Supervision at a distance

Increasingly, services which we used to consider could only be delivered face-to-face, are being offered through online media. Supervision of research students is no exception to this trend, and although there is a belief among some supervisors that the PhD student needs to be “just along the corridor” from the supervisors, really this is more for the comfort of the supervisor than the student! In fact, with some aspects of the work of post graduate research students, there is an argument that the student can get more attention, and perhaps better attention, by combining face-to-face with online opportunities. In my work, a recurrent question is, “How can I do this activity with a student who is at a distance”? In some cases it might simply be making use of video-conferencing software, such as Skype, to have an in-depth discussion; in other instances the student can be referred to a host of useful online resources to enhance their skills and knowledge.

In my experience, almost every instance of thinking through the issue of how a face-to-face educational experience can be moved (at least partially) online, means that the re-thinking process strengthens the pedagogy and the educational rationale. In part, this may be because we are fundamentally re-thinking about what is really essential in the educational activity itself (as opposed to how the ‘lesson’ we deliver has evolved away from what we initially started with). On the other hand, experience tells us that there is more than one way of learning/teaching a subject, so adding various online educational resources might be considered simply extending the tool-kit that we have at our disposal, and that we are prepared to share with the student.

A helpful online resource when getting started on a PhD is http://www.findaphd.com as this combines a number of useful resources and networks. Obviously, it can be used to find a PhD position which the prospective student might apply for, but it goes way beyond this. Details of funding opportunities and different types of PhD offers can be viewed and compared. There are sections on the “nuts and bolts” of what constitutes a PhD, as well as advice on how to cope with the most common difficulties, or suggestions of help from a variety of sources – including other PhD students. An interested surfer can browse through the PhD opportunities that are currently on offer, compare the details, and even contact the proposed supervisors in a variety of countries for more information on their research proposal. Most importantly, the surfer can access this information at their own convenience rather than travelling for an hour to ask a question that requires a three-minute answer. For these reasons, I make a point of investigating new online opportunities for each teaching and research activity that crosses my path.

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