Developing Online Resources for Postgrads: The Student-Staff Binary

Over the last few months, I’ve been working on the initial stages of an initiative to develop online facilities for postgraduate research students in the School of Education at the University of Nottingham. After reviewing existing provision within the School, meeting staff and interviewing students, we are currently in the process of implementing a number of design ideas. Whilst this is not a research project as such, it has been interesting to note how it has highlighted key sociocultural aspects of digitally mediated doctoral practice, which have resonated with my PhD research.

Among other things, the work has thrown up some prominent yet problematic binaries. These are nothing new, but it is useful to challenge some of the common assumptions associated with them. Collectively, these binaries represent a taxonomy of sorts, describing the interrelated contexts that often underpin these types of initiatives. I’m kicking off here with a look at the student-staff binary.

At departmental level, academic staff contribute to the doctoral student community through supervision, teaching and, to a lesser extent, dissemination of their own research. However, given the heterogeneity of the staff body, the interrelationship between individual job descriptions, formal affiliations within and across faculties, and doctoral training roles and policy agendas is seemingly a complex one. We should also acknowledge the important role that research administrators and support staff play in updating students on events and funding opportunities etc., whilst contributing to the maintenance of protocols and documentation related to programme requirements.

Individual academics will draw on diverse experiences, perceptions and incentives when engaging in new online environments. This may however, provide an opportunity to develop more visible profiles within the department generally, and be seen as being more ‘accessible’ to the student community. Collectively, staff participation in online provision can provide doctoral students with additional perspectives, expertise and knowledge. But whilst this may help address inconsistencies in supervisor provision, is this disruptive or complimentary to the student-supervisor relationship? To what degree might the increased diversity of (potentially conflicting) ideas and perspectives compromise or even undermine the specific and informed authority, trust, guidance and integrity of supervisors?

This draws into focus the tension between the interpersonal context of the student-supervisor contract, and the environmental context of student socialisation. It’s a complex relationship, and as Green (2005) suggests, supervision is often ‘representational’ in nature (of both the department and the academic discipline). Whilst Batchelor and Di Napoli (2005) argue the student-supervisor relationship should be “devoid of too many unwanted interferences from the other people and structures,” it is becoming increasingly compromised by supervisor workloads and the rise of generic, centralised training agendas. So whilst the supervisor relationship constitutes a huge intellectual investment, student agency and self-efficacy are partly defined by the ability to tap into the academic capital of the department as a whole.

Within the online context, this invariably depends on the nature and depth of the staff interaction or contribution, and the type of knowledge generated. Often, this will be limited to providing additional taught materials or supplementing other ‘on campus’ activities (such as online resources related to a seminar). However, more invested or responsive activities – such as participating in online discussions, blogging or sharing extra-curricula resources – may constitute a significant shift towards cultivating a more immediate and collegial relationship between the student and staff communities.

Again, it is interesting to consider this within the socialisation frame, as the student is expected to become increasingly participative and integrated in the academic activities of the department. That said, it may be the students themselves who are most keen to maintain clear distinctions between the two groups, as they will often privilege staff contributions above those from their peers. Secondly, dedicated ‘student-only’ spaces for dissemination, discussion and resource sharing may prove a more effective environment to encourage student engagement and confidence building, and cultivate sharing and experimentation. Early stage students in particular may be reluctant to raise concerns or reveal knowledge deficits in a more integrated staff-student environment.

Further binaries also exist within the student community itself, and I’ll be looking at these in the next post.


Batchelor, D., & Di Napoli, R. (2005). The doctoral journey: perspectives. Educate, 6(1), 13-24.

Green, B. (2005). Unfinished business: subjectivity and supervision. Higher Education Research and Development, 24(2), 151–63.

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