3 January 02004

Managing tutor support for e-learning

Prompted in part by the discussions of supporting learners at the Future of UK E-learning Market event, and partly by some work that Seb Schmoller and I have recently completed for an e-learning provider, here are some boiled-down recommendations for managing e-learning tutors.

The term 'tutor support' covers a range of practices. In a lot of Higher Education e-learning settings, the learning experience is very much tutor-guided: the online materials replace rote lectures and note-taking, leaving teaching staff to concentrate on the online version of what would normally be called a 'tutorial.' In other contexts, tutors are there to support learners only when the automated learning path breaks down or learners somehow get stuck.

These six recommendations apply to differing degrees, depending on the context.

  1. Train the tutors in online techniques. (Just to start with an obvious point.) With other associates, I'm researching training and accreditation routes as part of another project, but some options are courses like LeTTOL, CIPD's and IITT's.
  2. Treat tutors as skilled professionals. Online tutoring lends itself to flexible working arrangements and telework: a lot of tutors do a lot of their work from home or small offices. With large volumes of learners it's tempting to think of paying tutors on the basis of piece-work. To some extent this may be unavoidable, but don't treat tutoring like a factory production-line work, lest tutors start to respond in kind by teaching with their brains turned off or 'working the system' to maximise their returns from minimum effort. Ensure that tutors have scope to use their discretion in responding to the wide range of learner needs, and try to ensure they don't skimp on quality to keep within limits of time for which they will be paid.
  3. Be sophisticated about managing tutor caseload. If you have a pool of learners and a pool of tutors don't just spread the learners around haphazardly or dump new learners mechanistically on tutors who are below their quotas. Recognising that tutors are skilled professionals means it's a good idea to do what you can to enable them to build meaningful groups of learners (if peer-to-peer communications are available), or to arrange their caseload so that they have ten people on one course at one time, say, rather than four on one course, three on another and three on another. The more autonomy you give tutors, the better you enable them to increase their own effectiveness.
  4. Do everything possible to minimise the administrative load on tutors. You've heard it a million times before: tutors want to teach, not fill in forms. The main enabler or culprit in relation to admin work in e-learning is the Learning Management System (LMS). The LMS should 'informate' (in the sense defined by Zuboff, 1988) support processes, so that tutors know how learners are doing without having to ask them, and administrators know what support tutors have provided without having to ask them (with privacy considerations also designed into the system). Full interoperability between course materials and LMS is essential here; partial interoperability can serve to confuse because multiple processes have to run in parallel to make up for the areas that don't interoperate fully.
  5. Be clear about what learners can expect of tutors, what tutors expect of learners, and what both should expect from other systems and procedures. This is another area where being half-baked doesn't work. For example, if you include facilities for peer-to-peer learner discussion but do not build use of these facilities into programmed learning activities, do not be surprised if usage is sporadic and half-hearted. Most importantly, learners need to feel confident that if they raise issues with tutors they will get timely feedback and support — if they don't believe this, they are much more likely to drop out. Establish clear policies and police/monitor them carefully.
  6. Treat tutoring as one part of a whole system, and make changes holistically. E-learning management requires tuning a wide range of interdependent factors to provide an engaging and educative experience for learners. The influence of each factor on others in the system has to be taken into account when changes are made. You cannot treat different parts as independent atoms. This is one of the failings of the learning object model: if you unplug one part of a course and replace it with another, you usually have to treat and tailor this 'transplant' so that the 'host body' does not reject it. Different learning objects assume different approaches for learner-tutor interaction, so think about the tutoring policies every time you change elements of course materials. When you change tutoring policies, think about the implications for administration, learner induction and records of achievement. And so on.

To complement these recommendations, I'm planning to write another short piece on classifications of activity/intervention by e-learning tutors, and the time they take in different settings. In the meantime, other general tutoring resources can be found in the IITT's Competencies for online tutors, SEDA's Review of Web Resources for Online Tutors, and the Moderator's Home Page.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) E-learning, Teaching on 3 January 02004 | TrackBack
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