Tag Archives: e-learning

Where to start reading?

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I was discussing this topic with a couple of students at the UHI Post-graduate research students’ conference this week. It sounds like a trick question, but in the same way that a long walk, or a marathon, begins with the first step, so does the literature review begin with the first academic paper that the student reads. Normally, when starting out, the supervisor will direct the research student to three or four good papers which are especially relevant to the research topic under consideration. The student will read these, take notes, and then turn to the reference list at the end. As a guiding rule, the researcher should follow-up any and all of the references cited in the text of the paper which are in any way interesting, challenging, or crucial to the argument being made. From these first few papers, the research student will possibly discover half-a-dozen or more references in each paper which need to be read. At this level of study there is an expectation that if the researcher is going to quote anything, or even make a reference to previous academic work in context, they really need to have read the original article. It is not enough to say, “As was noted (Bloggs in Somebodyelse, 2015) it is clear that…” because it may be that the way that Somebodyelse used the idea(s) of Bloggs was wrong, or not how Bloggs intended that data to be used. There is always the danger of misinterpretation. The student needs to reach their own understanding.

So, over a period of time, the student will read a lot of academic articles, track down the evidence which is cited in these articles, then read these follow-up articles too. And so on. From an initial 3 or 4 papers, the lines of follow-up investigation spread out like the roots of a tree. One of the signs that will tell the student when they are coming to the end of their required reading, is when they start to see the same papers starting to crop up again and again. There will undoubtedly be some blind alleys, when the reading slips off in one particular direction or another which is not really useful to the current research project. It might be because the papers referred to are old and the knowledge has been surpassed in later years (this will vary between subject areas, such as fast-moving subjects in science, computing, or e-learning). In some subjects it will be necessary to reference much older publications, either because they set a marker in the development of the subject, or because you want to contrast them with contemporary methods and disciplinary thinking).

Another good idea is to visit the college library collection of previous PhD dissertations for a similar or related subject area. My preference is to search the online index of theses to which my university subscribes. This gives me access to every PhD abstract that has been produced in the UK, and an opportunity to order a copy if I find a particularly interesting match. The object of seeking out a similar PhD is not simply to read about the subject area (which you will extend and surpass anyway) but also to get a feel for the structure of the PhD dissertation, and to get a fast-track on the references that have been used to provide the evidence for this thesis. In the old days, people used to talk about students “reading for a degree in X” rather than studying it, and it is certainly true that the more effort that is initially spent on reading the background and the latest information on the subject, the better placed the student will be to make informed decisions when they begin to gather research data.

Using Skype for research supervision

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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.

The work ahead

There are two key considerations that apply to any student, whatever their mode of study, and it is imperative that the supervisory team make these clear from the outset. Firstly, it needs to be understood and emphasised, by both student and staff, that the research project belongs to the student; only s/he can make a success of this. The supervisors should provide initial direction, and will offer constant advice and reinforcement throughout the period of study, but the important decisions – for better or worse – need to be made by the student. It is the student who will need to advocate and defend the thesis, and who will reap the rewards.

Secondly, the supervisors need to provide for an appropriate induction for the new student as soon as they start working. No matter how smart and self-confident a new student might be, it is wrong to assume that s/he will just “pick things up” as they go along. Whether it is the simple matter of making introductions to co-workers, or the more complex business of learning specific research methods and IT technical skills, a common-sense approach dictates that the supervisors should assume a zero baseline of experience until proven otherwise. Research has clearly shown the benefits of a good induction for students starting on undergraduate courses, and it makes no sense to assume that it would be otherwise for postgraduate research students. In fact, it is very likely that the research students will soon begin to overtake the supervisors, both in the details of their specific research methodology and also, going on current trends, in their adoption and use of new digital applications such as social media services.

For these reasons, it makes sense to have an online, or at least a digital, version of the skill-set and supporting resources that will be issued to research students at their induction. No matter how good your memory is, or how copious your note-taking, there are a lot of new things to remember and the new research student is unlikely to remember them all accurately. Nor do the need to. An online repository of relevant information, either on the institutional intranet, or on the open internet, immediately allows users different levels of access. Slow learners can re-read and re-visit the information at a later date; all learners can visit the information for revision, or when the need-to-know becomes necessary; and fast learners can delve into layers of additional information – the extras that are nice-to-know in greater depth than can normally be covered in tutorial sessions.

