Today I am at a Supervising Dissertations at a Distance workshop, co-hosted by eLearning@ed and the Institute for Academic Development. The session is based on a research project and is being facilitated by Dr Jen Ross, Dr Philippa Sheail and Clara O’Shea.
As this is a liveblog the usual caveats apply – and corrections and comments are welcome.
Jen Ross (JR): This event came about from some research that myself, Phil and Clara have worked on looking at online distance learners going through the dissertation process at a distance. So we will talk a bit about this, but also we have an exciting new development that we’ll be showing off: a board game based on our research!
So, myself, Phil and Clara worked on this project, funded by the Principal’s Teaching Award Scheme, with our colleagues Sian Bayne, Erin Jackson and Gill Aitken.
This work was done with 4 online distance programmes – clinical education, clinical management of pain, digital education and law. We had 18 semi-structured interviews conducted with graduates almost all via Skype. We undertook thematic analysis of transcripts. We also had 3 focus workshops/conversations with supervisors which enabled us to trigger reflection on the interview data.
So, to start with I want to talk about the “campus imaginary”, after Taylor’s idea of the “imaginary”, and Goggin’s definition of shared beliefs and understandings (rather than imaginary imaginary). Drawing on these we came up with the idea of the “Campus imaginaries” – the shared understanding of the campus and the organisation for those not physically here. We have nick-named this “when it was good it was very very good, but when it was bad it was the internet”. Why? People had lovely things to say, but when they didn’t they often attributed this to being an online distance learner, even when describing quite common dissertation experiences.
For instance June talks about struggling with time to do her dissertation around full time work – she attributes this to being an online distance student. Eva felt she had a good experience but that the supervision wasn’t great, it was adequate but she felt that it could have been better. And she also attributed this to being a distance student.
Terry says: “If you are full time you can just pop in and see your supervisor, or you speak to his secretary and book an appointment to see him. I don’t think there is a limit for a full time student.” [this gets audible laughs in the room given the realities of supervision on and off campus]
Now, that is funny but it is also poinagnt. That imagined idea of the physical space isn’t helpful for Terry and his expectations around supervision, of the support and time available, and those perceived differences between (idealised) physical and distance experience.
Arnott, meanwhile had a poor experience with their supervisor and felt that maybe being able to talk face to face might have helped that.
Nieve didn’t complete the dissertation, exiting with diploma. She felt (in retrospect) that doing some of the degree online, and some on-campus would have helped her as she felt lonely during her dissertation, and wanted to have the opportunity to share experience with other dissertation students. But again we can recognise that as a concern of many on campus students too.
So the themes that came up here, specifically in relation to online distance dissertations are also very familiar: unexpected obstacles; issues with motivation; supervisory relationships; time and space to focus; isolation; doubt. I think we have to do better at being supervisors helping students to understand what they can expect, that they can talk to us about all of these things, that we can support them (and that we don’t have secretaries!)
Phil Sheail (PS): I’m going to talk about the sense of “hospitality at a distance” – of hosting each other as distance students and supervisors, in learning spaces that overlap with homes.
Ruitenberg (2011), drawing on Derrida, in a great paper called “The empty chair: education in an ethic of hospitality” in Philosophy of education. She talks about hospitality as a demand for openness to the arrival of something and someone we cannot forsee: a demand that is impossible to fulfil, but that confronts all of our decisions and actions…”
I think this concept is relevant as whilst I was doing interviews there were so many different students, from different backgrounds and cultures… and it forces us to question some of our ideas of hospitality and of being a good host. Ruitenberg also talks about the figure of the teacher in “at-home” education. And the ethics of the university, the spaces of education are not the teachers
Amplification – you have to amplify yourself to put across your normal sense of enthusiasm, and that works well online.
One of the other things I did on a project with support services – disability office, careers, etc. and that connects to this idea of hospitality, and very particularly the idea of arrival, of welcome. So, we’ve been thinking about
Q: For intermittent learners, students might be engaged in a programme that they started 6 years ago, and starting a dissertation in that context.
A: Well when you start dissertation you may have a supervisor that hasn’t taught you… And there can be a dependency in that relationship between student and supervisor which can be challenging…
Q: Some of our supervisors are not Edinburgh staff members but those from NGOs etc.
