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E-tutoring in synchronous and asynchronous environments

Mark Childs, Centre for Academic Practice, University of Warwick

The ANNIE project (Accessing and Networking with National and International Expertise) was a two-year project undertaken jointly by the University of Warwick and the University of Kent at Canterbury, and ran from January 2001 to March 2003. The project aimed to enhance students' learning experience in Theatre Studies by enabling access to research-led teaching and to workshops led by practitioners of national and international standing. Most of the participating academic staff and students had little or no experience of educational technologies and the participating universities have no developed distance-learning infrastructure. The ANNIE project was therefore initiating the development of expertise and technological support for remote access to experts within the departments. Various technologies were used to achieve this, particularly videoconferencing, CMC and the Internet. Throughout the project close to 20 activities took place, involving lectures, performance-based workshops, vivas, seminars and tutorials, as well as two distance-learning based modules. This paper will review the different forms of e-tutoring that took place, and examine the advantages of using these, the difficulties faced in using them and solutions adopted to overcome these difficulties.

Defining e-tutoring

The definition of "to tutor" is to work with an individual or small group. However, the term connotes more than this, since lecturing or conducting a workshop with a small group does still not constitute tutoring. Although it can be misleading to look for connotations of meaning in the roots of words, that the root of tutorial is the Latin "tueri" ("to watch over") indicates that tutoring must involve an element of "watching over", i.e. some personal guidance, in order to constitute tutoring. If the guidance occurs at a distance then the process is e-tutoring. However, even the dictionary definition is ambiguous, since it begs the question "how small is small?"

Since e-tutoring is specifically concerned with personal guidance, not all of the ANNIE activities and technologies are applicable to a study of e-tutoring. Those that are applicable are:

  • American Experimental Theatre
  • Aspects of Practice
  • Computer Modelling
  • Lest We Forget
  • MA in Professional Development
  • Reflective Practice in Dance
  • Stand-up Comedy
  • Virtual Scenography

The description of the ANNIE case studies can be found  here

Forms of e-tutoring

Personal guidance at a distance can be divided into two main types: synchronous and asynchronous. The deciding factor in all of the examples of e-tutoring within ANNIE that determined which of these were chosen was a logistical one rather than a pedagogical one, i.e. was it possible to schedule a time when both tutor and tutee could attend at the same time?

The following case studies used an asynchronous form of tuition:

  • Aspects of Practice
  • Computer Modelling
  • Reflective Practice in Dance

and the following used synchronous:

  • American Experimental Theatre
  • MA in Professional Development
  • Stand-up Comedy
  • Virtual Scenography

The case study Lest We Forget used both synchronous and asynchronous at separate times.

Asynchronous e-tutoring

The platforms used for asynchronous e-tutoring were:

  • web-based fora (Computer Modelling, Lest We Forget)
  • email (Reflective Practice)
  • hyperlinked web-pages (Aspects of Practice)

The last of these was a compromise between the need to continue to communicate with the visiting theatre group once their face-to-face workshop had finished (i.e. to create a virtual residency) and the preference to not require too much of the students in the form of acquiring ICT skills. Rather than ask them to take part in an electronic forum, therefore, the students emailed their questions to the theatre company, cc-ing these to a web developer. The resulting correspondence was uploaded to the course website.

Although the decision to use asynchronous tuition was primarily to enable communication between participants who could not always attend at the same time, the mode had other advantages over synchronous communication. These were:

  • allowing period for reflection,
  • recording ideas for further review,
  • enabling peer-to-peer tuition,
  • personal detachment.

Peer-to-peer tuition only occurred in the case studies that used fora and hyperlinked webpages. For the case study Reflective Practice, it would have been inappropriate for these correspondences to be made public in this way, since the nature of the reflection was, in some cases, very personal. Personal detachment was only applicable to the Reflective Practice module. The facilitator of this module stated that the medium (and the additional factor that the students did not have the facilitator for any face-to-face work at all) meant that the students felt able to make comments in their journals that they would not have felt comfortable making in a more public and less anonymous medium. Although the students could have chosen to meet the lecturer for face-to-face sessions, none chose to, which could indicate a desire to preserve this detachment.

