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E-Tutoring and Transformations in Online Learning

Hugh Denard, School of Theatre Studies, University of Warwick


From a pedagogical point of view, it has long been recognised that resource-based learning takes place most effectively when students are actively engaged in creating, manipulating, editing, annotating, and interpreting resources.  The School of Theatre Studies at Warwick has led a number of ICT projects, each of which has contributed something to our understanding of issues in the application of technology within Higher Education.  A current project, ARCHES, is looking at ways to bring together resources, and academic and pedagogical expertise, in order to explore innovative ways of deploying electronic resources in teaching and learning.  This article offers a reflection on experiences of designing web activities that seek to develop student autonomy and creativity in learning as well as supporting student collaborative work. It is an attempt to take stock of how we have been trying to re-think and re-define the role of e-tutoring as we learn more about both its pitfalls, and the opportunities that it offers.

E-tutoring must be defined as the whole range of pedagogical practices, online and offline, that supports essential, interactive, integrated and reflective e-learning.

To begin on a slightly sceptical note, the truth is we still have a lot to learn about online communities. A quick perusal of the bibliography on e-learning confirms that we can easily become too fixated on technology. The very terms we use, such as 'educational technology', 'e-learning' and 'e-tutoring', can predispose us to begin by asking "what can technology do for learning?" rather than starting from a more holistic perception of teaching and learning in which technology is one of many different instruments at our disposal, to be used, if at all, in combination with others.

Computers are superb at delivering certain kinds of resources to students. At first glance, that would seem to make them ideal media for enabling resource-based learning; hence the great attention to digitisation by funding bodies and research groups. But increasingly, that attention has shifted to the issue of 'take up'. It is now recognised that, although numerous high-quality resources are available online, relatively few have yet been meaningfully incorporated into the work of educators or students. Millions of pounds have been expended on digitisation projects that do not seem to answer to any broadly-shared pedagogical or research need.

Matters are not improved by the fact that we are now an information-beleaguered society: subject to a superabundance of electronically-transmitted information - much more than can reasonably be processed by even the most assiduous e-consumer. In this context, the creation and dissemination of 'content', however worthy, can no longer be regarded as a self-evident virtue.

From a pedagogical point of view, it has long been recognised that resource-based learning takes place most effectively when students are actively engaged in creating, manipulating, editing, annotating, and interpreting resources. As Alexander and Boud put it: "the delivery of information per se does not promote the kind of learning outcomes that constitute a university education where independent thought, reflection and abstraction are valued" (in Stephenson, 2001, p.6). Yet, most online 'digitisation' projects cast their users as more or less passive receivers of 'content'. And the delivery of image, sound-file, video or text to the user's desktop is too often considered to be the end of the process. Even such sophisticated enterprises as The Canterbury Tales Project (, have found that the kinds of questions upon which they can most dramatically impact no longer occupy dominant positions within academic discourse. Too often the result is a database in search of a user.

Besides which, as I discovered when piloting a distance-taught module for the TELRI project a few years ago, there are some problems which are simply human. It is an oft-cited benefit of electronic communication that it can encourage considered contributions from those who remain mute in the classroom. But what about the student who wants, not unreasonably, to live and communicate 'in the moment', and who resents being forced constantly to view the world at 72 dpi? Who dislikes being expected to spend yet more hours with mind and body stranded on the opposite sides of a computer screen? Who rejects repetitive brain injury: that dulling of originality and creativity through the attrition of repetition? More invidiously, who suspects that these 'virtual' activities, paradigms, and modes of access are silently working to condition and constrain the means by which knowledge can be formed, perhaps even the very desires that lead to the production of knowledge? The near ubiquity of texting has eroded some of Generation-X's resistance to e-learning. But notwithstanding all the bureaucratic chatter of 'skills benchmarking' and 'employability targets', the techno-sceptical student's objections remain, and remain valid. It is therefore incumbent upon us as educators to consider these concerns seriously.