A (JR): That was the case with one of the programmes we looked at. There it’s almost a welcome for supervisors too, and what does that mean in terms of making a space for dissertation, and establishing that complex relationship.
A (PS): Even if you are away from the institution, your supervisor is in a hospital etc. it’s important that the University does welcome you, particularly if things go wrong in that relationship, so they know where else to turn.
Martin, a supervisor, talked about the importance of a good and deliberate welcome for students.
In the example you just gave, of students who take a long time… Some students have complex care requirements. June again comments that she had gone through marriage breakdown, family crisis, health issues, but that for her, the degree was actually useful as a consistent presence in her life.
Now we’ve talked about welcomes and being supportive… But not all students actually want that. Terry comments that he wasn’t keen for hand holding and wouldn’t be whether he was full time, part time or online. And we have to remember that not all students want the same thing here.
JR: So we are going to turn now to how we can think of other ways to imagine the campus, alternatives that make students welcome. And also around fostering connections and counteracting negative disconnections. So, over to Clara…
Clara O’Shea (COS): The Dissertation Festival is an idea that Marshall and I came up with and made happen. We started this in 2011 – so reading Jen and Phil’s work backwards into what we do. This idea came out of the experience of loneliness and disconnection which can take place as a student going through the dissertation. We wanted something to support students through the dissertation process.
So, we try to run this festival 6-8 weeks before dissertations are due (usually August) so the festival is generally in May/June. The festival runs in Second Life – so we meet in a virtual space with sunshine, beach, virtual champagne and sushi. And this is just to be welcoming, warm, to make students feel comfortable.
So, the idea is that students come into the space, they present their work – 2 or 3 in an hour or hour and a half period, usually somewhat themed to foster connections, allow sharing of resources, etc. We checked student availability but also tutor availability – and opened the sessions up to others on the programme, and those beyond the programme. Participants do their presentation on voice chat for about 15 minutes. Questions come in in text chat – the presenter may reply during the talk or afterwards, which we also help facilitate.
So, last year we had some sessions on game based learning, multimodality, etc. We also had some tutor and alumni sessions on academic writing, on surviving and thriving through the dissertation, and also literature hunting. All of these sessions are synchronous but they are also recorded. Those recordings and the sessions are also complimented by a wiki (on PBWorks) where comments, further information, etc. can be shared. Each student has a page on the wiki with video, transcript, etc. But they also played with other ways to articulate their idea… We have them write haikus – they hate writing them but then find them really useful. They also play with images as well.
We also have a new innovation since last year called “The Visualisations Gallery”. This is to encourage students towards multimodality… We had tutors, current students, alumni all sharing visual ways to imagine their research.
And, even if a visitor can’t access that wiki, you can leave comments in Second Life.
The dissertation festival gives students a few things. It gives students a touchstone when things are quiet, a way to stay connected with the community. Students not yet at dissertation stage have the opportunity to see what that looks like, how that works. We’ve had students making connections, reading over a draft for each other. It gives students a chance to touch base with other supervisors… Which means accessing other expertise, to fill the gaps, to suggest other content.
So, when Jen talked about campus imaginaries, I think maybe this gives an imaginary that is more realistic and helpful. Places like Second Life give a useful, shared delusion of the campus. We all experience that very differently depending on their own timezone, location, the version of software they are running… It’s an illusion we all buy into. But arguably that is the experience of being on campus anyway.
On a practical basis we move those virtual logs, we adapt the voice presentation to the speakers needs, etc. But every time people come into Second Life they bring in their home space – the sounds, the distractions – and share that. It makes that special overlapping space. The space changes every time anyone comes in and out, and the dialogic space that participants create. And I think that’s where hospitality fits in.
Q1: Can you say more about the interviewees – how many students, how many supervisors. I would like to know more about similarities or differences between supervisors and students.
A1 (JR): The interviewees were all students. The supervisors gave input through workshops, where they reflected and responded to student comments. Those haven’t been written up as quotes yet but inform our understanding here. One thing that struck me was that supervisors often also feel a sense of dislocation from supervisees… For instance maintenance of an authoritative supervisory role when you and the student are Skyping each other from home, you see the students kids running about, etc. And that giving those relationships a different character and nature perhaps.
Q2: For us the distance is often not as important about the fact that they are intermittant adn part time.
A2: That longer process does mean more can happen… Which can mean more likelihood to need to take an interruption of studies, and struggle to fit things in.
