Lent 2021 Opinion

Online supervisions: a supervisor’s perspective

Laptop failures are only some of the problems faced by supervisors during online supervisions. Photo: cottonbro from Pexels

I glanced furtively at my watch as I waited for my computer to finish updating – 4:22pm. My laptop was reaching the end of its useful life, and had tested my patience on many occasions with lengthy updates and general lethargy; however, on this particular day, there was a sense of urgency. I was supposed to have started supervising at 4pm. Instead, I had spent the last hour watching the update progress bar move by less than an inch. This (thankfully) isolated incident is just one example of the problems faced by supervisors doing online supervisions.

Having graduated in 2019, I started supervising Physics 1A last year. At first I found this a bit strange – I still remembered my first year well and here I was on the other side of the fence. This short gap is presumably deliberate and I think helps with supervising: I can still remember parts of the first year course that I was confused by initially and how I went about understanding these areas. You’d have to ask my students last year, but I like to think that the supervisions went fairly well. This year, I continued supervising Physics 1A – albeit online.  I found the experiences to be quite different …

Online supervisions are more impersonal than in-person teaching. Obviously, I can see my students and they can see me, but, without in-person teaching, I get the impression that I am little more than a face on a screen to them.

It is more difficult to teach students over zoom. Particularly in first year, students are timid and worried about asking “silly” questions in front of their peers. In reality, I’m yet to hear a stupid question! I think that part of being a good supervisor is putting students at ease. A key part of this process is the ‘small-talk’ and in-person interactions, which cannot really be replicated through a screen.

Last year, I found that supervising took up a lot of time. Besides the obvious time commitment of marking students’ work and giving the supervisions, I spent a considerable time re-capping the content. I was hoping that supervisions would be a lot less time-consuming this year – as it was not necessary to recap content again. However, with the transition to online teaching, I found that I had to spend more time on other tasks. I had to upload extra materials, model answers and set-up equipment to supervise.

I concede that such problems are insignificant in the grand scheme of things – lectures, supervisions, even practicals all continue in one form or another. However, as someone who genuinely enjoys supervising, I feel that the sooner we get back to in-person supervisions, the better.