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Cambridge Centre for Teaching and Learning


Basic information to guide you through online supervision, including: technologies, connectivity & accessibility, differences with in-person supervision, video conferencing options and recording supervisions.


In this section:

'Live' supervisions: video conferencing options

Key points

  • Different video conferencing platforms
  • Microsoft Teams and Google Meet, supported by UIS
  • Differences in terms of accessibility

Undergraduate supervisions vary in size. Many will consist of two, three or four students, and almost all video conferencing tools will support this. The most familiar options are:

Microsoft Teams and Google Meet (within Google Suite) are both supported by the University Information Services. This means that all students already have accounts and the University has reviewed issues of data protection, privacy and security.

The difference between Teams and Google Meet is that Teams is a full collaboration product with chat rooms, document sharing and many other features. Google Meet is a straight-forward video chat platform.

Zoom has become familiar to many in recent months. Please be aware that there can be serious concerns relating to privacy. If you decide to supervise using Zoom, please read the guidance on privacy and setting up secure Zoom meetings that we have provided.

Please note: there are some important differences in terms of accessibility, in particular the availability of live captioning and the production of automatic transcriptions (important for students with hearing impairments, and also beneficial for those for whom English is not the first language). For students with Student Support Documents (SSDs) who require captions during online supervisions and / or who use screen reading software, the Disability Resource Centre strongly recommends using Teams.

A comparison of the features offered by different video conferencing options, highlighting considerations relating to accessibility for disabled students, is available in our Educational technologies section under Selecting which tool.

Recording supervisions

Key points

  • Disabled students with permission to record face-to-face teaching

Please note: the arrangements described in this section relate only to the period of online teaching and learning for the academic year 2020-21, which is a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Please also read the Policy on recordings of teaching materials / lectures, and other teaching, learning and assessment activities.

In the exceptional circumstances in which we find ourselves, disabled students with permission to record face-to-face teaching should be permitted to record online supervisions, to help to minimise the disruption to their learning. This is in line with the University’s Code of Practice: Reasonable adjustments for disabled students.

At present, there may be other reasons why supervisors and students who are not disabled may also agree to record online supervisions. These agreements are appropriate where they help to minimise the disruption of learning for supervisees taking part in the supervision, as well as to share the supervision with students who are not able to attend (for example, for reasons of illness).

If there is a request to record a supervision, it is for you as supervisor to determine whether it is appropriate for the session to be recorded, taking into consideration the interests of other participants, including minimising the disruption to learning during these exceptional times. As a supervisor, you will want to take this decision in advance of the supervision and let students know, confirming to students that the recording will be purely for study purposes and will not be posted online.

If you have agreed to recording, at the beginning of the supervision, remind supervisees that the session will be recorded. Please note: you may pause recording during supervision if you consider this appropriate and let students know that you are doing so. Some subjects, for example, involve discussion of sensitive subjects; in other instances, there may be pastoral reasons for pausing recording.

As we noted in previous sections, there are some important differences in terms of accessibility for disabled students, in particular the availability of live captioning and the production of automatic transcriptions (important for students with hearing impairments, and also beneficial for those for whom English is not the first language).

A comparison of the features offered by different video conferencing options, highlighting considerations relating to accessibility for disabled students, is available in our Educational technologies section under Selecting which tool.

Technologies, connectivity and accessibility

Key points

  • Considering the technologies available to your students
  • Anticipating connection difficulties or delays
  • Knowing the requirements of disabled students and those with neurodiverse profiles
  • Trying to keep things simple and flexible, with fall-back options in case of difficulties

With most students returning to Cambridge for 2020-21, we can assume they will have access to some computing device and an internet connection. But with increased online traffic, connection difficulties might occur, ranging from delays in the transmission of sounds and images to longer interruptions. For students away from Cambridge, the quality and type of network connection may also vary, and it is important to check details with these students.

Be prepared for your preferred system not to work, or to stop working at some point. You may be forced to stop mid-supervision due to weak or lost connectivity or you may experience intermittent pauses or loss of sound. Solutions to these problems may arise in the moment, or you may need to reschedule in the event of lost connections.

There are ways of trying to mitigate these difficulties. When you’re planning for supervisions, try to have fall-back options – we’ve offered some suggestions in the following section, Planning your supervisions. Delays in sounds and images also mean that it’s beneficial for supervisors and supervisees to have some sort of framework for guiding interactions, so that everyone is included. You may already have some ‘classroom management’ techniques that you can adapt and share with your students; you may find some ideas in Guiding inclusive discussion and interactions.

Some students and supervisors will rely on an internal microphone or a camera built into a laptop or phone; others will have high quality external devices. A headset will prevent feedback between microphones and loudspeakers; headphones can be beneficial.

Note: for disabled students and those with neurodiverse profiles, video calls can cause major difficulties. We’ve provided some more detailed information, and some suggestions for good practice in Supervisions with disabled students.

There are other considerations relating to ‘availability’ for supervisions. Most obviously, some students may still be in a different part of the world and in different time zones from where you are. In these cases, there are some important, but basic things to check through before you start supervising using video conferencing, including privacy. We have summarised what we think are the main ones in Setting up your technology and your environment.

Some differences between online and in-person supervisions

Key points

  • How online learning environments differ from in-person settings
  • Focusing on learning to structure
  • Cultivating a sense of contact and presence online

There are many practical and creative tools at your disposal for online supervising. In order to use these tools effectively, it is first worth considering some general differences between in-person and online supervising.

Some elements of in-person teaching and learning can go missing in online environments. If you supervised during this past Easter Term, you may have experienced the challenges of an online learning environment where social cues and nonverbal feedback are either absent or greatly altered. The knowing nods, the engaged (or confused) faces – the precise cues you may rely on to gauge your students’ understanding – are not always apparent in virtual settings.

More generally, moments of spontaneous contact or simply being in the presence of others are also absent. It is beneficial to consider that students’ residential university experience is tied to space and the presence of others. Normally, in Cambridge students learn with us in lecture halls or supervision rooms, by themselves in corners of the library or with friends in college. Even when students are studying alone in the library, they are unlikely to be alone. Before the pandemic, we might not have thought much about these spaces, or the ambient presence of people in these contexts.1

In general, students found that remote supervision during Easter Term 2020 worked well. Where they did encounter difficulties, Cambridge students mentioned first problems with technological connectivity, followed by a sense of isolation. Similarly, many Cambridge educators noted an increased desire among students to connect: "I definitely feel that the students are more responsive to all the interaction (mainly emails) I offer". Another commented that they had worked "to make sessions more engaging, so [I] have asked students to prepare more presentations / lead particular parts of the discussion". Another saw a shift in how they and their students related to each other at the start of supervisions: "We take time to settle in at the beginning of the supervision. While in face-to-face meetings this is to do with getting settled in the room, now it is more about checking in on how everyone is feeling."

As you supervise online, consider how you might develop a sense of connection and presence with your students, how to give them moments of contact or community building, practices that are bound to motivate students to engage. You may also encourage your students to let you know of practices their supervisors from Easter Term 2019 used that they found particularly useful.


1For more on the concept of 'presence', see David White's blog post "The need for Presence not 'Contact Hours'".

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