Participation in the fora was low. The Aspects of Practice discussion started off well, since the submission of the first set of questions to the theatre group was made a classroom-based activity. There were very few follow-up questions to this initial set. Within the computer modelling module participation started off well and then trailed off. The Lest We Forget forum also had low levels of participation, partly because the time taken to create the forum meant that there was little time left in the module for the students to participate. This matches other work [1] that indicates that students' participation in online discussion is low.

The Reflective Practice and Computer Modelling lecturers both made the observation that asynchronous tuition has the problem of identifying, addressing the needs of, and communicating with students that have problems. For example:

"When you're relying on written feedback you can't explain some things. The limitation of written feedback is that it is easy to misread and take offence. But if it is on phone, the tone of voice helps you to convey the meaning of what you're saying. The speed of exchange means you can keep on top of communication, (if someone misunderstands then) you can pick up on it straight away and correct it. Some stopped (communicating) possibly because the email was one way (at one time). I'd send a reply to a student and then not hear from them again."


"It is incredibly stressful from a teacher's point of view because you don't know how they're progressing. When student C doesn't email me for a week, then you don't know whether she's doing OK, so doesn't need me, or has given up. In a face-to-face when they don't turn up then you know they haven't turned up. In distance learning then you don't know. It's like shepherding sheep without a sheepdog. Communication is more problematic. It takes a couple of days to clarify a point, then for them to respond for you to clarify further."

For these reasons, there are severe disadvantages to running a course entirely through asynchronous discussion. The lecturer on the Computer Modelling course will use NetMeeting or face-to-face meetings in the future, and concluded that the online aspects work well for simple instruction-based work, and imparting of knowledge, but the higher-level conceptual aspects of the course require synchronous communication.

Synchronous communication

There are several hardware and software platforms that can support synchronous communication, and these use different combinations of video, audio and text. Those used within the ANNIE project are:

Video: NetMeeting, iVisit, ISDN
Audio: NetMeeting, Yahoo, telephone
Text: NetMeeting, Yahoo, Warwick's in-house chat system

Different combinations of these have been used at the same time, for example, NetMeeting for video and text, plus telephone for audio.

Suitability of videoconferencing to tutorials

Of the various learning activities it is possible to conduct through videoconferencing, tutorials are the most suitable. This is because the technology is weakest at supporting simultaneous communication with large groups of people, the "many-to-one"communication mode described in the paper "Videoconferencing Approaches" [2]. Many-to-one communications involve communication behaviours that we are perhaps not aware of in a face-to-face situation. These are gestural cues which help to convey attention levels, levels of understanding, degrees of tiredness or impatience and guide the lecturer in selecting the amount of information to give students, the rate at which to proceed and when to take a break. The absence of these becomes very apparent in the videoconferencing environment. Technological limitations such as audio echo, restricted video view and time delay also are an impediment to effectively working with large groups. When conducting lectures and seminars via videoconferencing, for them to be effective, a more structured approach must be taken, which at first can seem stilted and overly formal. Engaging students with purely didactic sessions is far more difficult with videoconferencing; the lack of physical presence of the lecturer, and their reduction to an image on a screen is even more demanding on students' degree and duration of attention than a face-to-face session. For this reason tutorials and supervisions tend to work better via videoconferencing than lectures and software demonstrations, since they are customarily more interactive and student-centred and are with small groups of students.

How small is small?

The question of defining a "small group" becomes more crucial with videoconferencing because of the limits of using a desktop PC for the videoconference. Once these limits are exceeded then the users must switch to room-based technologies that are less user-friendly, more expensive and begin to run into the problems listed in the last paragraph.

In observing small group work with videoconferencing technology, the following effect of numbers on the group work is noticeable.

