Workshop on e-supervision of doctoral students in Barcelona

30 October 2013

UOC, KU, ACUP and the International Association of Universities (IAU) are co-organizing a one-day Workshop on e-supervision of doctoral students.

Since 2011 the ACUP and the IAU are joining forces in the area of doctoral education, bringing together two projects: Project on Innovative Approaches to Doctoral Education in Africa, led by IAU and the African-Spanish Higher Education Management Platform, led by ACUP. One of the main outcomes of this collaboration is the development of the joint IDEA platform ( on innovative approaches to doctoral education.

The above mentioned projects led to the identification of supervision of doctoral students as one of the key challenges African higher education institutions are facing. In the recently initiated PLE-PhD project, as you have been able to follow in this blog, the UOC, KU and the ACUP are looking into how digital technologies, more specifically the web 2.0 tools, can respond to this challenge.

The Workshop will allow the participants to study this subject in greater depth. It is open to anyone interested to participate and free of charge.

See you in Barcelona!


The last day of our visit to KU coincided with the 34th Graduation Ceremony at Kenyatta University to which we were cordially invited. After a reception at the Vice-Chancellor’s office at seven o’clock in the morning, we were dressed in the beautiful KU gowns and participated in the procession to the Graduation Square. During five hours we could be testimonies of the interventions of university officials, the award of Honoris Causa to the Chief of Kenya Defence Forces, chanting and dancing from different assemblies of the music department as well as the conferring of the degrees to 2.679 graduates by name (2.013 undergraduates, 440 masters and 26 PhDs). The Ceremony ended with a beautiful luncheon at the Vice-Chancellor’s Lawn.

This Ceremony represented the beautiful end of a constructive and very interesting study visit here at KU in which we had not only the opportunity to learn more about the subjects related to our project, but also to get to know wonderful people who gifted us with immense hospitality throughout our visit.

Asanti sana na kwaheri ya kuonana

Family photo at the Graduation ceremony at Kenyatta University

Graduation ceremony at Kenyatta University

Lessons learned and steps forward

After four intensive days at KU, exchanging and discussin about doctoral programmes and e-supervision, yesterday afternoon we did a wrap up meeting, analysing the lessons learned from this first study visit as well as agreeing on the next steps to be put into practice during the coming days, weeks, months and even years.

Everyone agreed that the challenges KU is facing in these moments in relationship with doctoral programmes and the enhancement of e-supervision are the following:

– Supervisors are overwhelmed by the time they spend on supervision, dedicating many hours on face to meetings hours with their students. As a consequence, many of them are highly overworked.

– The availability of a stable and fast connection to the Internet is still a pending issue at KU in these moments.

– Available e-resources, like access to e-journals at the university library, are underutilised.

– There’s a lack of trust in peer reviewing and sharing publicly research results.

Despite these challenges, we identified many factors that are already given and can contribute to enhance e-supervision of PhD students:

– Through the seminars and workshops implemented during this week, we realized that there is a big motivation and interest on behalf of the PhD students as well as the supervisors to get to understand e-research and learn how to use web 2.0 tools for their research.

– The leaders of KU are convinced that the future of supervision will be digital, a leadership indispensable for promoting the digitalization of KU.

During the next months, until the visit of the KU delegation to Catalonia, we will enhance the PhD students and their supervisors to keep on exploring the new instruments and concepts they got to know during these days, setting up their own websites and trying to put into practice first e-supervision experiences.

It got clear, though, that there’s a need to organise more training courses that facilitate the students and supervisors to get a more profound knowledge of these instruments, as the implemented workshop could only give a broad overview of some of the web 2.0 tools.

Beside this work on a micro level, closely related to the PLE-PhD project, KU identified the need to foster changes in the management of the university, setting up structures inside the university to manage e-supervision. The main goal will be to mainstream digitalization throughout the university to set a wider ground for the implementation of e-supervision. Furthermore, there’s a necessity to update the existing virtual campus, developing a more suitable platform. E-supervision is not purely academic but starts with making the whole university digital. This implies a global change of mindset, not only regarding supervision. It will be therefore necessary for KU to think in a broader scope, setting up an institutional strategy on digitalizing the campus.

