TMA 02 - H802/98

Author: Yannis Karaliotas

April 1998

Tutoring online requires very different skills from tutoring face-to-face


Collaborative, Computer Conferencing, Computer Mediated Communications, Constructivist, Distance Education, Educational Process, Face-to-Face, Instructivist, Learning Environments, Online, Tutoring


Online tutoring - the instructivist model

Online tutoring - computers as cognitive tools


Online tutoring - the instructivist model

At first glance, online (tele) courses do not seem to be different from distance or f2f courses in that they can all make use of the same core material (printed, visual, audio). This is certainly the case in traditional course delivery which makes use of Computer Mediated Communication Systems (CMCSs) either as a component or as its exclusive medium, where the online presentation follows to the letter the lecture type f2f design (Collis, 1997).

In such a setting learners are expected to study course material in isolation and be assessed through Tutor Marked Assignments and Examinable Components or Invigilated Examinations; online communication is merely used here to complement or replace other means of communication (mail, telephony, facsimile, f2f) between tutors and learners in presenting tutorials and responding to student queries. At its best, it is (also) used to deliver Computer Marked Assignments (CMAs) following the tradition of the Computer Assisted Learning approach (CAL) in use since the early '80s, which is brought to a state of the art for use on the Web (Pownall, 1998).

Consequently, one would not expect that online tutoring [1] - standard keeping [2] - in such a instructivist oriented setting (Gagne et al, 1992) will require different skills other than knowing the technicalities for handling the medium. Although the significance of these new technical skills should not be underestimated, teachers, faculty members and staff in this setting will not be encouraged or trained to reach beyond the first two elementary stages of CMC literacy described by Gray (1997) and the use of computers will be confined to 'productivity' and 'delivery'.

Online tutoring - computers as cognitive tools (Gray, 1997)

Online Learning Environments are quite unlike anything educators have encountered in their professional experience and it is important that the construction of virtual spaces is carefully planned out before is actually done [3]. We need to focus on the process, not the technology, if CMC is to become a viable educational delivery system. It starts with understanding that the traditional educational process simply can't be grafted onto this new technology if contemporary educational needs of the student are to be met. This can be rather intimidating because a new paradigm is needed that is fundamentally different from that which we have so comfortably lived in and mastered for all of these years. So, comes the need to rethink the educational process and the associated methodologies, and institutions will have to change substantially (Collis, ibid. pp.565-6).

The basic principles underlying schooling in the Industrial Age, according to Jesse Goodman (Harvard Educational Review, Vol. 65, No.1, Spring 1995) were: social functionalism; efficiency and productivity; individualism; and expertism.
In today's Information Age, the skills required are: a) abstraction; b) system thinking; c) experimental thinking; and d) collaboration (Reich, 1992 & Martin, 1998).

Considering this and the fact that the Internet and particularly the Web could easily be considered the ultimate constructivist learning environment, tutors should be seen as knowledge builders and learners as apprentice knowledge builders going through "cognitive apprenticeships" (Means, 1994). The nature of the interaction in these environments leads to new paradigms for teaching and learning, with both unique problems of coordination and unique opportunities to support active, collaborative (group or team-based) learning.

Hence, tutoring online involves not only teaching and coaching but also producing learning resources together with students. This brings us in front of a number of issues which necessitate the acquisition and/or development of very different skills from the ones which are part of a f2f tutor's profile.

  1. Considering that tutoring online involves organizing and supporting a virtual learning community, is it wrong to think that the role of the online tutor changes in its socio-political context? If power differential in a f2f class/group is de facto different from the one in an online community of learners and tutors, because of remoteness and lack of f2f contact, could it be that online tutors need to also be skillful community initiators/organisers as opposed to class/group/community leaders which is mostly, if not always, the case in f2f situations?

  2. [$msgnum=214;dbnum=80]
  3. Individuals working together and mind weaving for learning in a community setting is what this medium can support best.

  4. But our western learned culture often hinders/weakens our ability to collaborate, and this applies to both students and tutors alike. The universal learner's need, in times of constraint, for "a good teacher / tutor / motivator / mentor ..." in order to resume learning could be met by accepting that peer collaborative contributions might, as well, constitute good sources of motivation or mentoring. On the part of the tutor this means accepting and implementing the student-in-the-centre principles. [$msgnum=289;dbnum=80]
  5. Which brings us to an additional basic requirement in tele-tutoring which is the ability to make use of the medium for learning. I don't mean the technical skills required in order to handle the medium, but skills which are based on the acceptance of non-competitiveness. Tele-learning, i.e. distance online learning, brought us face to face with the necessity for a non-competitive environment within which learning could successfully occur. For most of us brought up in a competition oriented teaching/learning set up, this could even mean re-training. Non-competitive practices, when used in a f2f setting, have in fact been utilized to disguise competition rather than create a non-competitive environment for learning. Hence, non-competitive skills - such as the ability to collaborate - come to the fore in tele-learning/tutoring and emerge as the set of skills that need to be rediscovered, developed and refined. [$msgnum=205;dbnum=80]
In view of these requirements and in line with the notions projected by Betty Collis, Linda Harasim and Gerry Prendergast in the taped interview contacted by Robin Mason, a number of skills differences can be identified [Msg #351]:

