At our workshop held in June on Developing Online Research Training and Course Delivery the issue of user support and the role of the tutor came up as a complex problem for the online environment.  Here is a summary of what was said on the subject:

It is important always to place any individual resource or part of a training course into the overall intellectual/educational/historical context of the theme or subject – in other words so that whilst the student is dealing with a detailed aspect of the course, they are aware of the wider significance of that aspect.  A substantial support effort will be required for any online course, tutor-led or otherwise. The support would not simply be to provide technical assistance to students having difficulty accessing the material, but would need to be offering help with the content.

But how do we provide user support?  It is not enough to provide forums as students need synchronous/asynchronous help.  Although ‘chat’ can be one way to deal with this problem it requires someone to have the chat regularly checked and not all people know how to use chat effectively. 

There is also a related problem here in the role of the tutor.  How do you avoid the problem of the tutor being viewed as having all the answers (i.e. students go to the tutor for answers rather than work it out amongst themselves)?  This is a difficult problem which is obviously not restricted to online teaching, but nonetheless presents particular problems for this format.  A tutor needs to find the right balance between having an overbearing effect on a class and avoiding the trap of neglecting the class.  Clear rules of engagement therefore need to be set out.

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