The 21st century classroom

An insufficient focus on tutoring often results in the quality of online
training falling short of learners’ expectations, but a new framework offers
help in redressing the balance. By Patrick McCurry

The Institute of IT Training has produced a set of competencies for people
involved in supporting online learners. The framework covers topics such as
establishing relationships with new learners, communicating effectively with
learners, assessing learners’ performance and using text, audio and video
conferencing for communication with and between learners.

One of the problems with online learning, says IITT chief executive Nick Mitchell,
is that suppliers of online materials have hitherto overlooked such areas as
the need for learners to be properly supported by tutors.

"Many CD-Roms have been ineffective because people have just been told
to get on with it at their own pace," he says, adding that research has
shown that effective learning only takes place when it is well supported.

Support

There are various levels of support tutors can offer, he says, such as
conferencing in real time through voice-to-voice technology on the Internet,
which does not require any specialist equipment. This means that at certain
times there can be regular chats among tutor and learners, the tutor can assess
how students are getting on and students can feel supported.

The IITT has also introduced a new associate-level membership track for
online tutors, for which individuals need to demonstrate the defined
competencies by achieving the Certificate of Online Tutoring Skills.

One way this can be achieved is via the IITT’s Internet course, The Online
Tutor.

George Edwards, development director at the Institute for Supervision and
Management, which has its own online tutor qualification, agrees that
competencies are needed. He notes that the skills needed by online tutors are
often different to those of the classroom tutor. "I have seen lots of
people go through our online training certificate who didn’t expect it to be so
different to traditional tutoring," he says.

Edwards stresses that he is not talking about online training related simply
to IT applications and where the learning is similar to a correspondence course
or is highly technical, but to the kind of online training that is a
collaborative process.

"It is about bringing together tutors and learners at different times
and allowing participants to share experiences and imitate the classroom
environment to a certain extent."

Communication

One obvious difference to classroom training, he says, is how tutors
communicate with students – tutors cannot use body language online, for
example.

"Sometimes tutors don’t realise they can pick up the phone occasionally
as part of their support to students," he says.

How information is delivered is also very different. In a classroom
environment, students and tutor can spend a day together. Online learning is
much more intense. "Online tutors need to deliver information in small
pieces and regularly," he says.

Karen Velasco, IT training manager at the AA and a member of the IITT’s
policy advisory board, agrees that a different set of skills is needed by
online tutors compared with traditional facilitators or trainers.

"Like all new roles it takes time before someone sets out what the
necessary skills are, and that’s what the institute has done," she says.

The need to build relationships with learners is a key part of any
successful training venture, she says.

"In a classroom the trainer has a physical presence and can often build
relationships quickly and easily with learners, but online you can’t do that
and a different set of communication skills is needed."

Experimenting

Peter Kayes is director of Slough campus at Thames Valley University, which
is experimenting with ways to support online training. He says students must
not feel isolated.

The university is currently using online training for IT-related courses,
but hopes to extend it to non-technical subjects in the future. It offers a
24-hour helpline in partnership with a commercial organisation. This means
students can access help at any time by email, although the tutor could be
anywhere in the world.

In practice, says Kayes, there has been limited use of the 24-hour support,
with students preferring to wait until office hours and use the university’s
phone helpline if they have problems.

But he believes the 24-hour service is an important psychological benefit
and gives potential online learners the confidence to sign up in the first
place.

One of the myths of classroom teaching is that it is effective, he says, as
there are often differences in interpretation or assumptions made by students.
Online teaching is less open to misunderstanding, as so much of it is carried
out by email, but there still needs to be a checking mechanism to ensure that
students have genuinely understood the teaching, says Kayes.

John Ivinson, a consultant to the IT NTO, says one of the issues that needs
to be tackled in online tutoring is the risk of plagiarism by students.

"Tutors need to be sure that the student has understood or completed
the course, which may mean using the course in conjunction with an objective
test carried out in person."

Competencies for online tutors

The broad headings of the IITT’s competency framework for on-line tutoring
are:

  • Plan how online tutoring
    will be employed
  • Establish the technical
    facilities necessary to support online tutoring
  • Establish relationships
    with new learners
  • Communicate appropriately
    with learners
  • Provide administrative
    support
  • Provide learners with
    technical and subject matter expertise

The full competency framework can be obtained from the IITT on 02476 418128,
or see www.iitt.org.uk or email info@iitt.org.uk

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