Teaching and Learning Forum 2000 [ Proceedings Contents ]

Online professional development for postgraduate supervisors

Peter Kandlbinder and Tai Peseta
Institute for Teaching and Learning
University of Sydney
    Recognising the changing nature of academic staff development, the Institute for Teaching and Learning was among the first academic development units in Australia to use the Internet and online learning as a means of delivering academic staff development. The first programs were delivered via email with limited success, but since then, the range of offerings have become increasingly formalised and sophisticated, to culminate with Postgraduate Supervisors Development Program delivered in 1998 by flexible learning. The success of this program in demonstrating the potential for online academic staff development has led the Institute to undertake further online initiatives targeting, in the first instance, flexible learning and assessment. This paper discusses the development of the online program in which academic staff are free to arrange their own progression and retrieve resources at any time that suits them and their supervisory responsibilities. The presentation highlights the initiatives undertaken by the program's participants including a number of short case studies of personal experiences with postgraduate supervision. It provides an opportunity to discuss good practice in online professional development and its application to other areas of academic staff development.
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There are considerable resources available for staff development online. The Institute for Teaching and Learning has been making use of the Internet and online learning as a means of delivering academic staff development since 1996. The range of offerings have increased steadily since then to culminate in the Postgraduate Supervisors Development Program, delivered by flexible learning in 1998. The adoption of flexible learning principles for a mainstream program that had previously followed a traditional workshop format, was a departure from the Institute for Teaching and Learning's usual methods of academic staff development. This was particularly significant considering that supervisors could choose to complete the program as flexibly as their schedules permitted. Some supervisors completed just the web based modules, some only attended the workshop program, while others elected for a combination of both.

Due to the dynamic nature of the program and its move toward partial web based delivery it has been important to closely monitor and understand the experiences of the supervisors enrolled in the program compared to participants in previous years. Perhaps just as important, we wanted to understand the impact of utilising the world wide web as a tool for staff development. This paper describes the evaluation of the Postgraduate Supervisors' Development program drawn from feedback mechanisms structured into the web based modules or was sought at a later date.

Postgraduate Supervisors Development

The Postgraduate Supervisors' Development Program is a flexible learning program consisting of three separate but inter-related elements, web based resources, workshops and supervisor case studies. The web based resources are accessed in one of three ways. A "browsing" section contains reference material on postgraduate supervision including bibliographic and contact information, the Postgraduate Studies Handbook and supervision case studies. These resources are available to anyone interested in postgraduate supervision. These resources are not monitored in any way other than a simple counter to determine the usage of the different sections.

Self study modules are also available online. The modules are for supervisors who would like to work through the resource material in a more formalised course of study. The modules are password protected and require registration into the program to receive access to the modules. Registration involves a brief questionnaire in which supervisors indicate their interests in postgraduate supervision and participants are asked to nominate a date when they would like to be removed from our registration list.

There is an online discussion forum where results of the self study module activities can be posted or general issues of interest discussed. The goal of the forum is for participants to become more reflective about their own practice. The program maintains two face to face workshops as opportunities for participants to hear examples of successful supervision, discuss issues related to their own practice and work through case study material. Participants in the program are encouraged to edit their informal reflections into a more thoughtful case study. These case studies are integrated into the self study material and are also made available in the resources section of the website. Supervisors who would like their participation in the program formally assessed do so through by developing a case study, which is made available through the resources section.

Now that the online program has been established as a continuing and viable enterprise, is evaluation serves two main purposes. Firstly, as a system for measuring program performance, providing the program with formative feedback necessary for informed decision making. Secondly, as a summative benchmark to measure the quality of the supervisors experiences with flexible learning. A comprehensive understanding of the impact of the program on supervision would be determined by the supervisors learning goals, a comparison with the past program, the impact in departments and their experiences of flexible learning.

Supervisors' learning goals

Supervisors negotiate their individual learning goals through a registration process. The registration process asks supervisors to nominate their areas of interest and then assists them to conceptualise individualised learning goals, strategies to meet those goals and then to evaluate the effectiveness of their learning about supervision pedagogy.

Supervisors' reasons for joining the program ranged from attracting more research students, exploring their roles and responsibilities, managing projects, through to considering their own philosophies underlying their practice. Many participants indicated that they were unclear about 'how' they knew their supervision had improved. To counter this tendency, we are in the process of guiding participants through a more formalised and systematic form of reflecting on their practice. This will consist of a case study module that provides the keystone activity for the program, which can be assessed and accredited if the supervisor chooses.

Departmental impact

Postgraduate coordinators participated in a phone survey whose purpose was to assess their perceptions of the impact of the program at the departmental level. Postgraduate Coordinators commented on the nature of supervision in their departments and reported on innovative departmental practice. Coordinators commented that supervisors had been engaging in more explicit pedagogical practices with their research students. This included things such as collaborating on resource statements, increasing contact hours, negotiating expectations about roles and responsibilities etc.