Q2: As a coordinator one of my challenges is managing supervisor expectations – that students don’t work full time for 10 months.
A2 (PS): Certainly some students took a while to get going… Changes in work or work priorities can impact on projects, especially work-based projects. One of our students had moved through 3 continents whilst doing their work.
A2 (COS): The festival can be useful for providing an additional deadline. Students often struggle to prioritise their own research over their work commitments etc. Students can also have unrealistic idea of their own – and their supervisors – availability during the dissertation process. When my students start we talk through those things that
A2 (PS): We did have students feeling they were out of sync with other students. In one programme regular Skype chats were available but being ahead or behind made that chat less useful… They got into this idea that only students at the same pace/stage can share. There was also that issue Clara mentioned about being unclear on how much time they could expect from supervisors, or how much they were allowed. More clarity there might help.
A2 (JR): One of the most interesting things for me was seeing the difference in practice between programmes. Some started at the same time, some were rolling… But no matter how rigid the system some students always went out of sync. It was interesting to see how many ways there are to organise a programme and a dissertation process, you can only organise so far.
Q3: Are there resources we can give supervisors meeting students for the first time that they haven’t taught before?
A3: We have a dissertation planner that is for students to adapt, to help them manage the process, to understand availability of students at a given time, etc. These are on the website too. So things like work commitments, times when supervisors are away…
Q3: That sounds more like its for students. What about supervisors.
A3: There are resources for PhD supervision but if you talk to Velda (IAD) she will be able to comment.
A3 (PS): I think for student services it is important to have routes for students to access them online. Careers, counselling, disability and chaplaincy all have some some of page for what they can do for online programmes now, and are looking at ways to offer services online. I had a student I spoke to in this research who had a horrible personal time, and she was surprised that counselling was never suggested
Comment (LC): There are resources you can embed in Learn for your courses that point to those support services.
Q4: Is 6-8 weeks really enough time for capturing the problems?
A4: I think it’s about right. We’ve tried later – and that’s too late. We’ve tried earlier but students get nervous about what they can present. It seems to be around 8 weeks is about right. And, if they aren’t ready at that point then students are in trouble and need to have conversations with supervisors. At that stage they can’t change methodologies though… But our research methods course ends with an assignment which is a proposal for research which triggers those sorts of theoretical and methodological conversations early, and raise any major concerns on timing etc.
JR: And now…. We will have a short break but then when we come back we will be playing Dissertation Situation: the board game based around our work! This is a primarily discussion based game.
So, the thing that is useful to know is that the scenarios in the game have come from data generated in this project. So these are real world problems (slightly fictionalised). They have happened, they are likely to happen again.
Cue board games…
Q1: We want an online version!
A1: We did talk about that – either to share and then print off, or to play online.
Comment: We should get students to play too!
Comment: I think that this would be really useful for supervisors, to know they are not alone, but also for students to understand what can arise.
Q2: I was also going to say that students should place. For us we didn’t get through the whole game in the time… And that was fine… But for me it wasn’t important to finish necessarily – that’s a game design thing perhaps, and a timing thing.
A2: I did some rough calculations… But it was guesswork.
PS: Any areas that weren’t useful for particular disciplines?
Comment: Yes, the data question doesn’t really apply to psychology in the same way, or for law. But literature related question on losing data would apply.
PS: One of things we were aware of was that some online distance learners wouldn’t have bandwidth – eg programmes with students in sub-Saharan Africa – to play this game online – or only a simple version. But actually a download version might work.
Comment: Would also be good to share this, or a list of scenarios to supervisors off-campus, not affiliated with the University.
Comment: I think it might be easier to get to students than supervisors…
Comment: And concerned it could be seen as patronising… But you could call it a simulation.
Comment: For new supervisors etc. you could set up a wiki with the questions, and have discussion there…
Comment: I think it would be interesting to know what potential there is for moderating, fact checking, or connecting this to other resources, things that new or outside supervisors just may not know are there. Some pragmatic solutions also potentially put a supervisor at some risk, or raise controversial issues, so knowing where to put those, flag those up… What to do next etc. would be great.
And with that we are done with a really interesting session. Huge thanks to Jen, Phil and Clara for this workshop. Do feel free to follow up with them about that game – it was a really useful tool for discussion.