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Jane Fawkes,
The College of Estate Management, England

Editor's Note: 'Tutors' are the British equivalent to North American 'Academic Advisors.' Jane Fawkes presented on this topic at the Second Annual Conference on Personal Tutoring, St John University College, York, May 2006.

With the continuing development of online teaching, tutors are encouraged to take on the role of e-tutor and to provide tutoring and personal support through this mechanism. However, what works in a classroom does not always work online. With the loss of face-to-face contact and the visual impact that it brings, the question must be asked 'What makes a good e-tutor?'

As 'instructors move from presenters to managers of activities' (Collis and Moonen, 2001), instructors are required to shift the way they teach; they must adapt to a new environment. So too must tutors adapt. Increasingly students expect that their tutor will be available online 24-7.

This article focuses on the training and skills required to engage students online, as well as common difficulties encountered. Here we focus on the training programme that has been used at the College of Estate Management.

Background. The College of Estate Management is a distance learning college based in Reading, England. The College has a team of internal tutors who are supported in course delivery by external tutors. The external tutor primarily marks assignment and examination scripts, as well as assists with occasional face-to-face teaching and writing course materials. The external tutor has been remote from students, which has led to a sens of isolation both for the students as they struggle with the demands of distance learning and for the tutor who is removed from the student cohort.

Three years ago the College introduced the Graduate Development Programme that utilized a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) to form a community of learners online and provide more contact and support with the external tutors. To facilitate the development of this community, students were divided into groups of 25-30 and learning activities were written. Students were encouraged to discuss case studies within their tutor group; external tutors were invited to become an e-tutor for each group.

Aim for the e-Tutor. The e-tutor was to help build and develop this online community of learners. 'Online educators who understand that safe, nurturing environments are foremost in contributing to learners' happiness, sense of comfort, and ultimately rates of completion place the creation of community high on their list of priorities' (Conrad, 2002). Students who participate in online discussions benefit from the learning experience. Learning online is about 'learning as participation. The process of being a member of a community' (Collis and Moonen, 2001).

E-tutors were challenged to facilitate interdependence between the group as a whole and encourage participation online.

Training Programme. Before the e-tutors commenced working on the VLE, the College ran a training programme. This was designed to build confidence in the basic skills needed to tutor online. The course focused on:

  • E-moderation skills.
  • The importance of getting the group talking.
  • Use of ice- breakers.
  • How to encourage participation in an asynchronous environment.
  • The tutor not being the focal point of the group.
  • How to facilitate discussion.

Struggling to Build the Online Community. Whilst some tutors quickly adapted to being an 'e-tutor', others - despite the training - struggled, both with the technology and the skills required to encourage participation. E-tutors were unsure when and how they should respond to messages; some did not like the increased student contact brought by the VLE. Tutors expressed a sense of frustration that not all students chose to participate and did not become a part of the online community.

'It is a pity more students did not participate on the VLE. It was fairly evident that those who did not participate did not learn.'

Just as the e-tutors were frustrated by the lack of student participation, so students were frustrated by their perception of lack of tutor involvement. Students expected their tutor to respond immediately to posted messages and were frustrated by the lack of feedback given by some e-tutors.

'If any of the students posts a question for his/her tutor on the VLE.the least useful response is 'what does the group think the answer is?' The group doesn't have the spare time to find out.'

A common problem with online learning is the student who 'lurks' online. However, in the initial stages of the course, we encountered the problem of the 'lurking e-tutor'. The College uses Blackboard as its VLE, and whilst it shows how many times a message has been read, it does not show who has read the message. From the Course Statistics it was possible to see that some of the e-tutors were reading the messages but not posting anything to the group. The community became frustrated by the tutor's lack of presence and quickly were disenfranchised from the learning process.

Developing the e-tutor. In the light of feedback received, e-tutor training was reviewed and revised so that the College could better equip tutors in how to develop the online community. E-tutors are now encouraged to regularly leave 'virtual footprints', a marker on the VLE to show that they have read the messages and are participating online. This footprint can take the form of an encouraging comment, initial feedback, or leading the discussion in a new direction. Whilst the group should not revolve around the tutor, we have learnt the importance of the e-tutor being persistent in their online behaviour.

Kearsley (2000) emphasised that 'If the Instructor regularly posts messages in the discussion forum..this increases student involvement and participation in a course.' Our experience affirms that participation of the e-tutor is critical.

Sink or Swim - the Challenge? Virtual opportunities for learning are significant. The challenge for the e-tutor is how to adapt tutoring to this environment; it can be both demanding and time consuming. 'The task of mediating group activity, while promoting some kind of kinship among learners, is challenging in the extreme' (Khan 1997).

At the College we found that changing the role of the external tutor removes the sense of isolation felt by both tutor and student. Initial training is critical to success as is reflection and monitoring how to build online communities. This has led to the development of the training workshop programme now offered to tutors in a range of areas such as 'Encouraging Participation' that further develops online skills.

Feedback received from a recent training event emphasised this point:

'Terrific day yesterday, very worthwhile and lots of interesting comments in the pot, certainly gives a sense of being in a community of tutor.''

Jane Fawkes
Course Development Manager
The College of Estate Management
[email protected]


Collis B, Moonen J (2001). Flexible Learning in a Digital World, Routledge Falmer, London.

Kearsley, G. (2000). Learning and Teaching in Cyberspace. Retrieved November 10, 2006 from https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2635082-online-education.

Khan B (1997). Web-Based Instruction, Educational Technology Publications Inc, New Jersey.

Conrad, D. (2002). Community, Social Presence and Engagement in Online Learning. A Dissertation cited in T McInnerney J.M., Roberts T.S. (2004) Online Learning: Social Interaction and the Creation of a Sense of a Community, Educational Technology and Society, 7(3) 73-81, retrieved May 2005.

Cite this article using APA style as: Fawkes, J. (2007, March). Sink or swim: Equipping the e-tutor for the online world. Academic Advising Today, 30(1). Retrieved from [insert url here]

Posted in: 2007 March 30:1


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