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Learning to tutor online – feature

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This feature was contributed by Julia Duggleby, Senior lecturer at the Sheffield College, with responsibility for online tutor training courses, including CIPD’s Certificate in Online Learning course, 2002 winner of the Learning Skills Development Agency’s Practitioner Award For Technology And Innovation In Education Quality In Staff Development For Information And Learning Technology.


Before you read this article think about, or jot down, six or seven things which you regard as the core skills of the effective tutor. Done that? OK, here’s my list:
- good organisation
- course familiarity
- subject expertise
- enthusiasm
- ability to deploy resources effectively
- good relationships with learners
- ability to communicate

Your list won’t be exactly the same as mine, but I would be surprised if there wasn’t some overlap in our thinking.

This article is about the skills you will need for online tutoring and I shall start by saying that the core skills of the online tutor are pretty much the same as the above. However, if that is the case, why am I managing an online course which teaches tutors and trainers how to teach online? The point is that though the core skills are the same, the implementation of those skills is somewhat different. Let’s look at the skills I have put on my list, and see how those skills manifest themselves when delivering online.

Good organisation
With a face-to-face course it is relatively straightforward to see who is turning up, and who is making progress with their learning. Online this is much less easy. You must have a system for monitoring the progress of learners – for example tracking when they have completed activities and participated in peer conferencing. For small scale delivery this could be done at the least technological level with a pencil and paper, though a spreadsheet is probably an easier and more efficient way to track progress. If you work within an organisation which is delivering online learning on a large scale you may be using some sort of system which will automate the tracking of activities and participation. Either way you must know if learners are struggling or falling behind, so you can act quickly to give advice and encouragement.

Online tutoring also gives rise to large amounts of electronic communication, whether email or conferencing. You need to have a good working knowledge of what the communications systems you use can do, such as understanding and using a system of email filters and folders. Be disciplined about responding to emails, putting aside time to read emails and whenever possible dealing with them as soon as read them.

Course familiarity
You should know the course you are tutoring. There are many reasons for this. Learners may ask you to interpret the content or direct them to particular places in the content. You must now the different routes that a learner can go through to complete the course and act as a guide. You must be familiar with the assessment system for the course, making sure that your learners do what they need to do to achieve any qualification.

Subject expertise
There is discussion about the role of the tutor online, with the point being made that the online tutor’s role is to facilitate rather than lecture. I wholly endorse this view. However this does not mean that someone with good facilitation skills can teach on any course. Learners have the right to expect that you are well-informed about your subject matter, and that you will be able to give feedback that is comprehensive and knowledgeable. When moderating peer conferences you need to steer discussions to ensure that the right ground is covered, and in sufficient detail. Facilitation skills are certainly essential, but you also need to know your stuff. You should also be keeping up to date about your subject matter, and helping your learners keep up to date.

Enthusiasm
This is crucial. If you think back to the teachers that you have admired, it is their enthusiasm that you are likely to remember. So how is enthusiasm transmitted online? Be willing to engage in conference discussions, though be careful not to dominate. Welcome new ideas that arise in conferences by starting fresh discussions. Keep an eye out, and share further opportunities for exploration of topics.

Ability to deploy resources effectively
You need not be a techno genius. But you do need to know how to make best use of whatever Internet technologies your course deploys be they the web, email, a conferencing system, a learning environment. You need to know how to use the technologies creatively and appropriately, having a grasp of the principles of instructional design for the Internet so that you can create an interesting and rewarding learning experience for your learners. For example you may have the facility to use both asynchronous and synchronous discussion tools, but knowing how they each work is not enough. Thus if you want a discussion to take place which will involve your learners in research and reflection on others’ contributions, then asynchronicity works best. If you want them to brainstorm, synchronicity might be the best choice.

Good relationships with learners
It is important that your learners see you as a friend to whom they can turn. Always respond to their questions promptly and patiently, even questions that seem to you very basic. If that learner has asked a question, then it is not basic for them. Encourage your learner to see you as a human, not an automated response system, perhaps by making some remark about the weather, or a film you have seen. Some learners will pick this up gratefully, others will not want to engage like this and of course this should be respected. Pick up cues from your learners about what sort of interactions they need. Think carefully about what sort of communications should be kept private between you and your learners, using email rather than the conference if you need to say anything about which a learner may be sensitive.

Ability to communicate
It may be that the only experience that learners have of you is via a text-based medium. This need not limit you, it is all that Jane Austen and Milton used. You will be able to communicate ideas and feelings if you think carefully about what you say. For example very brief emails can be interpreted as terseness or rudeness. I do not mean that every communication should be lengthy, but that a short email can be “softened” by an informality at the end such as “Hope the weather there is better than it is here.”

Blended Learning
The focus of this article has been on the skills needed to tutor well online, but you may also be making decisions about what sort of courses you want to put online. There are few courses whose subject matter is such that they cannot have at least some online elements. The two areas that give rise to most concern are those that are primarily concerned with a practical skill, and those where oral communications are important.

In these cases then a blended approach, that is, a mix of face to face and online, may be the best way forward. A face to face could be used to demonstrate, practice and assess a practical skill. This is particularly important if the misapplication of the skill could cause harm to the learner or anyone else. An initial face to face may be needed to boost confidence, or to establish a sense of the group. Face to face may be used too for courses where human interactions need to be learned, such as interview skills or counselling. However, be aware of existing and evolving technologies that can be used in place of face-to-face sessions. For example audio conferencing can be used in a foreign language course, video conferencing could form part of an interviewing techniques course.

If you do take a blended approach, monitor this carefully for it may be that the face to face is not as necessary as you think. An online course I taught included an initial face to face because we thought it was necessary for group building, but only about half the cohort was able to attend because the course members were geographically widespread. We soon noticed that attendance made little difference either to group building or ultimate achievement, so we dropped the face to face.

Lessones Learned
I have been developing, managing and tutoring on online courses since 1996. These are the three main lessons I have learned:
1. Good online courses focus on enhancing the learner’s experience by giving them interesting things to do, rather than cluttering the course website with unnecessary animations, video, audio clips.
2. Learners need committed and pro-active tutors who understand how online tutoring differs from other tutoring.
3. Learners value support and communication with their peers as this lessens the isolation of distance learning, and increases the opportunities for meaningful collaboration.


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