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?

Virtually Futuristic – Attention, Spoilers Ahead…

In line with IMDB’s message board etiquette  I need to warn you that you may find spoilers in the remainder of this post – “remarks or pieces of information which reveal important plot elements, thus ‘spoiling’ a surprise and robbing the viewer of the suspense and enjoyment.” The Creating Academic Learning Futures (CALF) project here at Beyond Distance Research Alliance is all about spoilers. It is attempting to get a glimpse of possible futures of learning and teaching, and “to reveal important elements of the plot” for higher education with the help of students.

All scenarios that students participating in the project have created so far envisage some form of teaching and learning in virtual worlds in the future. Even students, who did not know of Second Life prior to their participation in CALF, believed that in the future people will learn in “worlds in the computer” as one student put it, as much as they do today in the physical world. Is this shared anticipation a spoiler, a signal of a very possible future? I consider it to be.

Recently there has been a wave of big budget Hollywood films about virtual worlds. There was the premiere of the trailer for James Cameron’s Avatar (it will be the most expensive film ever made, apparently) and this week in theatres on is Surrogates with Bruce Willis. Both films are set in futures where humans live their lives through representations of themselves.  Could these movies be the “spoilers” of possible futures?

 If they are, it will not be the first time that something predicted in a sci-fi movie has come true. In Johnny Mnemonic  humans could have their memories removed to free up space within their brains or so that data can be locked in the brain with codes to protect it and only last week the CNN posted a story about a researcher at Microsoft who is converting his brain into e-memory. In Surrogates people live confined in their rooms while controlling through the nerves of their eyes their robot representations in the outside world – recently it was reported that MIT has developed technology that can help blind people see again by projecting visual input directly onto the brain.

 Perhaps the question then is not “If” there will be teaching and learning in virtual worlds, but instead “What if” there is, how will the world change? In getting me to think about this “ripple” effect of new technologies, I found the Surrogates movie to be well worth the £5.50 I paid for my ticket and I recommend it to anyone who is working on virtual worlds. In the future of Surrogates mortality of contactable diseases had dropped with 90% – because people were not in contact with each other anymore. So had mortality of accidents and crime – everyone was safe in their fortified homes. Birth rates had also fallen for obvious reasons and that had solved the overpopulation problem which would have otherwise loomed because of the increased longevity. The movie focused a great deal on the issues to do with identity and identity theft and while these diversions into causes, consequences and possibilities may have diluted the plot, they made for a very inspiring experience from a futurist perspective.

 In the CALF project, analogy has proven a powerful tool for idea generation for “spoilers” for the possible futures ahead. Encouraging students to seek analogies with things they are familiar with, including science fiction movies, in order to generate and ground ideas about possible futures, has yielded scenarios that are structured and easier and quicker to communicate.

I guess what I am trying to say is – It is Friday today, treat yourself to a movie. And do put a comment here if what you see inspires you to think of a possible future…

Sandra Romenska

Beyond Distance Research Alliance, 2 October 2009

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