22 January 02004

Classifications for tutor support in e-learning

The different pieces of work I've done on supporting learners in e-learning over the last year have required different classifications of the tasks and activities involved. Partly the differences are down to the context of learning, and partly they're down to the purpose of the classification.

I'm not aware of much research that analyses tutors' work supporting e-learners from a management point of view. There's one research paper called Teaching Courses Online: How much time does it take?, which was published in the Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks last September. The author, Belinda Davis Lazarus, identifies three main components of the tutor's time:

  • Email — including tutor-initiated messages, learner initiated messages, and exchanges with technicians;
  • Discussions — the courses in Lazarus's study involved online discussions lasting 7-10 days, which the tutor had to monitor, participate in and assess;
  • Assignments — grading assignments submitted by the learners online.

This study and the classification that comes from it are clearly rooted in a particular model of e-learning that puts discussions and tutor interactions at the heart of the learning process. It's questionable how well they would generalise to other settings, particularly since Lazarus's data are based on only one tutor's experience and measurements, and that tutor was her.

We did some work on another e-learning setting, which was less 'tutor-centric' in its approach — some of the courses were originally designed without any expectation of tutor support or intervention — and which, in practice, had a negligible role for discussion among learners. We interviewed eight tutors, and reviewed the courses they were tutoring, but we did not take any measurements or independent records of time spent. The classification we proposed as a rough rule of thumb for tutor work was:

  • Welcoming and inducting learners — the initial stage of building a relationship with the learner and setting expectations;
  • Checking progress via system — using the data recorded in the learning management system to monitor whether learners are keeping up with their own targets for progressing through the course;
  • Checking progress with learners — a more direct intervention in asking learners how they're getting on and whether they need support in any areas;
  • Responding to learners' questions — dealing with issues that learners raise by email;
  • Rate assignments — assessing learners' work where this is not done automatically by the courseware;
  • Giving feedback on assignments — (independently of how the assignment was rated) suggesting to learners how they might improve their performance.

Again, this classification is far from universal, and was tailored to the particular needs of our client. A year ago, however, we did develop a classification that was designed to be universal, for the purposes of the British Standard, BS 8426, A code of practice for e-support in electronic learning systems. The scope for this included support provided automatically by software systems as well as by human tutors (hence the ugly term, 'e-support'). The classification goes like this:

  • Process-related e-support — helping learners follow the learning processes that enable them to complete the course without getting irretrievably stuck at any point;
  • Concept-related e-support — supporting learners if they are struggling to grasp the concepts that underpin any part of a course;
  • Performance-related e-support — helping learners to assess and, if required, improve their performance;
  • Dialogue-related e-support — helping learners engage in dialogue with other learners or with a tutor, or to learn from previous (archived) dialogue involving other learners or tutors.

I should stress that this wasn't intended to be the basis for a unified theory of learner support, or anything fancy, just a convenient framework on which to hang a bunch of recommendations for a standard! Having said that, it still holds up for the purposes I've put it to since. Feel free to post a comment below if you feel otherwise.

See also my earlier posting on managing e-learning tutors.

In all cases above the 'we' and 'us' refers to me and Seb Schmoller, who should share the credit for all the good bits above, but none of the blame for any bad bits.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) E-learning, Teaching on 22 January 02004 | TrackBack
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