We will bring our modems

Photo of social media workshop at Kenyatta University

Own laptops, own mobile modems

It has been stated several times that the most difficult part when it comes to foster any change is the change of mindsets. Technology, training, organization… all of these can come but the actual change will only take place when also mindsets have been transformed.

Our session on e-Research for e-Supervision was attended by +100 hundred people, ranging from supervisors and lecturers, directing staff and students. But a number does not always tell how the message has been received, or what motivations drove people to attend the conferences.

At the end of the session, the practical workshop for the next day was announced. Unlike the present conference, which, as said had allocated more than one hundred attendants, the workshop was planned to be followed by no more than a couple dozen people. When the audience learned about this restriction, the room came to an uproar.

Everyone wanted to attend the next workshop.

— Sorry — the Dean of the Graduate School said — but there is no room to hold everyone at the computing lab.

— So let’s change the venue — answered the attendants as a single voice.

— There would not be computers for everyone if we change venues — responded the Dean.

— Then we’ll bring our laptops.

— But there will not be enough bandwidth to feed everyone’s connections.

— We will bring our modems!

All changes need a change of mindset to happen, the energy and the will to change.

All of this seems to be already achieved at Kenyatta University. The minds of the people are already ahead: it is just a matter of time that the bodies catch up.

Photo of social media workshop at Kenyatta University

Social media workshop at Kenyatta University

Enhancing eResearch and PLEDs at KU

The morning of the third day of our study visit at KU was dedicated to share the incipient and recent experiences that different Catalan researchers have with eResearch and Personal Learning Environments. Ismael Peña-López, lecturer at the School of Law and Political Science of the Open University of Catalonia, and researcher at the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute and the eLearn Center of that university explained, using his personal experience as example, how he improved his visibility of his research and build a specialized network through the use of social media and other web 2.0 tools.

Ismael Peña networking during the coffee break

Ismael Peña networking during the coffee break

Taking notes on conferences directly on a publicly accessible blog allows you to extend the discussions beyond the conference itself. Uploading your presentations on sites like Slideshare, for instance, gives access to a larger public to these contents, and facilitates the building of networks around this presentation. Ismael is convinced that you have to speak out, telling the people what you are working on and that the more you give and share, the more you will get back. Through the fact of sharing your research throughout the whole research process – from having an idea over reading to publishing a research paper – you can benefit from the work others do.

Regarding e-supervision, the simple fact of sharing, for example, what you are reading on your personal blog on through other web tools, can reduce office hours with your students as you can send them directly to this list.

A large number of masters and PhD students as well as supervirsors from KU followed the presentations with big interest, raising many questions, especially about the frontier between formal and informal research as well as where to start from.

Image of Group of the audience at the presentation

Group photo of the audience at the presentation


e-Ready for e-Supervision

Photo of Speranza Ndege, Director, Open, Distance and e-Learning

Speranza Ndege, Director, Open, Distance and e-Learning

Two necessary things to enable any e-Supervision strategy are the technological infrastructure and online access to all kinds of content, namely: papers published in academic journals, books, working papers, PhD thesis, etc.

Speranza Ndege introduced us to the work that is being carried out at the Open, Distance and e-Learning department.

An initial stage that took place from 1997 to 2000 was mainly focused on digital and information literacy, so that academic and administrative staff became proficient with the tools that were to be used in the future.

The department then began in 2000 to seriously address the issue of virtualising some of the units they were imparting. After an initial pilot project using a US-hosted installation of Blackboard, the University quickly switched to their own Moodle installation once fiber was deployed in the main campus and important investments in technology were carried on.

The programme now has 750 virtualized units that serve many learning modalities: from pure 100% online learning to online support for regular face-to-face students, including blended learning courses with a mixed combination of face-to-face and online lectures.