Added to which is an academic-pastoral dimension. We all crave those ideal seminars which almost seem to teach themselves - ideas and contributions firing off the enthusiasms and imaginations of the participants. But few of us can have been lucky enough to escape its opposite on occasions. Likewise, each online group will have its own dynamics, and its own shifts in dynamics over time. The hard question for those of us with an interest in e-learning is: does e-tutoring make it easier or more difficult to monitor and to facilitate the interactions of real people?

In cyberspace, so many of the vital signs of life that one absorbs in the classroom are missing: body language, the pallor of tiredness or depression, distraction, lack of engagement. We can all lie online. Are the words that students send true? Can our interpersonal sensors detect the myriad of symptoms that signal someone in trouble, failing, drowning? Moreover, by reducing people to the sum of their textual signals, the very deployment of e-tutoring threatens to compound that most pernicious and insulting lie of all: that we are no longer teachers or educators of students, but 'service providers' for 'clients'. As insulting to students as it is to those who teach them. Why then rush to replace the living interaction of minds, bodies, sensibilities with electronic emissions?


It is not all gloom. While these issues and problems remain real and pressing, the LTSNs and institutionally-based groups such as CAP, have performed vital work in inviting scholars and students to extend their imaginative boundaries in these regards. They encourage dissemination of project outcomes, and promote discussion of the potential that these new kinds of resources have to transform agendas and practices in teaching, learning and research. Slowly, the infrastructure and training gap is narrowing, more 'intuitive' and non-proprietary tools are becoming available, and new generations of staff and students are bringing increased levels of computer literacy to bear on the creation and 'transfer' of knowledge.

The School of Theatre Studies at Warwick has led a number of ICT (Information and Communication Technology) projects, each of which has contributed something to our understanding of issues in the application of technology within Higher Education. In this issue of Interactions, Mark Childs discusses the findings of the recently-completed ANNIE Project. At present, Mark and I are working alongside other colleagues on the ARCHES Project, a two-year project funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC). This brief article is an attempt to take stock of how we have been trying to re-think, and re-define the role of e-tutoring as we learn more about both its pitfalls, and the opportunities that it offers.

The ARCHES Project (Antiquity-Related Collections Harnessed for Educational Scenarios) officially began in October 2002. It is designed to bring together resources, and academic and pedagogical expertise, in order to explore innovative ways of deploying electronic resources in teaching and learning. The official mission statement of ARCHES states that it will: "support and link institutions, departments, courses and modules as they introduce, evaluate and disseminate exemplary, transformative and innovative pedagogy through re-purposing new and existing collections of digital resources pertaining to ancient Greece and Rome."

In practice, the project breaks down into three approximate phases. In Phase 1, staff in the departments of Theatre Studies and Classics (Richard Beacham, Hugh Denard, Zahra Newby) will contribute thematically-linked parts of their own collections of visual resources to a new database, 'ArchWorld', created by software-developers Luminas. The visual resources comprise numerous photographs of archaeological sites taken by project members, 3-D visualisations of Greek and Roman theatres ( and, a new research project into Roman domestic wall-paintings, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, and an existing theatre-historical video series: Ancient Theatre and its Legacy (

The technical dimensions of setting up ArchWorld (platforms, interoperability, standards, protocols, specifications, copyright, data, metadata, metadata harvesting, meta-metadata…), not to mention the complexities of project management (partnership agreements, progress reports, schedules, work-plans, coordination, liaison with national and international bodies, dissemination…), are quite overwhelming to the neophyte. Thankfully, the project team includes Maureen Bourne, (History of Art), who advises on the cataloguing of visual resources, while Mark Childs (CAP) has responsibility as Educational Developer, and Jay Dempster (CAP) is Project Manager.

