Tag Archives: network

Using Skype for research supervision

Fiona3

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.

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Connections

Connections

One of the really good things about being a writer is that there is a written record of your ideas. I was watching a video clip this morning on the Professorial lecture by Linda Creanor at GCU and I was struck in her short review of “Learning and Technology – evolution or revolution” how far we have come. In a book that I co-wrote about ten years ago called “The Connecticon: learning for the connected generation” we explored the enhanced ability of using digital networks to connect with people and share ideas. We called this “hyper-interactivity” and though “social networks” were not really on the radar to the same scale as today – networks certainly were. It’s the inter-activity that stimulates learning. I think there is a fundamental difference between talking about a “networked generation” versus “digital natives”. We are all able to join the “networked generation” (even if we are ‘the older generation’ 🙂 ) but the idea that people are dropping out of the womb with an in-built ability to use digital networks effectively just does not stack up. I liked Linda’s mention of the use of “animateurs” to facilitate connectivity in digital networks (I was a big advocate of animateurs in the early 1990’s and trained many), and I also liked her comments on the changing perceptions of MOOCs and how they might interact with the institution. One of the criticisms sometimes levelled against digital resources is that they have a short shelf-life and the link is liable to vanish – but you know what, the same is true of the “traditional” printed media! Publishers normally run very limited print-runs of books these days, and as a result even some very good books go out of print very quickly. Unlike old library books, which seem to be pulped or sent to second-hand stores, the digital artefact has the ability to be permanently archived and permanently accessible, even if just for historical comparison. Check out Linda’s lecture here
http://www.spokenword.ac.uk/record_view.php?pbd=gcu-a0b2x4-a&of=embed

To travel or not…

To travel or not...

Last week I spent a few days in Northern Ireland. Or, to be accurate, I spent a whole day getting there, a whole day getting back, and a day at a conference in Fermanagh. Considering that my own presentation was 15 minutes long, it is highly questionable the value of my effort. There were no questions after any of the presentations, and though I got several comments and connections in the coffee-break, and over dinner, there was nothing that I couldn’t have answered equally easily by email. So why did I not do the presentation by videoconference? Or even via a pre-recorded DVD? To be honest, it would have been a lot easier, and just as useful – except that many/most organisations are not really geared up to handle vc. In the UHI we are spoiled by the ease and frequency of use, but this is the exception. There is still an unfamiliarity, both in terms of technical competence and etiquette, among organisations that network. They should know better. It is a traditional activity of academics to attend conference, to share ideas and to network, but unfortunately there is usually a better quality of networking in the bar, the cafe, and the meal-times than in most conference sessions. I like travel, in general, but I am getting MUCH more cynical about the value and efficiency of most academic conferences.

Faculty Conference

At the end of the week, we had a couple of days for a faculty conference. Since the UHI activities are scattered around 13 academic partners (colleges and research centres) across a huge area of northern Scotland, we don’t get together face-to-face very often. This was a great event. In this image, our Acting Principal is giving us his vision of the immediate future of the university – unlike a lot of “corporate speak” he made a lot of sense. I particularly liked his encouragement to ‘think the unthinkable’ and embrace the new challenges of digital, networked education. In many ways the UHI is at the forefront of good practice – not just good theory, but actually walking the talk – but the world is not standing still. We need to seriously think how we can improve the consistency and the innovation in what we do – and to realise that standing still is not an option. When we embrace the future, we need to make sure that we influence the direction of travel, not get dragged along by the current. Fortunately there are a few good people who don’t mind sticking their head above the parapet and just get on with things. There were some really good conversations at this conference – now we just need to put some of the better ideas into practice.

Networking

Networking

I had several interesting conversations today, all revolving around networks and learning. One of my PhD students made an excellent submission on e-learning, but (I think) pulled her punches on a critique of Connectivism because she assumed that I am an advocate of this. Despite being a supervisor for George Siemens PhD, I am rather agnostic on Connectivism as an educational phenomenon. I know it may seem heretical to some of my colleagues, but I think that Connectivism, though very plausible, just lacks that final … well… connection! In a book several years ago, Robin Mason and I tried to capture the workings of networked, connected learning in a book called “The Connecticon”… it was perhaps rather presumptious for its time, but we thought (and I still do) that the process of online learning can be broken down to three basic levels… 1) the digital, computer-hosted resources; 2) the network and infrastructure of the internet that can link these resources at great speed ( we called this hyper-interactivity); and 3) the humans at each end of the network connections, who absorb, process, and act upon these transmitted resources. They (the humans) will act differently according to their abilities, experience, and cognitive capacities. This (to a large extent) is the basis of situated learning and of social constructivism. Responses in less than 100 words on the blog reply please! 🙂

UC Dublin

UC Dublin

Just back from a couple of days at University College Dublin where I was an external on an interview panel for a new member of senior academic staff. Two things struck me as I compared UCD with the UHI. Firstly, that UHI is currently so far ahead of UCD in e-learning terms, both conceptually and in practice, although they are doing some interesting things and are keen to embrace new practices. Secondly, how well co-ordinated they seem to be across the university, in comparison with the UHI. We have sites of duplication that don’t even speak to each other; several academic partners that claim to be the ‘lead centre for X’ although there is no attempt to link up similar work across the UHI and attain a critical mass. Surely the time has come when we can set aside inter-college rivalries and establish something bigger and better than the sum of the parts? There are some great examples of collaboration and innovation at the UHI and some real blind spots…. Let’s hope that 2014 sees us getting to grips with some of the latter!

Supervising

Supervising

Most of today was spent reading through various chapters of several PhD students – checking the arguments and suggesting changes to writing styles. I *really* like working with the UHI PhD students, they are so enthusiastic and the standard of their work is as good or better than any other university that I have visited. I like to get to grips with the details of their projects, and to encourage them to go that little bit further with their ideas! I think the distributed nature of the UHI offer makes supervision that bit more interesting, and I would like to see a bit more inter-college supervision panels in the next year or two as we gear up to Research Degree Awarding Powers (rDAP).