Project background

As more Masters programmes are offered online, more students will have the experience of conducting a significant piece of independent research while at a distance from the University of Edinburgh. Student, programme and institutional success are at stake when students embark on the dissertation, and this project aimed to heighten our institutional ability to support ODL students through dissertation to completion of their Masters programme, by developing our understanding of the factors involved in successful completion of dissertations at a distance.

Before this project began, the project team’s experience of Masters supervision for ODL students was that ‘success’ can mean different things to different students, and that successful completion of the dissertation, while usually the primary desired outcome, is not the only measure of high quality student experience during dissertation. All of the ODL programmes involved in this study were aimed at working professionals, and as Anderson, Day and McLaughlin (2008) point out, ‘the orientation to the dissertation task of professionals pursuing a masters qualification cannot be easily predicted.’ (p.36). They identify intersecting ‘practice’, ‘academic research’ and ‘personal’ motivations influencing students’ orientation (p.39).

Previous work by the project team underpinned this project – including research into online students’ resilience (Ross et al. 2013), the meaning of place for online students (Bayne et al. 2013) in particular in relation to the dissertation (O’Shea & Dozier 2014), and teaching online (Ross et al. 2011).

The project’s aim was to learn how supervisor, student and programme practices can be seen to align with successful dissertation outcomes for online distance learners.

The objectives were to:

  • Understand how online distance learners experience the dissertation process.
  • Identify elements of programme and supervisor practice that positively impact on the dissertation process.
  • Develop an approach to mapping experiences of success on to dissertation-related data for online programmes.
  • Provide dissertation-related insights to online distance learning programme teams at the University of Edinburgh, supporting the development of innovations in dissertation curriculum and structures.
  • Create a web-based ‘success in the dissertation’ resource for online students.

The outputs and findings from this project will help us better support part-time, online students both in successful completion of the dissertation stage, and in achieving a high quality experience of the dissertation process. They will contribute to innovative practice at the University, and also to the literature in this area.


Anderson, C., Day, K. & McLaughlin, P., 2008. Student perspectives on the dissertation process in a masters degree concerned with professional practice. Studies in Continuing Education, 30(1), pp.33–49.

Bayne, S., Gallagher, M.S. & Lamb, J., 2013. Being “at” university: the social topologies of distance students. Higher Education, 66(3), pp.1–15.

O’Shea, C. & Dozier, M., 2014. “That ever-ephemeral sense of ‘being’ somewhere”: Reflections on a Dissertation Festival in Second Life. In C. DeCoursey & S. Garrett, eds. Teaching and Learning in Virtual Worlds. Oxford: Inter-Discplinary Press, pp. 159–189.

Ross, J. et al., 2011. Manifesto for Teaching Online. Available at:

Ross, J., Gallagher, M.S. & Macleod, H., 2013. Making distance visible: Assembling nearness in an online distance learning programme. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 14(4). Available at: [Accessed March 12, 2014].