When online tutoring makes a difference

I am a full-time PhD student. Most of my studies revolve around my thesis. I don’t have any formal classes, but I do have weekly supervisions. These help me organize my ideas, identify new paths, ask questions and set deadlines. I plan each meeting beforehand and keep a record of everything, organized by achievements (yes, I chose that word merely to motivate myself), issues and next steps (when applicable). Usually my tutorials last one hour and take place face-to-face.

However, throughout my studies I have travelled often, mostly to Mexico where I collaborate with different institutions. I have been gone up to 5 consecutive months. During these periods I have continued with my weekly supervisions, online. This is called online tutoring or e-tutoring.

Sometimes the 6-hour difference between Mexico and the UK makes it too complicated to find a suitable time for both me and my supervisor to meet synchronously. When that happens, we turn to emails to communicate asynchronously. I try to be very succinct and use bullet points. Being clear is crucial. My key question for myself is: What do I really want to know from my supervisor? And that’s exactly what I ask for.

I know that if I am vague, I might get a reply with a question, instead of an answer (e.g., what do you mean?). If I have limited time to make a decision, I need timely feedback. I can’t risk wasting time in avoidable explanations. On the other hand, I can afford to be chattier (and more ambiguous) when the tutorial is synchronous because I will have several opportunities to explain myself and ask further questions.

I do have my supervisor on Gmail chat. Theoretically, if I saw him online, I could send him a message at any time to sort any quick issue. It would be a bit like knocking on his office door and interrupting him briefly. However, I try not to do so, unless it’s an emergency. While technology is great for helping people contact each other, regardless of times and places, I think it would be intrusive to try to chat with my supervisor past office hours. Tutorials should stick to formally allocated times and means.

Online tutoring can use several tools apart from emails. Those that integrate voice and text communications (e.g., Skype, Adobe Connect) are particularly useful for synchronous sessions. Choosing the best one depends on the context and the needs. The technology should be available for both the student and the tutor, and they should feel comfortable using it.  When I am in Mexico, connection speed is regularly an issue, which translates into broken sound, echo and disconnections. My supervisor and I always have a plan B (and C). We start with Skype and switch to Gmail chat if necessary. If both options fail, we talk on the phone.

Mexico: Internet speed at a private university

UK: Internet speed at my home


Due to the technical limitations, we rarely use video. I don’t really think I am missing out on much. Maybe if I was a full-time distance student, I would need more of the non-verbal cues that video can offer, but I am not. I have met my supervisor face-to-face enough times to adequately interpret his messages. Plus, it’s actually quite comfortable to be able to have a tutorial in pyjamas…

Another great tool for online tutorials (and collaborative work in general) is Google Docs (now Google Drive). It is great for sharing files and editing them simultaneously with others. I also use it to keep a backup of my work. Perhaps its best feature is the chat box, which enables you to talk about the document without actually editing it.

The communication is very efficient when using Skype and Google Docs at the same time. I can discuss a document with my supervisor while looking at it. We can see in real-time the changes we are doing. AND if the sound breaks, we can turn to the Google Doc chat to keep the conversation flowing.


Sample Google Doc with chat box


Irrespective of its format (synchronous or asynchronous), online tutoring has made a difference for me. It provided me timely support in a flexible way. It is also useful for my peace of mind. I know I can be wherever and keep moving forward in my studies. Place and time are no issues. For people interested in engaging in online tutoring, I recommend it. I think it is a great way of helping distance learners.

FAQ of Online Tutoring

What is online tutoring?

It is supporting students’ learning process via the Internet.

Who can benefit from online tutoring?

Students working on projects abroad, distance students and supervisors with tight schedules.

Why is online tutoring useful?

Because timely support can be provided in a flexible way.

When is online tutoring useful?

When it is complicated to meet face-to-face due to time or geographic constraints.

What do I need to do online tutoring?

You need to know how to communicate online (e.g., be clear and brief) and to feel comfortable using your chosen tool.

What is the best tool for online tutoring?

It is one easily available to the student and the tutor, one that both feel comfortable using. In my case, it is a combination of Skype, GMail chat and Google Docs .

What are some suggestions for people interested in engaging in online tutoring?

  1. Have formally allocated times and means for tutorials.
  2. Plan the tutorials beforehand.
  3. Keep asynchronous communications brief and clear.
  4. Consider technological limitations, like connection speed, when selecting the communication tool.
  5. Have a plan B (and C) in case the technology fails.

While this is the way I have experienced it, the potential of online tutoring is greater. For example, it could also benefit small groups of students at a time. Although  finding a suitable time to meet synchronously and organizing tutorials in such a way that they are meaningful for all participants might be challenging, once that is sorted, group online tutoring can help optimize supervisors’ time and create a support network for learners.

What has been your experience?

Confessions of a PhD Student (8): “Sometimes I ignore my supervisor”

Ok. I know how this title must sound. I know what some readers must be thinking: “It is not a good idea to write that! Even if it is true!”. :-)

Let me explain. First, my supervisor is great. He has been able to deal with my unconventional ways (if you read my previous confessions, you will know what I am talking about!) and teach me so many things at the same time!

But still, sometimes I ignore him. It took me a while to realize I had to. He tends to show me a wide range of resources, frameworks, paths I can walk on. It is my job to decide which one suits me best. Even when it is clear that he has a preference, I have to be responsible for my own study and take my own decisions, which might be in line with his ideas or not. As long as I can justify my actions, it is ok. There is more than one right way of doing research.

Once my supervisor told me, “You have never asked me what to do. That would go against your nature”. He is probably right. I am very independent in my learning. However, that does not mean that I do not ask for help if I need it. It only means that I am able to set my own goals and follow them through, even if that implies ignoring my supervisor every once in a while.

– Brenda Padilla

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