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The asynchronous online tutor
by Clive Shepherd
You realise you should be doing it. It sounds really technical and it's certainly going to impress your friends. As as the sort of person who becomes an online tutor, you'd like to be doing it before everyone else. But hang on, maybe you're already doing it, without even knowing. But are you doing it when you should be? And are you doing it right? These are the questions you're probably asking yourself. And these are the questions we'll be answering right here. So here we have it, an online tutor's guide to asynchronicity - time-delayed communication between a tutor and their learners, for all those times when real-time communication is just too fast.

Knowing when to go asynchronous
Using email effectively
The mechanics of asynchronous discussions
Managing asynchronous discussions

Knowing when to go asynchronous
If you believe the statistics we’re all at it. By 2001, half the population of the US will be doing it more than 500 million times a day. The Queen beat all but a handful of academics to it, by doing it for the first time in 1976. It is email. You only need to walk near a computer and someone will send you one. And then another. And then, on average, about 45 each day. 

When you look at these statistics, it's not surprising we're so keen on email. Here's what it takes to send a 42 page document from New York to Tokyo:

spacer US$ Time
Airmail 7.4 5 days
Courier 26.25 24 hrs
Fax 28.83 31 mins
Internet email 0.1 2 mins

Alright, we all know email's invaluable, but when is it the right method to use for online tutoring?

Use email when:
  • It is important that your audience gets your message: This is a where a push medium is the right solution - a notice on the course web site would not do the trick.
  • You want a quick but not an instant response: Email will get to the recipient more quickly than a letter or a fax, but you won’t get a response as fast as with a text-based chat, audio or video conference, ‘phone call or face-to-face meeting.
  • You want time to compose your message: Use email in preference to an online synchronous method, 'phone call or in-person meeting, if you need to compose your message carefully.
  • You require a record of your message: Whether it’s stored on disk or printed out, an email can give you a permanent record of your message, something that’s more difficult to achieve with online synchronous methods, the ‘phone or working face-to-face.

Don't use email when:

  • You need an immediate response: If you’re in a real hurry, use the ‘phone, an online synchronous method or maybe even use your legs for the purpose for which they were intended.
  • You are delivering sensitive information: If you have really bad news for a student, then at worst the recipient needs to hear the tone of your voice and that means getting on the ‘phone. Much better is to say it in person, when your body language can do most of the talking.
  • Text is not a powerful enough medium: If you need to convey complex processes or principles, to grab attention or influence attitudes, then text is unlikely to be enough. That’s why we have graphics, audio and video.
  • You are agitated: Sometimes it’s more tempting to say what you think in writing than on the 'phone or in person. Don’t. It’s e-rage and it’s not good for your career. If you are agitated, it’s better not to communicate at all. Have a drink. Kick the cat.

But email is not the only form of asynchronous communication. Messages can be shared across communities and groups in a wide variety of forms, as a basis for collaboration and discussion.

Use asynchronous discussions when:

  • It is helpful that students have time to compose their message: Some issues require careful consideration and research before a response is composed. This is not possible with real-time methods.
  • It is helpful for the discussion to be recorded: With an asynchronous discussion, a permanent record can be kept easily on a web site or as emails. With most real-time methods, this is not so simple.
  • Students find it difficult to be available at the same time: When students have busy schedules or live in different time zones, it is difficult to organise real-time meetings, whether online or face-to-face. In these situations, an asynchronous discussion provides the maximum flexibility for the student.

Don't use asynchronous discussions when:

  • The issue needs to be resolved quickly: If the issue needs addressing in a hurry, then use a real-time online method, a telephone conference call or a face-to-face meeting.
  • It's important for students to be able to see or hear each other: Some activities require a more personal form of communication than text. In these cases, use audio or video conferencing or a face-to-face meeting.

Using email effectively
It's likely that you already consider yourself an email expert. After all, you probably have to deal with tens of emails every day. But even so, there's always some room for improvement, so take some time to check out your email netiquette.

Being a responsible email user means:

Checking your email daily
Anyone sending you an email of any importance at all will have a minimum expectation for the time it will take for you to get round to reading it. It is reasonable to expect that you access your mail daily, if not more regularly. Obviously there will be circumstances when you physically can not get to a suitable computer, in which case other arrangements should be made.

