When, in a speech in Cape Town in 1966, Robert F Kennedy invented the 'ancient Chinese curse', "May he live in interesting times" he might well have been talking about education at the beginning of the 21st century; for while the ubiquity of Internet access has indeed made our times interesting, it has also cursed educators into poorly defined online roles.

Teaching online - methodology article

Article by Nicky Hockly and Gavin Dudeney, Educational Consultants

In this article, we will attempt to demystify the process, and provide some pointers as to where potential online tutors can go to gain the skills and experience needed to perform this role successfully.

  • What is online tutoring?
  • How is it different to face-to-face teaching?
  • What are the pros and cons?
  • Top ten tips for online tutors
  • Conclusion

What is online tutoring?

To answer this question, we must first look at what online education, or e-learning, is - and what it isn't.

Scenario 1

An educational institution decides to put a course on Educational Management online. They put a number of text files online, participants pay a fee per module, download the documents, read them, and… ?

  • This is not online learning; this is an online bookshop.

Scenario 2

An educational institution decides to provide courses for learning English online. They put a number of self-study exercises on a CD-ROM, participants pay a fee, open the CD ROM, do a few drag
and drop or gapfill exercises and…?

  • This, in our opinion, is also not online learning. It is a self-study grammar book in digital format.

True e-learning attempts to recreate, as far as possible, more traditional face-to-face learning environments, whilst simultaneously trying to leverage the obvious differences between the bricks and mortar classroom and the virtual one.

  • Online tutoring, by extension, is similar to face-to-face tutoring, with the most obvious difference being that online tutors will rarely meet course participants and will therefore need to work harder to emulate the social atmosphere and group dynamic characteristic of the face-to-face course.
  • Online tutoring is part pastoral, part technical, part pedagogical and very hard work!
  • It is neither a cheap nor an easy option - a point worth bearing in mind when considering the jump to online courses, whether you are a centre director, a course director or a potential tutor.

How is it different to face-to-face teaching?

One of the most obvious differences will be the perceived lack of real people on the course - a perception that can lead to feelings of alienation and isolation on the part of the participants unless it is addressed creatively from the very beginning of the course.

  • Much more time is needed in online courses in what is often called the socialisation, 'getting to know each other' phase. Whilst 30 minutes may often suffice with a face-to-face group, it's often necessary to spend up to a week online to achieve the same feelings of group identity and collegiality.
  • This phase of an online course will not only create a safe and comfortable group dynamic, but should also be used to negotiate the 'rules of engagement' which will be observed by the group - this stage is also important as there is a great deal of potential for misunderstanding online, given the lack of paralinguistic features. It will also allow participants to get a feel for each other before moving on to the course content itself.
  • The socialisation phase is also an ideal time to address technical problems and access difficulties, as well as to discuss and clear up unrealistic expectations on the part of the participants. For many people, their first time as an online student is confusing, frustrating and disappointing unless these issues are overtly dealt with early on.

What are the pros and cons?

For the tutor, the pros are many:

  • Online tutors can work from any location equipped with an Internet connection, and at any time of the day or night.
  • Online tutoring means adding another string to your bow as a teacher - as the Internet becomes increasingly ubiquitous, and the demand for online study grows, so will the demand for trained and experienced online tutors.
  • And of course, for any teacher, learning new skills and developing oneself professionally is usually a hugely rewarding experience.

As for cons, there are two main negatives:

  • One is the amount of time that online tutoring takes up, not only in providing constant learner support and feedback, but in designing new materials for online delivery if you do not already have these ready.
  • Of course, there is no point in re-inventing the wheel, and there is already plenty of good material out there on the Internet.
  • Another negative is that institutions who implement e-learning often see it as the 'cheap' alternative to face-to-face teaching, and underestimate the amount of hours that an online tutor will need to put in to run a successful online course. Luckily this rather blinkered view is becoming less prevalent, as online course providers realise that offering quality online courses is the only way forward - and that this implies some investment in effective materials design, and in tutor training and tutor time.

Top ten tips for online tutors

  1. Get some qualifications: There are a few organisations offering online tutor training courses, and experiencing an online course yourself can really help you become a good online tutor.
  2. Get more IT training: You will need to be able to answer technical questions and general Internet questions, as well as course-related queries. Be prepared for this.
  3. Re-write, don't adapt: Few face-to-face courses will lend themselves naturally to online conversion. A lot of re-writing will be needed for successful online implementation.
  4. Never assume anything: First-time online participants will need plenty of support, encouragement and motivational input. Drop out rates for online courses tend to be quite high.
  5. Create the right environment: Spend time on socialisation and group dynamic. An online course will wither and die without it.
  6. Deal with problems overtly: Encourage open discussion of ongoing problems and issues in your online group - be proactive. Set a few simple rules, establish terms/ times of your availability during the course.
  7. Develop participant skills: Work with your learners to explore how knowledge is constructed, assimilated and dealt with online. Help them to gain the skills they need to get the most out of the course.
  8. Encourage reflection: Provide opportunities for participants to reflect - not only on what they have studied, but on the process of online study itself. Weekly journals are an ideal space for this kind of reflection.
  9. Allow for closure: A period of 'mourning' is customary at the end of any course. Allow participants to deal with this positively by planning for closure, and allowing them to continue working together if they wish.
  10. Reflect and revise: Each course you run will flag up problems, issues and potential for improvement. Listen to your participant feedback and be open to incorporating the best of it into future versions of your courses.


This article, we hope, will have given you some brief insights into the issues and challenges surrounding online tutoring. We hope that in future articles we will be able to look in more detail into some of the issues we've raised here.

Further reading

Palloff, R. and Pratt, K. (2003) The Virtual Student: A Profile and Guide to Working with Online Learners. San Francisco , Jossey-Bass.
Berge, Z. L. & Collins, M. P. (Eds.) (1995). Computer Mediated Communication and the Online Classroom. Volumes 1-3. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
White, K. and White, K. (1999) The Online Teaching Guide: A Handbook of Attitudes, Strategies, and Techniques for the Virtual Classroom. Allyn & Bacon.

For a more detailed list of online reading see: E-Moderation: A Training Course For Online Tutors - Resources

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