Most coordinators seemed aware of the existence of the program (through email lists, university publications, pamphlets) but were unaware that it had moved online. However, many of the coordinators reported that they had not been keeping records about which supervisors had attended the program despite an explicit provision made in the Postgraduate Studies Handbook, stating that "Academic Board expects new supervisors to attend" (p20). With the release of DETYA's discussion paper on research funding (Kemp, 1999), the quality of postgraduate supervision remains high on the higher education agenda. It is likely that the University will formalise its supervisor training in some form in the near future.

Comparison with past program

There have been considerable changes since the program's move toward partial online delivery from the traditional face to face workshop format. The number of those registered to complete the program almost doubled. The composition of participants shifted as well. Supervisors' in the faculties of Health Science and Science have been consistently represented as participants, throughout the program's history. It also continues to attract staff new to supervision, or staff thinking about taking on a supervisory role.

Previous evaluations suggested that supervisors' valued the opportunity for cross-disciplinary dialogue. While this facility was available at the web site through a discussion forum and a chat space, an environment of face to face interaction provided by the workshop format was always highly praised and acknowledged as intrinsic to the staff development process. Feedback forms indicated that all supervisors valued the opportunity to engage in discussion with colleagues and were particularly appreciative of the cross-disciplinary dialogue generated in workshops. Supervisors also suggested that more time was needed in the development of a strategic approach to address the individual problems faced by them in their supervision. Participants from previous years reported that their thinking about supervision had changed. They were implementing processes aimed at supporting students such as formalising documentation, negotiating regular meeting times and clarifying the roles and responsibilities, as a result of their involvement in the program.

Flexible delivery of the program

Litchfield & Spear (1999) conducted an extensive review of material available for staff development in Australia, North America and the United Kingdom. They concluded that while there are a large number of resources available (with nearly 400 University web sites offering learning materials for their staff), it was rarely systematically developed and the vast majority was focused on developing computer and software skills. They concluded that few universities offered sophisticated online programs even though the expectation was that academic staff will be using online technologies on their own.

To ensure that the Postgraduate Supervisors Development Program made appropriate use of information technology participants in the program were asked to comment on their experiences in the program through an email survey. Particularly pertinent were their impressions of utilising online technologies for professional development. Supervisors who had attended both the workshops and used the online materials could also comment on the congruence between those parts of the program. The program participants responded that the use of technology for professional development allowed them to 'think about the principles of postgraduate supervision outside the workshop format'. It has also permitted a more flexible involvement and a careful selection of resources relevant to their practice. Access to online materials meant that resources were conveniently located at a single destination - convenient considering the many demands on academics' time.

Conclusions and challenges

The combination of the workshop program and web based resources seems to be working well. Web based resources have allowed supervisors to complete the program in their own time with email links to other participants. Supervisors have pointed to the importance of more structure to the online discussion forum and strengthening web based resources by including content of the workshop program. Many of the comments regarding both the workshop program and the web based resources seem to reflect personal preferences for individual learning. Where possible, revisions to the web based resources have been noted and improvements are in progress.

While there are distinctive patterns in the academic representation (within faculties and levels of appointment), the challenge has been to increase both access to the program and broaden the issues addressed therein considering that postgraduate supervision is clearly characterised by disparate practice. The program has been successful in attracting its target group of academics new to supervision, judging by the levels of appointment of those attending. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of supervisors registered to complete the program. The program has attracted more female than male academics. The program is less successful in attracting the more senior academics who traditionally do not participate in staff development activities. Supervisors have reported that the delivery of the program through online technologies has allowed "thinking about the principles of postgraduate supervision outside the workshop format." This flexibility (multiple entry points) has been essential in the increase of supervisors completing the program.


Graduate Studies Committee (1999). Postgraduate Studies Handbook. Sydney: University of Sydney.

Kemp, D. (1999). New Knowledge, New Opportunities: A Discussion Paper on Higher Education Research and Research Training. Canberra: AGPS.

Litchfield, A. & Spear, P. (1999). Online Professional Development: The 1999 status of online resources available to support higher education staff. A paper presented at the HERDSA Conference, Melbourne, Vic. http://herdsa.org.au/vic/cornerstones/pdf/Litchfie.PDF [PDF file, 33 kB, accessed 30 Dec 1999]

Please cite as: Kandlbinder, P. and Peseta, T. (2000). Online professional development for postgraduate supervisors. In A. Herrmann and M.M. Kulski (Eds), Flexible Futures in Tertiary Teaching. Proceedings of the 9th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 2-4 February 2000. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2000/kandlbinder2.html

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