I'm a friend of someone who responds: avoiding the void in online learning communications

A. McGuigan

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


    When instant messaging is de rigueur, how does the online tutor manage communications to keep learners engaged, without being ‘on call’ twenty four hours a day? This paper presents the findings of a study undertaken at University of Dundee, to determine the efficacy of a centralised online tutoring system – badged TQFE-Tutor – in optimising tutor/tutee communications in a distance learning course, the Teaching Qualification Further Education (TQFE), a professional development programme for lecturers in the college sector. The author, Director of the TQFE programme – in which TQFE-Tutor was introduced – was keen to evaluate the system to ascertain
    (1) whether it would meet the communication and tutoring needs of students on the programme, in place of a personal tutor
    (2) whether the workload pressure on staff – particularly to manage student expectations in terms of communication – could be alleviated by it.

    Many people will know the feeling of their web communications dropping into a void: the completion of an online form which goes unacknowledged or an email enquiry which never receives a response. The loneliness of the online learner has become something of a cliché in the literature with peer and – more importantly for this study – tutor interaction being presented as crucial (e.g. Lear et al, 2010). In an online learning environment, efficient communication is undoubtedly vital to keep learners engaged. However, in a culture of tweets, texts and blogs, students may harbour unreasonable expectations about programme communications – which even the most dedicated tutor would struggle to meet. For instance a student may feel that a tutor response to their blog post or email should happen instantly – or at least very quickly – whereas a tutor may legitimately be unavailable to deliver that response for several days. The centralised TQFE-Tutor promised to alleviate this tension between what the students want and what the individual online tutor can provide.

    After the first semester in which the TQFE-Tutor system was introduced, students were surveyed, to gather their opinions. Focus groups, chaired by the author, were held with the students and the staff involved in the programme (both the core team and Associate Staff members, who act as mentors in the students’ places of work). The discussions were recorded and transcribed. All the data was analysed, with a qualitative, interpretative approach, with the aim of ascertaining the extent to which TQFE-Tutor met student and staff expectations and needs.
    The author was conscious of the possibility of bias inherent in the work of the insider researcher (as for instance described by Workman, 2007) and made the necessary efforts to minimise this.

    The results of the study were very favourable regarding the innovative TQFE-Tutor system, which (1) both from their responses to the online survey and discussions within the focus groups appeared to fulfil the needs of the students on the programme and (2) significantly alleviated the workload pressure on core staff (the tutoring team).

    With the advent of TQFE-Tutor, communication and tutoring became more effective and efficient, with improved satisfaction for students and staff alike. For programmes with a similar profile to the TQFE at University of Dundee – i.e. online distance learning courses for sizeable cohorts, delivered by a core team – the centralised tutoring model has much to offer.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationICERI 2013 Proceedings
    Number of pages6
    ISBN (Electronic)9788461638475
    Publication statusPublished - 2013
    EventICERI 2013 - Seville, Spain
    Duration: 18 Nov 201320 Nov 2013


    ConferenceICERI 2013
    Other6th International Conference of Education, Research and Innovation
    Internet address


    • Online tutoring
    • centralised tutoring
    • innovation
    • professional development


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