In Phase 2 of the Project (from October 2003), lecturers in Classics, Theatre Studies, and on the Theatre, Media and Text degree at City College Coventry will experiment with ways of using the database in modules incorporating innovative approaches to research-based and resource-based teaching and learning. The ArchWorld database itself will also be published in Didaskalia (, an online academic journal and educational resource dedicated to ancient drama and its legacy (which I edit), creating an International Online Study Centre.

In the final phase, the project team will publish subject-specific and pedagogical research in Didaskalia's Journal, and a range of structured resources ('Learning Objects') in its Study Area. Another area of Didaskalia, The Agora, already provides discussion groups for students, teachers, researchers and theatre practitioners, and will be used for targeted online symposia drawing on the work of the project.

ARCHES and E-Tutoring

The ARCHES project has required us to redefine e-tutoring, as part of a wider rethinking of the role of electronic resources and communication technologies within teaching and learning. In response to the kinds of shared concerns outlined in the first section above, we have attempted to develop our conceptualisation and practice of e-tutoring in accordance with the following three core principles of e-learning:

1. the content and functionality of any online resources must derive from real needs as perceived by users

2. users must be able to modify, augment, and deploy resources according to their own needs

3. learning should be an holistic process, in which e-learning is seen as an adjunct to 'real-world' interactions and activities

In other words, e-learning should be essential, interactive, and integrated. To these can be added a fourth element: reflective - both students and staff must be enabled to reflect upon their teaching and learning if they are to gain maximum benefit from the process.

E-tutoring must therefore be defined as the whole range of pedagogical practices, online and offline, that supports essential, interactive, integrated and reflective e-learning. E-tutoring thus encompasses not only the use of electronic communications and VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments) to enable asynchronous and distance tutoring, but also the use of both analogue and electronic resources with and by students in the classroom or workshop, exploited in a wide range of interactive teaching and learning modes.

Among the programme of work we proposed in our grant application to the JISC appeared these two module descriptions:

Transforming 'Online Learning' paradigms - I: By innovative combinations of ICT-enhanced learning activities with a range of other student-directed learning activities, this project will challenge aspects of emerging pedagogy that define online learning as a pedagogical practice or set of practices set apart from others. The project will test the hypothesis that the full value of ICT-enhanced teaching and learning is to be obtained through allowing ICT-enhanced teaching and learning to transform, and be transformed by, creative interactions with other, innovative pedagogical practices.

Transforming 'Online Learning' paradigms - II: This project will contribute to a growing questioning of the dominant 'content-provision' paradigm of VLE-based teaching and learning that allows only limited student input. Building on interactive paradigms…it proposes that student-centred learning in a VLE should be driven by student content-creation.

We have also recognised that this must go hand-in-hand with rethinking what a 'database' can or should do to facilitate interactive and integrated learning processes. The following four sections outline how we have attempted to plan and develop the mission of ARCHES around the core principles proposed above.


The study of ancient Greece and Rome involves analysing a significant amount of visual and archaeological, as well as textual, data, all of which are vital historical sources for scholar and student alike. However, when it comes to visual data, there are obvious limitations to the pedagogical use of traditional slide collections, particularly when large numbers of students may be engaged in research-based learning. Consequently, a priority of the ARCHES database is to make available online a substantial collection of photographs of ancient sites and wall paintings taken by Zahra Newby and Hugh Denard, which any number of users can study at the same time without causing any damage to the originals. For modules such as Domestic Space in the Roman World and Roman Drama, these online image collections will be essential sources, which students will be able to evaluate, analyse and discuss.

Yet this only answers part of the problem. The visual sources for ancient theatrical performance include complex archaeological data which are readily available and comprehensible only to the expert. Equally problematic are Roman 'theatrical' wall paintings, and evidence from ancient painted pottery, both of which are notoriously difficult to evaluate as historical sources. Moreover, while each of these sources of evidence may contain important information about different aspects of ancient performance, no one source in itself offers a coherent, much less a comprehensive, picture.

