In some aspects, online supervision and mentoring differs from supervision and mentoring through face-to-face meetings and discussions while they are not different at all in other respects. There is still a shared responsibility – to develop new knowledge, to make an original contribution, and to have pride in the quality of the outcome among the two. It might seem that these three are responsibilities of the student alone – but, as a supervisor, I want to be the recipient of new knowledge that adds to my understanding; I want to be sure that there is an original contribution arising from the study; and I want to be as proud of the result as the student is.
Supervision and mentoring is a journey for both the student and supervisor. When embarking on a student supervision, orientation - moving students into the role - is just as feasible online as it is face-to-face. Discussing and clarifying expectations - for both parties, and how time will be managed - become more crucial concerns. It is important that meetings are physically possible for both parties, that access and use of technologies can support the supervisory process, notably on how to monitor progress. For example, using a Gantt chart of estimated monthly actions and events across the supervision period, created by the student, discussed and updated as appropriate, can be particularly useful.
Engagement may need more focus when meetings and discussions are held online. It is very easy for the distance between individuals to decrease communication, for things to remain unsaid, and for misunderstandings to happen. Interest, openness, and trust will still need to be built. Shared understanding, mutual shaping, and supporting positively can become all the more important because of the physical divide. Video conferencing and email can support these approaches; but we may need to be aware that what we say can sometimes be perceived as more definitive than that in a face-to-face environment.
A constructive approach is important in an online environment, to avoid social and emotional distance. Offering ways to address issues as well as highlighting weaknesses becomes an important and necessary balance. In the online environment, it is important to ‘read’ the needs of students, through discussing ideas and suggestions, exploring positive and formative ways to address problems, and agreeing on what priorities to take. A balance of elements might be needed to positively support shared understanding and trust.
Discussions in meetings can provide for ‘cognitive elements’ to those concerned with the study focus and content but the ‘motivational elements’ concerned with engagement and encouragement, and the ‘social elements’ concerned with agreed ways to work and interact, can also enhance engagement. Continuing a short exchange after meetings may be useful and following up soon afterwards via email to check clarity of points, for follow-up questions or queries, can be reassuring that would develop trust for both parties.
Expectations need to be managed through online meetings and discussions. An online environment still enables discussion about expectations. Perhaps using techniques that others have adopted for example, through the use of a shared agreement or code of conduct, such as those from Otago University, New Zealand (2017) or from Stracke and Kumar’s research (2020).
Planning for online working becomes more critical. Agreeing a possible longer-term plan is important so that timelines can be seen in advance and what is likely to happen each month is known. The focus of online meetings and discussions can then be set-up in advance. A plan also highlights when a shift of regularity might be needed offering more support at the outset, during analysis, or at the end of a study. Identifying those critical points might highlight when to plan for key meetings when the student is working on proposal writing, considering theoretical backgrounds, methodology and methods, undertaking data analysis, drafting a thesis or dissertation, and finalising it.
A shift in student independence can also be planned and monitored starting with more open discussion through to the student being able to argue their case. Shifts in presentation and self-reliance can also be handled through online environments from a focus of reliance more on you as the supervisor, then with peers, and finally with externals. This can also affect shifts in the role the supervisor takes initially as a tutor offering ideas, sources, ways of working to a facilitator being accessible as needed (within reason) and to a counsellor picking up on raised concerns about issues and challenges.
Forms of feedback can be supported in an online environment. Verbal feedback through meetings can be important for some students, and having a recording of that meeting can allow them to go back to points that have been raised. But it is also possible to record and send audio or video comments. Text in electronic word-processed form can be annotated as well, perhaps using a collaborative environment. Using highlighting, tracked changes and comment box facilities also support reflection and discussion. For feedback meetings, I am guided by the student, but annotated text crucially allows me to both highlight strengths and specify focused in-text suggestions for improvement.
With a greater focus recently on interacting through the online environment, it becomes important for students to have opportunities to hear how to present to others through this medium, then to model and try practices to present to others locally, to others nationally, and to others internationally, all virtually. Processes and technologies to support these actions, to have exemplars accessible, to be able to connect to discussions and seminars with colleagues, or connections to online conferences, may need to be developed and put in place. At the same time, having guidance on how to handle response and critique online, and what this means for forms of writing and publishing, may be quite new for students.
Online supervision and mentoring is not a second best as it enables us to continue that valuable support when other challenges are in place. But for some, it may well be a preferred choice, independent of external challenges.
University of Otago (2017). Student-supervisor agreement. Accessed from: https://www.otago.ac.nz/graduate-research/policies/otago252208.pdf (on 12 February 2021).
Stracke, E., & Kumar, V. (2020). Encouraging dialogue in doctoral supervision: The development of the feedback expectation tool. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 15, 265-284. DOI: https://doi.org/10.28945/4568
Professor Don Passey
Department of Educational Research at Lancaster University, UK
Lancaster University and Sunway University established an academic partnership in 2006. While the Lancaster-Sunway partnership initially focussed on teaching, it has evolved over the years to also include research collaboration and engagement activities.