1. Judicious use of one's own personal qualities i.e. personality, presence, self-awareness, sensitivity, confidence, courtesy, patience, approachability.
Impact minimised online

2. The ability to establish & maintain rapport.
Severely reduced effect online

3. Understanding individual learners' motivation, needs, expectations, background, ability, learning style, culture, and responding to them.
Clues obscured online

4. Use of voice i.e. audibility, projection, modulation, speed, clarity of diction.
Becomes use of written word

5. Lesson preparation & planning showing awareness of level/ability, time of day, normal concentration curves, and anticipated learner difficulties which will influence timing, balance of activities, patterns of interaction, limitation of aims, choice of aids, materials and methods.
Online courses must prepare larger chunks at a time, therefore less easy to adapt to individual classes of learners; method and mode more restrictive

6. Classroom management i.e. organising physical resources, giving instructions, controlling changes of pace, grouping and activity.
Asynchronous online, students set own pace

7. Techniques for presenting material to make it clear, memorable, motivating and involving, checking learners' grasp of concept before moving on.
Relies wholly on written word online, hard to check understanding until after formal assessment

8. Questioning techniques that include and involve everyone.
Used sparingly online - questions hidden in debate, easier for students not to respond

9. Setting up logically sequenced and meaningful tasks, collaborative and individual, that aid learning.
Asynchronous collaboration is more time-consuming

10. Use of aids i.e. books, worksheets, board, pictures, objects, video, audio tapes, OHPs, IT.
Decidedly more technical online

11. Correction techniques - knowing when, how and what to correct.
Easier to do subtly online

12. Ability to adapt and extemporise, deal with the unexpected, have subject knowledge at your fingertips.
Online, can look things up, plan changes

13. Ability to create, evaluate, adapt and exploit course materials.
Online, poor materials cannot be compensated for by on the spot explanations or cleverly devised activities

14. Net weaving, ability to weave threads.
Often critical in an on-line environment

15. Protecting against information overload

16. Collaborative learning techniques.
The need to understand the benefits and limitations of collaborative learning techniques

17. Monitoring and directing student interaction appropriately.
The need to cope with "listening to all the conversations and maybe even different dinner parties that are going on at the same time" is one of the deepest skill levels peculiar to online tutoring.

18. Structuring peer feedback and evaluation of ideas


Online Collaborative Learning Environments may even be the essence of the major turn that education could be taking towards the beginning of the next millennium, affecting all modes of learning (FUTURE SCENARIOS). Collaboration referring to working in teams where insights, experiences, puzzles and solutions are shared and pondering (Bouton & Garth, 1983; Bruffee, 1984; Johnson, 1981; Johnson & Johnson, 1975; McConnell, 1994), which has already been accepted as the basis of tele-learning, needs to be sought after at any level (Mssgs #206, #207, #376 responding to #190), and collaborative skills as part of a non-competitive set would be fundamental for ensuring that teachers/trainers/tutors (3Ts) generate collaboration by collaborating, i.e. accept and utilize their role as (specialist) peers.

It may be the case that the role of future successful *tutors* won't be to simply facilitate or moderate, but to be the model learner able to demonstrate the ways learning is generated. This can even be read as: Generating learning through learning how to learn in a non-competitive environment [Msg #205].


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Bruffee, K. A. 1984 - Background and History to Collaborative Learning in American Colleges, College English, 46 (7), 635-652.

Collis, B. 1997 - Tele-learning in a Digital World, ISBN 1-85032-157-4 UK, pp.562-565

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Johanson, Terri L. EdD 1996, THE VIRTUAL COMMUNITY OF AN ONLINE CLASSROOM (Academic Research Study), Oregon State University -

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Pownall, H. 1998 - PhD. U of Leicester, UK - Authoring Assessments on the Web: The CASTLE Project in 1998 TCC ONLINE CONFERENCE "Online Instruction: Trends and Issues II" TCCOC98, &

Reeves, T. & Reeves, P. 1997 - Effective Dimensions of Interactive Learning on the WEB - in Web-Based Instruction (WBI), ed. Khan, B. ISBN 0-87778-297-0 USA, p. 64 [Up]

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Copyright 1998 Yannis Karaliotas