We have found that Virtual Reality (VR) can be used to transform scholarly hypotheses based on these diverse sources into visible, digital objects, which can be manipulated and experienced by the non-expert. For instance, in the case of the AHRB-funded Pompey Project, scattered archaeological remains, textual references, archival records, and architectural comparanda have been synthesised into a viable reconstruction of the city of Rome's first, and largest, permanent theatre, as well as several regional theatres which suggest potential architectural antecedents. Indeed digital, 3-D models can become a means of testing and developing scholarly hypotheses themselves; we have, for instance, been able to conduct revealing studies of prior scholarship on the Theatre of Pompey.

In addition, such models of the material culture of the past offer new ways of experiencing the past which can contribute to the knowledge even of the expert, and which can open up new avenues of study. Abstract musings on the likely properties of different aspects of the performance space can now be tested empirically. The results are only as reliable as the data incorporated into the model, but in many cases, the data themselves are not significantly lacking; what has been missing until the advent of VR has been only the means to synthesize them and explore them 'dynamically' - i.e. in 'real time'.

We have found that VR can provide attractive, 'intuitive', and experiential ways of learning to which students are readily drawn, and the uses to which 3D computer models can be put, for research or teaching, are as simple or as complex as the data embodied by them - in some cases, perhaps more so. Whether through Time Team programmes, or films such as Gladiator, students' encounters with antiquity increasingly include elements of Virtual Reality. If, as we have proposed, "the content and functionality of any online resources must derive from real needs as perceived by potential users", VR resources clearly offer students (and staff) ways of studying significant aspects of the material culture of the past, including complex arrays of sources, which can not readily be visualised, synthesised or disseminated in any other way.

In a research-based institution, it is important that the visual resources that we are creating are themselves the product of new and continuing research; they are therefore the essential, because unique, visual resources for the dissemination of this research within pedagogy.


Not many of us, I imagine, would relish the prospect of teaching a topic according to another lecturer's agendas; whether we are designing a curriculum or a seminar session, we fine-tune the subject-matter and approaches to reflect a host of considerations specific to our students, ourselves, our institutions, and our disciplines. This points up the futility of simply enabling lecturers to publish pre-packaged presentations online in the hope that they will be useful much beyond their immediate audience. Often enough we may wish to 're-purpose' specific assets (images, 'textracts' etc.) that occur within a presentation, but rarely will we want to reproduce a whole presentation. So it is important to give lecturers access to valuable, copyright-cleared resources at an 'asset' level, rather than a 'presentation' level.

This is not difficult. What is more difficult is giving students the same degree of flexibility. In short, the user, whether lecturer or student, must be able to make selections of resources, arrange, analyse, annotate, and publish them. For the lecturer this means freedom to work with resources informed by, but independent, of the 'framing narratives' of prior scholars who have contributed 'content' to the database. For students, it means the freedom critically to engage with assets interactively.

ArchWorld will therefore allow users to create, edit and publish their own 'collections' of assets within the database. They will be able to create their own juxtapositions of assets, and add their own text. We hope that ArchWorld may also enable them to import into their collections images which they have edited, e.g. by highlighting or modifying areas of an image. Thus, the finding of resources will be only the first stage in a process that calls upon the higher critical powers of students.

In a first-year introductory theatre-historical module, Society, Stage and Text, for instance, students will not only explore electronic resources during interactive lectures and seminars, but through independent study, will create online 'collections' by comparing, evaluating, and annotating online visual and textual resources within the ArchWorld database.


The 'information environment' is not a purely digital creation, but encompasses the whole environment of human knowledge and agency, of which digital culture is but one part. Delivery of resources to the desktop is therefore to be seen as only one stage in an incomplete cycle. The aims of curriculum development should not include requiring staff and students to spend more and more hours in front of computer monitors, sapping the alertness of body and imagination through absorption in an algorithmic demi-monde. Rather, students should be enabled to make connections between the 'wired world' that we inhabit, and the full spectrum of actions and interactions that constitute a life.

