Currently I’m being paid to write online resources aimed at supporting staff to design and tutor online courses. Offering developmental guidance for online tutors is only one aspect of our work at Flourish Learning but it struck me it’s worth sharing some of my experiences of online tutoring. The developmental resources I’ve been commissioned to write are based on these experiences, but as stand- alone guidance they lack some of the personal tone I want to inject into this post. If you are unfamiliar with our work at Flourish Learning Ltd, then the context is that our work is focused on online learning for post-18 learners.

The work I will talk about in this and following posts will be informed by our work in continuing professional development. Those of you who are online tutors already will be aware of the differences between a ‘face to face’ tutor and an online tutor, but clearly there is still a need for advice and guidance about making that transition successfully.

So here’s my advice to professionals who are moving from face to face to online tutoring:

First, be aware there is good advice already available about being an online tutor and I’m not intending to replicate this. If you read one book on online tutoring it’s got to be Gilly Salmon’s ‘E-moderating’ and if you go to her website, you’ll find she’s shared her expertise extensively (and you will find details of her publications here).

Second, remember that as an online tutor, whatever you do, you will have an impact. Just as it is a challenge to know if an online learner is engaging with a course, learners will find it a challenge to know if their tutor is engaging with them and the course. How are you going to demonstrate you are ‘present’ even if you are taking a back seat as part of your teaching strategy? It may be tempting to be a ‘noisy’ tutor producing lots of information in your course site to show you are available, but this will rarely be helpful for the learners.

So how can you show presence in a subtle way that underpins the ‘facilitator’ approach?

Here’s a few approaches I take, and I’ll share more in subsequent posts:

Included in a warm, welcoming message at the start of an online course, I outline my availability:

Example: I shall log onto the course every week day from 10am -11am. I will monitor the discussion boards, however I won’t respond to every contribution. If you do have a question outside of these hours, then you can post to the frequently asked questions forum and one of your peers may be able to help, or if your query is of a technical nature, the help desk is xxx@xxx.ac.uk

I stick to this while the course is running. Of course, I’m usually logging on more than once a day for more than an hour but I may not want to be disturbed during this time as I shall be reading contributions, making notes and preparing summaries of discussions.

I use the course participation reports extensively. If you are a Blackboard user and your organisation has made the Retention Centre available, you can set an alert to notify you if a learner hasn’t logged on or participated. If a learner isn’t engaging then I find out if they are logging on, or, if they are logging on, where are they going and what are they doing. Occassionally it is clear that a learner has ‘got lost’ on the course site and isn’t arriving at the correct place. Then I contact the learner individually by email saying that I’ve noticed their activity (or non-activity) and what can I do to help. I’ve never had a negative response to an email of this nature – it’s always been received gratefully and sometimes with a sense of ‘wow, the tutor cares for me even though I’ve not been contributing’. Once I’ve communicated with the non-engaged learners (we can call them lurkers if you like), I signal this in an end of week summary posted on the course site.

End of week summary posted on the course site: It’s important to remember that some learners will not be very present or engaged, while others will be trying very hard to make an impact. This is a crucial juncture in your course where your ‘impact’ is going to be felt – either positive or negative. I recommend that in your end of week summary (or start of the new week if that is the way your course works) you say something like:

Example: Thank you to everyone who has contributed to the activities this week. [Mention any learners by name if their contributions have been particularly good]. Those of you who have been quiet will have received an email from me asking if there is anything I can do to help to get you going with the activity. As we move forward I’m now looking forward to contributions from everyone.

I find this strategy is effective because it signals to the active learners:

  • Their contributions have been noticed and appreciated
  • As the tutor I am working to encourage contributions from everyone
  • It potentially models how the non-engaged learners should be welcomed by the other learners

Every learner who reads the posts now knows I’m working ‘behind the scenes’ and I’ve avoided being a ‘noisy’ online tutor.

Please feel free to share your tips of online tutoring in the comments.

The University of Oxford’s Department for Continuing Education run a 6 week online course ‘Effective Online Tutoring’. The next cohort is led by my colleague Kathyln Bradshaw (Since 2012 Kathlyn and I take turns to be the tutor for this excellent course). In the autumn the Department will be running the course authored by me ‘Effective Online Course Design’. I’ll be the tutor on this as well so watch out for more details.

Next post will be about facilitating an effective webinar or synchrous online tutorial.