Given the institutional directive that no in-person activity will continue as a result of COVID-19, there are now a new set of processes on how we will support master’s and doctoral students who are completing academic milestones remotely in the coming days, weeks and months.

This process document establishes common expectations and required practices for remote defences across all six faculties.  While the primary focus of this document is doctoral thesis defences, the principles apply to comprehensive exams and proposal defences. This document also provides guidance on technology support for all remote academic activities.

The overall intention of these processes is to ensure preservation of academic integrity in academic milestones, given the circumstances we are currently facing, while also providing options for students to complete their degrees as planned. 

Should you have any questions or concerns after reviewing the new process, please contact Jeff Casello, Associate Vice-President, Gradudate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs or Kirsten Müller, Assistant Vice-President, Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs.

Section 1: ­Processes leading up to and including the defence

1. How will the thesis be displayed?

The PhD thesis examination regulations detail the display period.  For the foreseeable future, theses will be provided in electronic format to members of the University community by request.  Requests must be emailed to the applicable Faculty Administrative Assistant who will send the electronic copy of the thesis using SendIt.  Restricted theses will not be available electronically.  No physical copy of the thesis is required.

Any student who wishes to reschedule their defence in light of the current situation will not be academically penalized for a withdrawal of their thesis. Students should consult their Faculty Associate Dean, Graduate Studies, to understand the implications of a delayed defence or other milestone.

2. What happens if there is a loss of connection by members of the examining committee? 

As per the defence regulations, the defence can proceed as long as the supervisor, external examiner and two other committee members are present and subject to the agreement of the candidate and supervisor.  The decision as to when to postpone the defence, if the technology fails, will be up to the Chair of the defence.

3. Who can attend the defence?

The candidate, the supervisor(s), members of the examining committee, the Chair, and technical support staff are essential participants that must attend the defence.  Additional external attendees are permitted to attend with the caveat that the progress of the defence will not be interrupted if their connection fails.  As per the PhD thesis examination regulations, recording of the thesis defence is not allowed, nor is the use of cell phones, cameras or any other recording devices unless used for the purposes of the examination presentation.

4. How will the Chairs receive their instructions?

Chairs will now receive the standard Chair package in electronic format from the Faculty Administrative Assistant that is coordinating the examination, one week prior to the defence. The Chair package will include the following: 1) Report of the Chair, 2) PhD Thesis Committee Composition, 3) PhD Thesis Examination Report, 4) External Examiner’s Report, 5) Committee Members’ Reports, 6) A guide to chairing a PhD thesis examination, 7) Processes for remote defences.

5. How will the Chair document the conduct of the examination?

Chairs will continue to document the conduct of the examination on the "Report of the Chair" form.  This form will be made available in Word format and/or in fillable .pdf so that defence Chairs can complete it electronically.

6. How will the Chair manage the in-camera deliberations?

Most remote defences will be supported through WebEx software which will allow all examining committee members to conduct these deliberations without the student being "present".  Instructions on how to manage this scenario are included in section 2, #5 of the subsequent “Technology support” section of this document.

7. How will the Chair document the examiners' decision on the examination?

Chairs will continue to document the decision of the examination on the "PhD Thesis Examination Report" and "Report of the Chair" forms.  These forms will be made available in Word format and/or in fillable .pdf so that defence Chairs can complete them electronically.

8. How will the Chair receive electronic signatures from participants?

In place of original or electronic signatures, the Faculty Administrative Assistant will verify by email that all committee members’ decisions on the outcome of the defence is accurately represented by the Chair.

9. How will the outcome of the defence, including conditions as appropriate, be communicated to the student, the committee and the Faculty?

Chairs will communicate the outcome of the defence orally to the student on behalf of the committee at the conclusion of the in-camera deliberations (see section 2, #5 – other technical information).  Chairs will continue to document in writing the outcome of the defence, including conditions as appropriate, on the "PhD Thesis Examination Report" and "Report of the Chair" forms.  These forms shall be sent to the Faculty Administrative Assistant. 

10. Feedback to student regarding changes to dissertation

The supervisor(s) will set up a time within three days to discuss in more detail the changes (if necessary) to the dissertation and the process by which the changes will be vetted, as per the comments from committee members.

