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Satisfaction and relief were the predominant feelings after a remote defence

Otso Hannula had sensed the community’s presence during the public examination of their doctoral dissertation.
Otso Hannula väittelemässä tohtoriksi etäyhteydellä.
Otso Hannula defending their doctoral dissertation at home. / Photo: Merituuli Melkko

The coronavirus pandemic has forced us to look for many new solutions and procedures and one major change consists of organising the public examinations of doctoral dissertations through remote connections. Since the restrictions have become active, a total of twenty-six people have defended their dissertations remotely at Aalto University, and according to the latest information, another thirty-four defences will take place during this spring and summer. Otso Hannula defended their doctoral dissertation in the field of industrial engineering and management at the beginning of May, ‘It was quite a roller coaster’, says Hannula as they recount the move away from a traditional doctoral dissertation.

Many people have had to rethink the public examination of their doctoral dissertation, and the traditional post-doctoral party. There have, of course, been great disappointments because of this but it will soon be possible to organise events for 50 people again. ‘I have been working on my doctoral dissertation for a total of six years. The idea of the public event and getting on stage encouraged me to continue for the past few years’, says Hannula, ‘Fortunately, the professors and opponents offered me great support, and arrangements for the remote defence were made quickly’.

Otso Hannula etäväitöstilaisuudessaan tietokoneen ääressä.

A remote defence has its positive aspects

Hannula didn’t consider postponing the event, ‘Traditions are important to me, and it was a pity that the social dimension of the event was narrowed down. However, the planning of the defence was already at quite an advanced stage when the restrictions entered into force, and I didn’t want to postpone the event’, says Hannula.

One very positive aspect is that remote defences allow for much bigger audiences than would be possible for normal public examinations. When a defence is organised through remote connections, fellow researchers and friends can easily take part virtually even if they cannot attend the event in person. Minna Söderqvist, a senior expert at Aalto University (Development and Coordination of Doctoral Education, Learning Services), is also happy that a remote connection makes it possible for a wider scientific community to participate in an event.

Nearly one hundred people followed the defence to the end, and many of them congratulated Hannula through chat. In the end, approximately 20 people opened a video connection to pass on their congratulations. ‘It was really wonderful that so many people were able to follow the event remotely and stay for a chat after the official part ended’, Hannula adds.

Preparations are strikingly similar to normal situations

The goal is to keep the public examination as traditional as possible, so the guidelines are to dress formally, and the opponents’ activities do not deviate from any of the normal practices, and the doctoral candidates use the same phrases. ‘The event itself, feels like a public examination of a doctoral dissertation with the normal character traits and substance well transmitted through a remote connection. Even if the social aspects take second place, as you are not able to perform in front of your family members and celebrate with them’, Hannula describes a remote defence they followed at the beginning of April.

The dress rehearsal is also a great time to make sure that the digital connections work and that everything proceeds as it should. ‘I wasn’t nervous about the equipment or the connections as the IT support person was a great help during the dress rehearsal. They also monitored the actual dissertation and made sure that everything was in order’, Hannula explains.

Hannula also emphasises that it is important to agree on all matters in advance, including things that you would normally assume to be in order. For example, Hannula missed out on receiving a video recording of the event, as no one turned the recording on.

Although the event was not physical, I could feel the presence of my community and it was wonderful to share this moment with them.

Otso Hannula

After the defence, there was a great sense of relief

Hannula was relieved and satisfied after the public examination of their doctoral dissertation; everything went the way it was supposed to. When the character of the dissertation is very conventional and traditional, it is very much up to the individual how they feel about the remote defence. ‘I am personally very fond of certain traditions related to the public examination of a doctoral dissertation, but I feel that the remote defence sufficed, and I was very pleased. Although the event was not physical in nature, I could feel the presence of my community, and it was wonderful to share this important moment with them’.

Söderqvist stresses that, despite the exceptional circumstances, public examinations of doctoral dissertations are important and useful for the doctoral candidate, the university and the scientific community alike. She also encourages people to arrange their event through a remote connection: ‘I haven’t heard any negative comments on remote defences, but everything has to be carefully agreed on well in advance’.

The implementation of the defense didn’t pose any problems either, as the digital solutions and indeed, the entire format were very successful. However, Hannula suggests that the Custos should play a stronger role in facilitating the defence remotely; this way, the occasional awkward silences could be avoided. Söderqvist also emphasises that the doctoral candidate, the Custos and the opponent should have a copy of the event programme agreed in advance, ‘There is no need to reinvent the wheel, so it’s important to compare the remote defence to the normal situation, as many things remain the same’, says Hannula.

Hannula hopes that public examinations of doctoral dissertations could eventually be followed remotely, even after these exceptional circumstances are over. That way, many people who are unable to attend the event in person, would be able to participate through a remote connection, which would, of course, be wonderful. Söderqvist says that this idea has gained support, but no firm decisions have yet been made, ‘Let’s hope that in the future, a remote connection will be possible even in normal public examinations’, says Söderqvist.

Otso Hannula's doctoral dissertation Knowledge Co-creation in Design Games - Conversation Analysis of an Interorganizational Design Game Session can be viewed online: https://aaltodoc.aalto.fi/handle/123456789/43782

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