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        Graduate Programs

        Harbert International Student Completes Unique “Virtual” Ph.D.

        April 19, 2022 By Michael Ares

        All News

        Innovative approach expands visibility, reputation of Harbert’s world class graduate programs

        David Paradice is the Harbert Eminent Scholar in Information Systems and Analytics at the Harbert College of Business.


        Valentin Kammerlohr

        Valentin Kammerlohr

        Dieter Uckelmann

        Dieter Uckelmann

        When Valentin Kammerlohr, a graduate of Stuttgart Technology University of Applied Sciences in Germany, wanted to earn a Ph.D. focused on the viability of virtual labs like the one he worked for at Stuttgart Technology, he faced a dilemma not uncommon in his native Germany. The German higher education system has strict limitations regarding which institutions are allowed to offer graduate degrees, and Stuttgart Technology isn’t one of them.

        Enter Dieter Uckelmann, Professor of Information Logistics at Stuttgart Technology and an Affiliate Faculty member at Auburn University’s Harbert College of Business. Dieter reached out to Bill Hardgrave, former Dean of Harbert and current Provost for Auburn University, to see if Auburn might be willing to help. One thing led to another, and now Valentin is about to receive his Ph.D. from Harbert thanks to an innovative approach led by David Paradice, Eminent Scholar in Information Systems and Analytics at the Harbert College of Business.

        Harbert recently sat down with David to find out more about Valentin’s accomplishment, the innovative approach to earning a doctoral degree David helped create and what it means to advancing the global reputation of Auburn’s Harbert College of Business.


        Harbert:   Let’s get a few basics down here – Valentin’s Ph.D. was accomplished entirely virtually, right? He has never stepped foot on Auburn’s campus, and yet he has fulfilled all the requirements of a traditional Ph.D. from Harbert.

        That’s correct. And he did it in less time than a traditional Ph.D. typically takes, while meeting every one of the rigorous requirements all Harbert Ph.D. candidates must fulfill – all of the competency exams, all of the coursework, all of the hour requirements – everything had to be met. There were no corners cut when it comes to meeting all of the qualifications.

        Harbert:   How was that possible? Harbert doesn’t have a “virtual” Ph.D. program and isn’t planning to introduce one anytime soon.
        David: Yes, this really was a special case, which speaks to the willingness of Harbert and the university itself to respond to the unique circumstances imposed on all institutions of higher education in light of the pandemic. While this wasn’t a pandemic-induced decision, the work Harbert did to quickly move its curriculum to a distance learning model certainly played a key role in making this possible.
        Harbert:   Please explain. How did Harbert’s success in pivoting to a virtual education delivery model help fuel this unique set of circumstances? And was there anything else about the pandemic that impacted his work?

        The primary impact of the pandemic – a positive one in this case, although I hesitate to use the term “positive” – was all the effort Harbert faculty and administrators put in to create online versions of our curriculum two years ago. Valentin benefitted from the fact that all the coursework and resources required for a Ph.D. from Auburn were available in a virtual format.

        Importantly, since I was on an administrative leave at the time, I was available to teach two seminars when they normally would not have been taught., I really enjoy working with doctoral students, so I embraced the opportunity to teach Valentin in a one-on-one mode while I was pursuing the other goals I had during my leave. In addition, the Graduate School worked closely with me to accommodate Valentin’s situation and support our effort.  

        But perhaps more critical was Valentin’s situation in Germany, which imposed a strict lockdown when the pandemic hit. And when you are locked down in Germany, you can’t go anywhere, you can’t do anything but sit in your home. So, that allowed Valentin to double up on his coursework. Normally, the coursework for a Ph.D. student at Auburn is completed in a couple of years, and he pretty much got it all done in a little over one year, including passing all of his exams.

        Harbert:   Let’s talk about Valentin’s dissertation, entitled “Three Studies of Shared Digital Labs: The Role of Trust in Business and Maturity Model Development.”

        As mentioned earlier, Valentin was already working in a shared lab space in Stuttgart, and he was interested in how to make these types of initiatives more sustainable in the long run. You see, most of these labs are stood up because somebody secured funding for a set period of time, and as soon as that funding ends, they typically fall apart. So, we shaped his dissertation around solving the challenge: what is a sustainable business model for long term shared lab success?

        He wrote three papers for his Ph.D., what we call a three-paper dissertation. He had already done a lot of work on the first paper, entitled “A Multi-Sided Platform to Activate the Sharing of Digital Labs.” So, we decided that the second paper should focus on a core foundational concept he’d identified: the role of “trust” in the shared lab creation and viability process. He did a deep dive into the literature of what trust is and how technology affects trust or changes trust relationships. That paper is entitled “Interpersonal and Technology-based Trust Research: Gaps and Opportunities for Research and Practice.”

        And then for his third paper, he did a deep literature review on which specific factors would make a shared lab a sustainable environment – usability, critical relationships, the right types of capabilities, funding requirements, etc. He interviewed half a dozen experts – people who operate these kinds of labs in Europe – developing what we call a “maturity model.” He then tweaked that model by conducting several case studies. He developed use cases built around his revised model and talked with some more experts. He then pulled all that research and analysis together, wrote his dissertation and defended it on April 1st.


        This was a virtual defense, right?

        David: Yes, everything he's done has been virtual, including his dissertation defense.

        The success of this process, this experiment, begs the question: Where does this virtual approach fit into plans for Harbert’s Ph.D. programs going forward?


        I’m not sure it changes the way we approach potential Ph.D. candidates or award an Auburn Ph.D. at all. While Valentine’s Ph.D. is a phenomenal example of both his dedication and our willingness to adapt to unique challenges and physical location circumstances, I’m not convinced it is a preferred approach to doctoral level education.

        I personally don't see any downside from doing it for Auburn, but I do see a downside for the student not being here daily, interacting with faculty, collaborating with the other doctoral students. There's a lot of learning that goes on outside of a classroom among doctoral students in a cohort and among faculty. So, I don't think it's the best approach for the typical Ph.D. student.

        That said, what I will probably do is talk with the dean of the Graduate School after this is all said and done, and say, "Okay, here's the positives, here's the negatives." I mean, we've proven it's feasible. The work he’s done is excellent work. His first paper has already been published, and we're working on the second paper to get it ready to be published. The third paper has received a positive review at a major academic journal in Europe and we’re working on it to address the editor’s concerns.


        Any final thoughts you’d care to share? A key point you’d like emphasize?


        Just one, really, and that would be how impactful this single student’s success can be in elevating Auburn’s visibility and the reputation of the Harbert College of Business on the global stage. We have a tremendous curriculum and a virtual lab of our own. The more prospective students, potential faculty and prospective partners in the global business world recognize and appreciate all that we’re doing here, the better.