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Editorial: E-Tutoring

Jay Dempster, Centre for Academic Practice, University of Warwick

There has been a considerable amount of interest and investment in the development of online learning (e-learning) in higher education. In many cases, this is driven by the desire to exploit the potential of ICT in new global markets through distance education or to provide flexible and accessible learning. The use of technology as a cost-effective solution or one that will help deal with the increasing student numbers is also a factor in some e-learning strategies. Whether the focus of activity is on development or delivery of online learning, the enhancement of staff capabilities in e-tutoring is a fundamental factor in whether e-learning is effective. Development of content (taken here to include learning activities as well as materials), interactions with students and response to learners' needs online can be very different than in classroom-based teaching. This is not just relevant to distance learning courses but is particularly crucial to 'blended learning' where classroom and online activities must be integrated in ways that allows them to deliver learning as a coherent and effective whole.

This issue of Interactions focuses on the theme of E-Tutoring. E-tutoring can be defined as teaching, support, management and assessment of students on programmes of study that involve a significant use of online technologies (TechLearn, 2000). Online learning supports and promotes different working practices for lecturers and students than traditional arrangements. There are significant distinctions in terms of time, distance and the specific technologies adopted, all of which have implications for teaching staff. A key feature of e-tutoring is to facilitate collaborative (or co-operative) learning and group working, activities involving creating, sharing and discussing work may be scheduled differently and use ICT tools in new ways.

The (e) tutor may be involved in selecting, designing, developing online courses, as well as in evaluation, adaptation and modification. Good curriculum design (including assignment/assessment design) is a crucial component underpinning effective online learning and teaching. Designing and developing courses for the web is likely to be a new area for many lecturers. However, a key role will be in delivering courses and in particular, in supporting learners. The e-tutor must take responsibility for choosing the types of communications, for encouraging and facilitating social and educational interactions and for ensuring that participation is appropriate and balanced. Pedagogical input and guidance is a key task for making sure the activities are initiated, steered, nurtured, monitored, summarised and concluded effectively.

The peer-to-tutor and peer-to-peer interactions made possible in online learning can bring clear benefits in terms of overcoming isolation and enhancing learning. However, the impact of time and place may cause anxieties for some lecturers as well as some students. The remoteness of the online learning environment can generate concerns about plagiarism and assessment of collaborative work. If courses are to be offered internationally, there may be further issues relating to language, culture, pedagogical assumptions, as well as transferability and accreditation. A major concern is the shifts in workload. However, "message overload" can often simply reflect a kind of suppressed interaction on the part of the student that is opened up by provision of an online outlet. The demands can therefore settle down over time as students become more selective about what and when they communicate online.

The main challenges that lecturers experience are: managing the shift in role from expert deliverer to guide and mentor; managing workloads; managing interactions between students; motivating and supporting students; and managing sophisticated online communications. The core skills of a good tutor are unlikely to change with a different delivery method. It is absolutely not the case that a good face-to-face tutor will be a good online tutor, even if the necessary technical abilities are added. The tutor needs to make these core skills work equally well in an online environment, requiring an ability to deploy technologies effectively and imaginatively - a pedagogic skill rather than a technical skill. Choosing between communication technologies such as email, conferencing, chat or videoconferencing will depend on what is appropriate to a given learning situation, rather than a knowledge of the technologies per se. Information retrieval skills will determine whether the tutor makes good use of the easy access to web resources as well as an ability to evaluate the quality of materials held on remote web sites.

In this issue of Interactions, our three Articles address a range of different challenges in e-tutoring.

Dr Hugh Denard, a lecturer in the School of Theatre Studies, reflects on his experiences of designing web activities and seeks to re-define e-tutoring based on the need to develop student autonomy and creativity in learning as well as supporting student collaborative work.

Stuart Sutherland, from the Warwick Business School, outlines the issues concerning the assessment of students' collaborative online work drawing on the progressive developments and learning within the Warwick distance learning MBA programme.

Mark Childs, an educational developer in the Centre for Academic Practice describes lecturers experiences and lessons learned extracted from the ANNIE Project (an external FDTL project), piloting a range of distance technologies to support the interaction of remote experts with classroom-based student groups.

The Resources section provides a list of support opportunities at Warwick outlining what CAP, ITS and elab and the Library can offer, the Teaching Development Fund, staff development resources of relevance to E-Tutoring, including books in the SRC, The Links sections of this issue offers a number of further sources of assistance and guidance, including advisory services and new web site. It includes a number of helpful E-tutoring guides at different levels of detail. For example, you will find short Online Tutoring Briefing Papers produced by TechLearn (2000), which outline the key issues for staff involved in e-tutoring and looks at the main differences to classroom teaching in terms of student support issues, pedagogical issues, tutor issues, institutional issues and some of the wider issues. The Effective Online Tutoring Guidelines (JISC/Sheffield College) publication is a more detailed resource, though is sufficiently concise and well structured to enable you to dip in and out of the pertinent issues concerning your own practice. It considers the broad roles and skills of the online tutor through various stages of course design and delivery, the management of student and group communications, and instructional design for web-based teaching and learning. Many sections are backed up by useful examples of approaches taken in real courses.


Dr Jay Dempster
Head of Educational Technology,
Centre for Academic Practice,
University of Warwick
Tel: +44 (0) 24 7652 4670

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