The University of Tartu held the first online PhD defence since 1632

On March 23 the Institute of Computer Science hosted the first-ever entirely online PhD defence at the University of Tartu when Adriano Augusto defended his thesis: „Accurate and efficient discovery of process models from event logs.

Two days before the Estonian government declared an emergency situation on March 12, Prof. Marlon Dumas, one of the supervisors of Adriano Augusto proposed to the Council of the Institute of Computer Science to approve this online defence. “The idea of a PhD defence having to be face-to-face is deeply ingrained in academic traditions and everyone was sceptical that the regulations allowed us to have an online defence. But it turned out that the regulations do not forbid it,” said Dumas.

According to Dumas, in a matter of hours after this decision, the conferencing room was set up in Zoom, official advertisements modified, all other bookings cancelled, and various tests made to ensure the defence would run smoothly. On that end, the online defence went smoothly. “We had 22 participants, including 11 members of the public. This is comparable to what we see in a traditional defence,” told Dumas.

“Difficult times push for adaptations that ultimately can bring great changes. I think this applies to our context, said Adriano Augusto who added that the online PhD defence was a great success both as a technical experiment and as a personal achievement. He stated that although it was a forced solution, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this opportunity should be made available to any PhD student because the time between the submission of a PhD thesis and the actual defence can span for months. A student is likely forced to travel back to the University just for a two-hour discussion. “This can be a great cost for a student both moneywise and timewise, which, as we showed, can be easily saved, added Augusto.”

Dumas added that people will always prefer face-to-face defences, but the taboo has now been broken of defences having to be face-to-face. After the crisis, we will see more opponents and committee members participating in defences online, and some fully online defences as well. "This will save a lot of time and money. We will also be able to have more top-level specialists from abroad as opponents because it's just more convenient,” told Dumas.