Section 2: ­Technology support for remote defences

1. Who will be offering technical support?

The majority of Faculties will support their remote defenses internally.  Below is an example of the type of support provided by IST, which serves as a template for the process of technical support in general.  Please contact the Faculty Administrative Assistant to obtain Faculty specific procedures for internally supported defenses.

2. How will the Faculty engage IST?

The Faculty Administrative Assistant will inform IST of the defense.  IST relies on the Faculty Administrative Assistant to be the liaison and sole contact between IST and the participants, including providing their contact information to IST, booking a time for testing, passing along necessary information, etc.

The Faculty Administrative Assistant requests WebEx thesis support (email: rt-ist-itms-collab@rt.uwaterloo.ca) ideally at least 2 weeks1 in advance, including the following information:

  • Faculty Adminstrative Assistant: name, department, Faculty
  • Date and time of defence
  • For each key participant (Chair, Candidate, Examining committee members, others as deemed necessary by the Faculty):
    • name, 8-character UW username (fr UW participants), email address
  • Date and time that key participants can take part in a test (test should be held at minimum 3 days before defence)

IST support staff will generate a WebEx meeting – a virtual platform through which all defence participants will connect and act as “master of ceremonies” during the event (assuming availability of trained staff).

The link for remote participation will be sent by IST to the student, supervisor(s), committee members and the Chair along with instructions about how to connect for the test and for the defence event. 

The IST email will also include a list of the equipment necessary to participate and will be sent not later than 3 days before the examination. This typically includes:

  • A webcam/microphone and speakers/headphones. Those built into a laptop can be used.
  • Hard-wired network connection for best quality and reliability.  Wi-Fi can be used but may be unreliable for live video.  Other users of the same Wi-Fi should be asked to refrain from heavy uses such as video streaming during the defence.
  • A compliant web browser.

The candidate will rehearse the sharing process during a test and will also be sent additional instructions on how to share their slides, application, or screen (as appropriate) so others can view their presentation.

It is recommended that students email their defence presentation to their supervisor prior to the defence as a backup, should it be needed.

3. What should the test of the technology prior to the defence entail?

IST and the Faculty Administrative Assistant will facilitate the test for key participants. The Faculty Administrative Assistant will establish a date and time for key participants to do a test of the technology.  At a minimum, the test must include the Chair and the candidate; it is preferred that the supervisor(s) also participate. During the test the participants will practice how to present (candidate) and how the Chair confirms that those who need to “leave the room” as required for the committee to deliberate, have done so.

4. What support will be available during the examination?

During the defence, IST will have a support person engaged on the WebEx platform.  If a need arises, the IST support person will provide technical support in a timely way.  Contact information for tech support will be provided to all participants, this will typically be the “host” of the virtual connection.

In the case of a disruption to the virtual connection, the Chair will determine if the examination needs to break in order to work out technical issues – and will connect with the IST support person.  If the examination cannot proceed because of technological issues, the Chair will conclude the examination, and provide a record that the examination was not able to proceed.  This information will be provided to the Graduate Studies Office in the candidate’s home Faculty and a new defence will be scheduled.

If participants have questions leading up to the defence, they should go through the Faculty Administrative Assistant.

5. Other technical information

Prior to the in-camera deliberations portion of the examination, the “host” of the defence (e.g. IST) will need to have the candidate and any non-essential participants “moved to the lobby” in WebEx.  This will ensure that the candidate and any non-essential participants cannot hear or see this portion of the examination.  The Chair will need to verify that only examining committee members are present during the deliberations.  When the deliberations are complete, the candidate will be able to rejoin the examination (i.e., the host will move them back to the meeting).

It is recommended that all participants mute their microphones while they are not speaking or while the student is presenting to prevent disruptions, feedback or additional sounds.

Examining committee members are encouraged to use their video cameras throughout the entire defence unless instructed to turn off the camera by technical support staff or the Chair of the defence. In the latter case, examiners should only turn their cameras on while speaking.

Participants will be provided with a toll-free number to call in the case that their connection is lost. When connected through this number they will be able to hear the meeting proceedings.

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