The new technology has, of course, implied new pedagogical approaches, now focusing on constructivism but heading to a more collective or socio-constructivist approach. The student has been put in the centre of the learning methodology and classes have been or can be divided into small groups to encourage dialogue and debate among students.

Indeed, an early stage of e-supervision is already in use at Kenyatta University, as ODeL encourages supervisors to supervise students online, enabling the creation of online forums, fostering the exchange of communications online between students and supervisors or even enabling the defence of a PhD thesis through videoconferencing.

But, of course, not everything is communication, acces to information is another important issue in this regard.

Mary Anne Muirui and John Thuku, from KU library, explained the advances that the university library is doing in matters of digital access to its collection.

Heavily relying on free software like Koha and DSpace, the library has set up an institutional open repository where to store all the academic production of the university. Services are offered through subject libraries and campus libraries which can be accessed through the online public access catalogue (OPAC). Online access also includes bibliographic sources with abstracts and full text access to journals, books, theses and dissertations, conference papers, CD-ROMs, accompanying books, etc.

The library provides physical facilities as computer labs or access to networking (cable, wireless, etc.).

A crucial aspect such as capability is already covered by the library, as it provides user training and awareness through many courses and guidance to users, such as an introduction to new users, information searching, training on how to avoid or detect plagiarism or preparation for correct referencing and managing one’s own bibliography using Zotero.

We started this reflection by stating that two necessary things to enable any e-Supervision strategy are the technological infrastructure and online access to all kinds of content. Both conditions are already met at Kenyatta University.

The major concern of the University is, thus, how to go from still somewhat isolated or incipient initiatives of e-supervision to a comprehensive and massive adoption of e-supervision as an ordinary tool.

A major shift, they believe, will surely be needed at the mindset level: the tools are there, and it is just a matter of how to appropriate them for every day supervision… and taking into account the new challenges that this adoption will raise.

Challenges of graduate education at Kenyatta University

The second day of our study visit has been dedicated to get to know in detail the issues related to doctoral studies and e-supervision at KU. We started the day with an inspiring presentation of Prof. Paul Okemo, Dean of the Graduate School, on research modules at KU.

According to Prof. Okemo, after the re-introduction of free primary education in Kenya under President Mwai Kibaki in 2003, a massification process of the universities started, reaching also postgraduate levels. The number of postgraduate students at KU went up from 3.716 in 2011 to 7.109 in 2013. Despite this increased intake of postgraduate students, the regulations regarding master’s and doctoral education, inherited mainly from the University of Nairobi as the “mother” of most of the higher education institutions currently existing in Kenya, remain more or less the same. As one of the consequences, the ratio of student – lecturer has increased greatly and it is difficult for the supervisor to stay in conduct with all his postgraduate students and effectively guide their research.

Introducing and consolidating e-supervision could be therefore very useful to reduce the workload of the professors. Nevertheless, this will not be possible without also promoting changes in the policies regarding doctoral education, offering, for example, the possibility to professors who do a lot of supervision to be exempted from teaching some units.

Other questions to take into consideration when thinking about the promotion of e-supervision are:

  • Will it be possible to produce credible graduate students reducing the time spend physically on campus?
  • Is it possible to use these innovative methods of supervision without compromising the quality of education and research?
  • How do we benchmark with other universities around the world?
  • How to promote a change of paradigm in order to foster the use of these innovative instruments?

Taking into consideration that the intake of graduate students still has to be increased and the lack of space to accommodate them, the lack of facilities to enable them to realize their goals and the lack of enough lecturers to attend them, e-supervision will have to play a key role in the future of doctoral education at KU.

In all this discussion, both the Catalan as well as the Kenyan universities must ask themselves how they can guarantee that the massification of education contributes to the socioeconomic development of their countries and does not produce a hemorrhage of students, emigrating to other countries.

Photo of KU-UOC meeting

KU-ACUP-UOC meeting

Opportunities of e-supervision for masters and PhD students

Yesterday we exchanged lots of impressions and thoughts about how the struggles of supervising a large number of students could be addressed. Sometimes faculty members are forced to supervise a large number of students, which can pose serious challenges in performing accurate and quality supervision or, in exchange, put too much pressure on that staff that will consequently have lesser time for other academic activities (e.g. research).

