I’ve recently read a journal paper by Nasriri and Mafakheri (2015) in Studies in Higher Education which nicely reviews the last 10 years of research into the challenges faced by academics and students faced with research supervision at a distance. It also goes on to offer strategies used to try to overcome some of the difficulties which I thought might be nice to share on here so that any of our readers, whether you are academics or students in this situation might benefit from it.
1. Time Difference: You may live thousands of miles from each other creating an issue finding a mutually convenient time to connect. STRATEGY: Create a virtual office hour during a working week, specified by the supervisor when they are able to have live open discussion with the student.
2. Lack of good personal knowledge: This can drive conversations towards a formal format making it harder to create an environment suitable for open discussion. This can result in encounters being less motivating/engaging. STRATEGY: The process of supervision should contain negotiation, experimentation and open debate about the means, depth and timing of interactions. It should be like “dancing at a distance” being dynamic, engaging, reflective and flexible taking into account changing capabilities of both parties.
3. Lack of delicacy/depth in communication: The proper use and fast pace of technological changes can be distracting and a significant time of discussions can focus on exploring the new technology/software instead of a clear focus on research issues.
4. Difference in computer literacy: can limit the exchange of information reinforcing the dislocation effect and reducing interaction, especially where there is an imbalance in the IT support available.
5. Increased workload for supervisors: Supervisors are often seen to represent the whole university system for their student resulting in expectations to be constantly open to requests from students on research programme requirements, ethics, administration, pastoral issues and IT support. STRATEGY: PGR tutors can help to support supervisors to ease the administration burden.
6. Accessibility: This is an obvious challenge to ensure students have access to library services, funding opportunities, research seminars, interaction with peers and training. This can create a reliance on the supervisor which contradicts the objective of promoting independent research and critical thinking. STRATEGY: For peer interaction, email lists of group of students can allow sharing of information in the hope it will trigger exchange of information between the students/connect via social media etc. Virtual peer meetings can be arranged to present their research to others and receive feedback, as can annual web-based research conferences. Additionally supporting students to identify research groups in local universities to interact with and attendance at international conferences should be encouraged. To compensate for the lack of in-house training seminars and training sessions can be recorded and placed on webpages, additionally the seminars at induction could be streamed live on the website to ensure information is given on programme requirements and resources etc. Also supervisors could be provided with an induction pack of resources to support supervision at a distance.
7. Cultural implications: Distance supervision not only crosses geographical borders but also cultural borders that may exist with respect to race, gender and religion. This requires a proper understanding of the norms, differences, preconceptions and potential conflicting issues without which can trigger confusion, misinterpretation and in some cases clashes in the relationship.
8. Language barrier: Both linguistic gap or technical gap caused by the supervisor/student being trained under different systems.
9. Feedback: Distance between the two parties can result in forgetting about the mutual expectations in the relationship which can lead to a reduction and quantity of feedback given. This creates a domino effect making it even harder to maintain quality feedback with fewer interactions and increases misinterpretations/varied expectations. STRATEGY: A hierarchical system of feedback with a blend of approaches in terms of speed, length and depth including short quick messages, use of track changes on written work and exchange of digital audio monologues when in-depth feedback is needed. Ensure deadlines are assigned for both submission and for when feedback is to be given.
10. Multitude of communication channels: The need for utilising various means for both written/spoken and synchronous/asynchronous communication makes it difficult to find the optimal blend. It is also constrained by many technical issues including internet bandwidth, computer viruses, webcam quality, hard disk/memory space and wireless connect to name a few. This not only impacts on the interactions but can be a threat to confidentiality and privacy.
11. Fairness in assessment of student’s submissions: Information technology is not always neutral as it can influence expectations, e.g. a student’s level of IT literacy while communicating to the supervisor may influence the supervisor’s, judgement about them, their research and progress.
12. Personal Costs: Interaction often spills into nonworking hours and can often create the need to be equipped with computer systems to manage this from home.
The above challenges are specific to distance supervision but it’s important to point out that this sits within a backdrop of common challenges associated with any other research supervision relationship. If you want to know more about any of the challenges or the research behind them take a look at the paper for yourself.
When embarking on distance research supervision in the future it would be good to be mindful of the highlighted challenges so that with careful contracting of expectations between both parties the relationship can be a positive and effective one.