Over the past few years my colleagues and I have been experimenting with the use of videoconferencing for conducting tutorial discussions with PhD students. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, in a geographically distributed institution like the University of the Highlands and Islands, we are not all conveniently located in the same building, or even the same part of the country. Both staff and students who are participating in the tutorial might be at widely dispersed locations and may rarely meet face-to-face. It used to be the presumption in most universities that the research student would be based in a room just along the corridor, or somewhere convenient within the department, convenient that is for the main supervisor. With the increasing number of part-time research students and the benefits of communications technology, I would argue that this is no longer necessary, and possibly no longer even desirable.
The advantages of using videoconferencing are several, whether it is the high-definition system which the UHI is available at the UHI, or the quick-and-easy Jabber connections for less formal meetings. The use of Skype and Facetime is also common, and can be extended into non-work activities. Firstly, although it is not always imperative to see the person to whom you are talking, the ability to see facial cues does give an extra quality that is not available in simple telephone conversations. In the same way that co-location in the same room allows speakers to see the body-language of their audience, the video presence enables participants to see their colleagues smile, nod their head in agreement, or simply watch their eyes glaze over! I have found this very useful to observe when people actually realise when I am joking and when I am not!
Secondly, probably the most convenient advantage of vc is the ability to connect people from almost anywhere. A regular meeting between the main supervisor and the research student at a distant location can be joined by another supervisor at a third location. This provides the best opportunities for networked support, regardless of where the expertise is based. Meetings can be a highly structured discussion with a formal agenda, or a quick, ten-minute focus on a specific point of deliberation. The participants can join from home, or work, or even from the field, and the media is sufficiently simple and easy-to-use that even short, ad hoc, meetings to discuss the wording of a single paragraph, can be arranged at the drop of a hat.
Thirdly, most video communications services have the ability to record the meeting. This is probably not going to be very useful on every occasion, but for key presentations, or for intense sessions of very complex discussions, the participants have the advantage of being able to replay the meeting, analyse the dialogue, and take notes at their convenience.
In many institutions, whatever the official rhetoric, the contact time between the research students and the main supervisors can be precious little, not to say sporadic. The ability to video-link with the supervision team at prearranged times, wherever they are in the world, is a great tool to give meaningful and networked support to the research student, and to provide quality time when it is most needed.