Besides the obvious but not easy and quick solution of increasing the number of accredited supervisors, we brainstormed about other possible solutions. In the age of digital communications, the possibility to carry on something in the line of e-supervision came to our minds quite quickly.

There are at least four ways that online-based or -enhanced supervision can come handy.

  1. Setting up a virtual campus with a virtual secretary‘s office can shift some workload from the supervisor to the administrative staff or, even better, to the 24×7 service that all the information published on the secretary’s office can provide.
  2. The virtual campus can actually also feature a virtual classroom. While it is true that most thesis supervision tasks are very personal and refer to a particular thesis, it is also true that many explanations, indications, suggestions, etc. about the making of the thesis (choosing a methodology, writing the hypotheses and research questions, citing properly, etc.) are common to almost any thesis. Group supervision based on a virtual classroom can for sure avoid repetitions and even promote some proactiveness from the students.
  3. If meeting in the same time and space is no more an obligation – because the Internet has no boundaries of time or space – complementary online mentoring or co-supervision can be enabled so that more people can help in the supervision. The online mentor, for instance, needs not be a doctor and they may carry out some administrative or accompanying tasks that are not related to the core of the research activity.
  4. Last, and surely more daring, there’s P2P supervision. How many problems are shared between a cohort of students? How many core literature do they share? How many similar methodological approaches do they have in common? The idea of P2P supervision is to do one’s research openly, making it public on a personal learning environment or a personal research portal, so that other colleagues can have a look at it, comment it, provide advice, suggest readings and methodologies, etc.

Of course there are many odds and ends that need being addressed in online mentoring. But the tools and, more important, the paradigm, are there to be explored for their usefulness.

Kenyatta University – a 21st century university

Family photo

Family photo

During the first day of our study visit to Kenyatta University we had the opportunity to get to know vibrant campuses and the ambitious future vision of this institution. Under the leadership of the Vice-chancellor Olive Mugenda, Kenyatta University (KU) is putting into practice a visionary growth and expansion programme, aspiring to become in short the best ranked university in Kenya and being situated among the best universities on the African continent.

KU experimented, like many other higher education institutions all over the world, a huge growth in their student population. Attending around 15.000 students in 2006, KU has today more than 60.000 students. Also at postgraduate level, the student numbers have being growing much over the last years. Unfortunately, the number of faculty did not grow on the same pace. Furthermore, there’s still quite a big percentage of faculty that does not have a PhD. One of the biggest challenges is therefore to upgrade faculty, facilitating to do their PhDs.

To respond to the increasing academic needs, KU invested and keeps investing in infrastructure on all its campuses. We visited some of the impressive buildings that have been constructed over the last few years like, for example, the Post-Modern Library, the Amphitheatre or the Business Innovation and Incubation Center and saw many other buildings currently under construction like the new School or Law of the Graduate School, just to mention a few.

Photo of the New School of Law, Kenyatta University

New School of Law, Kenyatta University

Photo of the Post-modern Library, Kenyatta University

Post-modern Library, Kenyatta University

In order to be able to invest in this ambitious future, KU’s strategy is to rely less and less on scarce government funding, diversifying their income sources. One source, for example, is the recently created Foundation of KU with its head office in the United States, formed by alumni of the institution. The planned Uni City which will offer retail stores, a convention center, hotels, etc. will be another source for income.

KU is also innovating at management level, creating directorates that depend directly from the Vice-chancellor. These structures help to move faster, putting into practice new projects without interfering the academic activity.

During the visits we learned that there exist already different initiatives at KU to make use of ICT for teaching and research. At the City Campus, for instance, some programmes use e-supervision through email in order to attend students from outside Nairobi. At the School of Law, Facebook and an adapted platform are used to keep in touch with the students. Matching the needs of supervising more and more students, some of who live far away from the university, with these incipient online tools showed us that there could be a good basis for introducing e-supervision in postgraduate studies.