1 person
Obviously this isn't group work, but it is included here as an opportunity to point out that when information and communication technology is involved there may be additional problems with only having one student at the other end. If the student is unfamiliar with the technology, they may feel isolated and unsure of themselves. Observing students in workshops within IT suites indicates that those working on their own often make slower progress than those who work with a partner.

2 persons
With two people engaged at a terminal then communication with each other can facilitate learning. This is true in normal face-to-face situations, when peer-to-peer learning can take place. When faced with unfamiliar technology there the additional advantage that the participants can also pool their understanding of the technology (reassuring each other which is the correct icon to click on, for example). Roles can be delegated, such as one student to type, the other student to talk to the webcamera. With students that are less confident with the technology, this can especially facilitate learning.

3 persons
This is slightly more problematic than two person. Physically being able to cluster around the monitor is more difficult; one student becomes slightly more isolated than the other two.

4 or more
This is the point at which the learning environment breaks down. It is very difficult to engage all the students when four are working at one PC. At four students, the group has to break into two rows, those in the second row cannot properly engage with the activity, cannot be picked up by the microphone and cannot properly see the monitor.

Within the field of e-tutoring then, 'small groups' means "engaging with less than four students at any one time." More flexibility is possible where the tutorial is taking place with students at more than one location, since the technology will allow all the students to participate equally. In fact, participants on multiway videoconferences have stated that it is a far more egalitarian learning environment than a face-to-face situation, since no-one (even the tutor) can be given prominence by the environment. There are limits here though (possibly four or five persons, although the ANNIE project did not explore multisite work as much as site-to-site work) because this technology too has its constraints (described below).

Experience of synchronous work with small groups

Within the ANNIE project, only two of the case studies that used synchronous communication were actually limited to small groups. These were Lest We Forget and Virtual Scenography. These were observed and evaluated, and the lessons learnt recorded in the document  'Guidelines for videoconferencing'. The section of this document that specifically deals with tutorials is in appendix 1. The student feedback for these sessions was favourable, especially for Virtual Scenography, since this was the only contact the students had with this lecturer, and the tutorial took place at a very opportune time for their learning. This is perhaps the strongest argument for conducting e-tutoring in this method; the flexibility that the technology allows with regard to time and location. Guidance can be provided from any office in the world to any student in the world, limited only by the availability of the people involved.

Working with larger groups

Despite the limits on effectively working with larger groups, in larger groups there is a possibility of working with students and providing personal guidance, by working with the students individually in turn. This is the format adopted in the case studies American Experimental Theatre, MA in Professional Development and Stand-up Comedy. This can be appropriate in learning activities where oneÿs feedback to one student may be of value to the rest of the class. In American Experimental Theatre, students presented their end of term assignments to the lecturer. The students were in a conference room (the only place large enough that had ISDN connectivity) and the lecturer was located in a videoconferencing suite in Frankfurt-an-Main. The students found the use of a document reader camera to be useful, since it could also be used to project images to the rest of the class, as well as sending the image to the lecturer. However, the students found the size of the screen image, and the unusual location, intimidating. Although the tuition worked successfully, the class following discussion did not, since the lecturer was isolated through the constraints of the technology described above.

The Stand-Up Comedy tuition also worked effectively. The students presented their routines to the lecturer via room-based equipment that used IP connections, and so could be located in their rehearsal studio. This had the advantage of being an appropriate learning environment. The only drawback with this as a communication form was that the time lag was far more invasive, since it meant that jokes would be laughed at half-a-second too late, which the students found very off-putting.

Multisite tutoring

The most complex of the tutorials attempted was the support given to an external tutor to provide guidance to students on the MA in Professional Development at UHI Millennium Institute on developing their research questions for their dissertations. The lecturer was located in Shrewsbury, the students were in Elgin, Stornoway, Inverness and Orkney. Although the students had a great deal of experience of videoconferencing (it is UHI Millennium Instituteÿs main medium for learning and teaching), the guest tutor's only experience of videoconferencing was reading through the ANNIE guidance materials.

