow-up question for a clarification or said thank you or thanks, which means it is Charles’s turn to ask me a question. They continued asking questions about each of my chapters one after each other, until they feel like they had all the answers they needed. Questions of Charles were more about psychology and technology-related, while questions of Gwen focussed more on mathematics teaching and teacher education. I was surprised when I was asked by Gwen about why I did not add a paragraph on TPACK (technology, pedagogy and content knowledge) Framework to my literature. TPACK was my old friend that I used both in my MSc and MA theses as the main framework. Although I referred to TPACK papers including my own, I, only then, realised that I did not want to make this framework the focus of my PhD work. There might be an effect of my supervisor on this but the main reason probably was because there is the main model with four design principles (the RETA model, supporting realistic, exploratory, technology-enhanced and active learning) that I designed to make the focus of my work. After the last question, they asked me to leave the Zoom conversation, and after some time, the chair invited me back to the conversation with an email. I joined the conversation, and they explained that I am awarded to my PhD subject to typographical corrections to do in a month. They pronounced me Dr Ipek Saralar-Aras. I cannot explain how happy I was after I hear this, it was an incredibly awesome moment with a huge relief and proud. Just a tiny note to all PhD students, who are still in progress of writing a PhD thesis, this moment is really worth all the hard work.

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