Another important point in favour of compiling a suite of resources online is that the very act of being required to think through all the possible situations and resources that might be needed by the research students tends to mean that a comprehensive resource can be built up. The need to prepare in advance for an asynchronous reader at a geographically distant location, rather than photocopying last minute, ad hoc guidance to be handed out in a classroom, generally results in a better designed set of resources. Of course, an additional beauty is that these resources can be updated easily and that they are available 24-7, unlike any supervisor that I know!

The new research student

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1.1 The suitability of the research student

What sort of person makes the best PhD student? What characteristics and attributes should a supervisor look for? Fortunately there is no blueprint. Each and every student is different, but there are some common attributes. Obviously, every supervisor hopes for the perfect student, who will be meticulous, self-motivated, well-disciplined, and a competent all-rounder! The reality is that most students who make it as far as being registered for a research degree will have all of these attributes in some measure. Their levels of competence and performance will vary throughout their period of study, and part of the job of a supervisor is to moderate, encourage, and develop these competencies, and perhaps to add a few more skills as the need occurs. The journey of the PhD research student is essentially and fundamentally a voyage of transformation of the student. The person who successfully completes a PhD is really a different person from the one who began; more confident, more skilled, more competent, with a fundamentally changed outlook on their own professional abilities.

In the old days, it was felt that the only way the student could acquire this change of state was for the student to inhabit the same environment as the professor. Not in the same room, of course, but certainly living within shouting distance. What really intrigues me in contemporary academia, is the ability to utilise a wide range of digital technology to narrow the conceptual distance between a supervisor on campus, and a research student at a distance. We frequently take for granted the diversity and sophistication of the digital technology within our easy reach. From ‘simple’ e-mail and Skype, to more complex social media and file-sharing protocols, there is a range of digital tools that, while they have not been specifically designed for academics, are amply suited, with perhaps minor adaptations, to the intimate world of research student supervision.

Traditionally, one, or perhaps two, academics would get together to think about a burning research question that interested them. They would seek funding to cover the costs of employing a student, meet the need of associated costs such as tuition fees, library and IT resources, possibly field work, and so on. Then they would advertise, interview, and appoint a research student, who would come to work full-time under their instruction, usually for around three years, until the student completed writing up and defending a research thesis that (usually) supported and was an extension of the life-work of the main supervisor.

This is still a common model, but fortunately the flexibility and innovation that has evolved at all levels of progressive education, has resulted in a wide range of new study options. It is increasingly frequent for research students to be self-funded, and studying part-time. These students will normally be working – fees and other bills have to be paid – and they may also have family responsibilities – the care of young children or elderly parents – that would make full-time study impossible. On the other hand, what they lose from the energy and momentum of working full-time on an absorbing research project can be made up for by increased time-span for reading, cogitation, and gathering data.

Online education

I appeared on Fred MacAulay’s programme on BBC Radio Scotland yesterday, talking about online education. The clip is at the end of this piece if you want to listen to it. (It only lasts ten minutes or so). As is often the case with TV and radio media, the content tends to be fairly superficial and fast-changing in order to appeal to the widest range of listeners, but the advantage is that there are a LOT of listeners! In a way, it is interesting how the comments on “degrees by post” or “get a degree without getting out of your pajamas” has given way to a serious radio discussion among a whole range of other items which are simply taken as ‘part of life’.http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b052my7v

More on getting started

The highly flexible nature of the internet means that websites appear and disappear every day. Thanks to Donald MacLean for reminding me that another currently popular university-managed site containing useful resources for prospective PhD students is http://cloudworks.ac.uk/

This is a freely-available, open-access site, although you will need to register to obtain access. Once you have entered the site, search for “PhD” to find a link to “research skills required by PhD students”. The supporting text has short articles on a wide range of issues such as what is meant by ‘critical thinking’, how to select and justify your research methods, and tips on how to organise and present your work so that other people can appreciate your work.
Like all of these sites, this one will not answer all of your questions, but it does contain different perspectives and useful information from people who have a lot of experience. When you are just starting out on your PhD research, not all of this advice will seem equally relevant. It makes good sense, however, to familiarise yourself with the variety of information on the site, and bookmark the URL, because you might want to return to these topics later in your studies as these issues take on a new relevance. This advice also applies to the supervisor, because you might wish to direct your student to read the advice which will reinforce (or give a different perspective to) guidance that you give to students in tutorial sessions.

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.