The tutor managed the separate sites by working with one student on their research questions, then giving them a task (usually a question for them to think about the answer to), then moving on to the next. A document reader enabled the tutor to write notes for the student to see, some of which had been partially completed before the session to save time. The tutor made the following comments about the session afterwards:

Taking it in order worked - staying with an individual until there was some sort of closure. It doesn't let the process down, it's just a different process. I wasn't thinking "how different is this from a (face-to-face) tutorial?"

I was impressed by the sheer extent of focused concentration of the participants - because they're involved in a more equal circumstance than in any (face-to-face) seminar or tutorial.

I like the egalitarianism. We're all in a comparable situation (in a videoconference). I could respect and relate to the very high levels of concentration involved. (As a student) you can normally ease back a bit (in f2f).

(If I were to do another videoconference) I would do more preparation in the sense of partial completion of what goes on the document reader, to be completed in the session. I wouldn't do a PowerPoint presentation - it's not in keeping (with what the sessions are about). It's more appropriate to use video reading (i.e. use a document reader).

The tutor also commented on the strong sense of physical presence of the students. This was because voice-activation [3] had been selected for the images, so the students' faces filled the monitor. The exception to this was the student at Inverness, who was sitting far back from the camera, and hence had far less presence when she was on screen compared to the others.

When using multisite videoconferences it is therefore possible to adequately teach up to four, and perhaps five, students.  Although higher numbers havenÿt been tested within the project, the constraints of the technology would limit the numbers because:

  • If voice-activation is selected, students will not be able to easily interject with questions without excessively disrupting the session.
  • If permanent presence is selected, then the participants will occupy too small a part of the screen and therefore have limited visual connection with each other.
  • Because the system supports a series of one-to-ones more effectively than a group discussion, this would seem to be the best way to use the technology. This does mean, though, that students have to wait for their turn to interact. The more students involved, the greater the ratio of the time spent observing to the time spent interacting. Although no study has been done yet in the ANNIE project concerning what the maximum ratio students will feel comfortable with, this does suggest that this would present an upper limit to the number of students that could participate in this form of learning activity.

The main points of learning concerning e-tutoring gathered from evaluation of the ANNIE case studies are as follows:

Asynchronous communication
The main determinant in using synchronous or asynchronous communication is the logistics of scheduling the attendance of the participants

The platform selected for facilitating asynchronous communication is determined by the lecturer's expectations of his/her students with respect to the level of ICT literacy it is appropriate for them to acquire.

Asynchronous communication may have the following advantages (depending on the situation)

  • allowing period for reflection,
  • recording ideas for further review,
  • enabling peer-to-peer tuition,
  • personal detachment.

and may have the following disadvantages

  • Asynchronous communication usually results in low virtual attendance.
  • Identifying and supporting failing students is particularly difficult in asynchronous tuition.
  • Accurately conveying meaning is more difficult in asynchronous than synchronous communication.

Synchronous communication

The optimum number of students at a videoconference terminal is two. Four or more is not practicable.

Larger groups can be tutored, but this is more effective as a series of one-to-one communications, rather than a group discussion.

Multisite tutorials can work, but select voice-activation and highly structure the interactions.

Specific guidelines on techniques for tutoring via videoconferencing are here

Mark Childs
Centre for Acadmic Practice
University of Warwick
Tel: 02476 574057


[1] For example, a similar project at the University of Northern Carolina  and this study made by Kock et al, 1999, at Temple University, Pennsylvania: A Field Study of Success and Failure Factors in Asynchronous Groupwareÿ Business Process Management Journal, Vol 5 No 3 pp 238 - 253


[3] Two modes are possible with multisite videoconferencing, permanent presence, in which all participants can be seen at the same time, each in a small part of the screen and voice-activation, in which the participant is only seen when s/he is making a sound, but who then fills the whole screen.


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