In a second-year optional module on Greek drama, for instance, we have envisaged an holistic approach to the learning process by attempting to synthesize elements of online learning, practical theatre workshops, seminar classes, and research projects. We hope that students may create new kinds of learning materials, and devise new ways of conducting seminars and workshops through experimenting with different types of interactions between 'real', 'Virtual', and multimedia elements.

Students will identify resources in the ARCHES database ('ArchWorld') and beyond pertaining to actors and acting in Athenian tragic and comic drama. They will use these resources to create and publish, through ArchWorld, a series of shared, online portfolios, or 'collections'. With minimal adjustment to traditional teaching spaces, these collections can be projected into seminar sessions and discussed. They can also be projected onto walls and other surfaces (bodies, set, props…) of a theatre studio, providing both imaginative stimuli for creative work, and performative elements in their own right. These resources may include 3D computer models of spaces or artefacts which users can manipulate in 'real-time', pre-rendered animations, streaming video and 'avatars' (Virtual people). As part of wider research and pedagogical developments within Theatre Studies, we are hoping to create facilities for 'mixed reality' practice: i.e. combinations of real and virtual sets, actors, texts, lighting technology, all merged within digital reconstructions of actual places of performance. Cumulatively, these initiatives will allow new approaches to theatre-historical enquiry through experimental practice, enabling students and staff creatively to explore the material culture of the past, and opening up new perspectives upon the multiple interactions between the visual, the verbal, the cultural and the ideological.


In one optional, second-year module in Theatre Studies, students learn how to identify and analyse visual sources for Roman drama, such as Roman wall paintings and the remains of ancient theatres, alongside dramatic, literary, historical and critical texts. But how can we encourage students to reflect upon their own encounter with ancient sources, and upon the implications of using Virtual Reality to examine them?

Through the ARCHES database, students will for the first time be able to examine a wide range of such visual resources alongside each other, together with 3-D reconstructions of Roman theatres created over the past several months as part of a research project funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The module will encourage participants to conduct comparative studies of the ancient paintings and the new, digital objects. Students will study the extent to which modern 'Virtual Reality' may offer analogues for the self-consciously performative and self-fictionalising theatre and society of ancient Rome.

At the same time, students will create online research portfolios documenting their own reflective use of the ARCHES dataset in relation to other offline and 'real' resources and environments. The result will be comparative studies of various interactions between the 'real' and the 'Virtual' in ancient Roman theatre and society.

From the perspective of the project team, reflection upon our own work is written into the terms of the JISC grant through an extensive, managed report-trail. All of our work is documented, photographed, and our mistakes and achievements will be disseminated in a range of fora to ensure that ARCHES has maximum exemplary efficacy for the institution and wider 'information community.'

But beyond this useful, albeit prosaic, reality lies some interesting innovation. Firstly, the ArchWorld database itself will generate an electronic trail every time an 'asset' (image, piece of text etc.) is used within a collection that a user creates and publishes. This will enable us to monitor and learn from the way in which resources are being used, so that we can continue to tailor the database and its functionality to users' needs. We will also be implementing a metadata specification (UKCMF) that will enable us to document such information so that users can discover how particular assets have been used within different 'learning objects'.

(In) Conclusion

We won't know until the ARCHES work is much further advanced how well the practice will live up to the theory; so for the time being, this article can claim to be no more than a report on work-in-progress. If there is any lesson to be drawn at this stage, it is that until e-tutoring is much better understood, and much more widely practiced, it will continue to represent a formidable array of challenges to the practitioner. However, scepticism has its limits too. When approached as part of an essential, integrated, interactive and reflective process of teaching and learning, the potential of e-tutoring to transform pedagogy can not be ignored.

Hugh Denard
School of Theatre Studies
University of Warwick
Tel: 02476 573100


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