However, restrict your email access times. If you're constantly aware of your incoming messages, you'll become a slave to the medium. Unless your job means providing quick-fire responses to queries, set aside two or three times a day when you can concentrate on reading, responding and composing messages. Don't be interrupted throughout the day by pop-up messages and jingles announcing your new mail - simply turn those features off.

Responding quickly, even if it’s just a holding response
Unless the mail is junk or ‘for information only’, you should aim to respond promptly - certainly within the limits of what you agreed with the student in the learning contract. It is so simple to make a quick email response, that there really is no excuse for not doing it. If you really can not satisfy the request immediately, you can always send a holding response to let the sender know that you are dealing with it and when they can expect an answer.

If you can, read each message once and only once. This is a bit like handling your traditional mail. It's all too easy to browse through each letter and then put it aside to deal with later - when you have to read it all over again. One of the quickest ways to empty the contents of your inbox is to read each message and deal with it immediately.

Having your mail dealt with while you’re away
When you will not be available to handle your email, you can make other arrangements. Most email software will allow you to forward mail to another address. Some software will allow you to send automatic holding responses telling the sender that you are away and for how long. If neither of these is possible, you could email your students and let them know not to expect any response for the time that you are away.

Saving messages for reference in an organised way
Delete unwanted messages immediately. Those messages that you need to keep, should be filed in an orderly manner in folders that sensibly compartmentalise your work. That way you stand some chance of finding them again. You'll also have the satisfaction of a clear inbox and a clear head.

Let's move on to look at what you put in the messages themselves. It pays to compose your messages with care:

Make your header meaningful
The header is what tells the reader what's in the message. If it's blank, there is no way to tell what the message is about or how important it is. It's lazy and impolite to leave the header blank, so don't be surprised if the message is deleted without being read.

The header should clearly describe the content of the message. With a meaningful header, you're more likely to be read. You'll also find it easier to locate messages when they've been archived.

You may even be able to put your whole message in the header - "Online chat agreed for Monday at 2" - saving the reader the trouble of opening the email.

Be concise, without being abrupt
Nobody wants to read a lot of text on-screen - it's hard work (25% slower than paper) and tedious. So keep your message as short as you can, without being rude - there's a fine line between being concise and being curt.

Use templates with care
You may create standard email messages to speed up routine responses to students. This is fine, but it pays to personalise them to some extent, just so the student knows they're not dealing with a computer. 

Structure the message to help the reader
Put the main point up front. You save your reader time if you get to the point straight away. That way, they only need to read on if they need more detail. And if your email really has to be lengthy, you can list the key points at the top of the message and then deal with them one by one under clear headings.

Keep paragraphs short. It's easier to read text in short paragraphs - a good rule is to limit each paragraph to a single point. And where possible, go a step further and use bulleted lists rather than prose as they are much easier to scan.

Use plain, simple English
This point is not really unique to email but is worth restating nevertheless. Plain English is easier to read and more likely to be understood. And because email is somewhere between a 'phone call and a letter, you can afford to be relaxed and conversational in tone. This does not mean that spelling and grammar can be ignored. If your messages are going outside your organisation, you need to take as much care as you would with a paper communication.

Smileys (those strange symbols which express emotions, like :-) for happy and :-( for sad, and e-cronyms (BTW for 'by the way' and GAL for 'get a life') are only for the initiated. Email should not be the province of some secret society, so stick to English even if it takes a little longer.

Use attachments if you must
Like many things in live, attachments are incredibly useful and also incredibly over-used. They can be too short - in which case they may as well be part of your message - or too long. A very high proportion of disk space on a mail server is taken up by attachments, very many of which are frivolous. When you send an animation or a video to ten people you are actually creating ten new copies of the file. Why not provide the web address or the path on your file server and let your readers access the file there?

When you do add an attachment, provide a description of what it contains in the body of your message. That way the reader only needs to open the attachment if they're really interested.

The mechanics of asynchronous discussion
The term 'asynchronous discussion' is not an elegant one. It's hard to imagine that a hundred years ago anybody would have called their exchange of letters an asynchronous discussion, but then these days we have to distinguish between so many more communication methods.

As if this was not bad enough, there are so many ways in which online asynchronous discussion can be accomplished:

Newsgroups are public and, as such, not really suited to the purposes of a closed learning community.

You could set up a BBS, but the fact that they operate outside the Internet makes access more complicated and raises doubts about their suitability.

Outlook net folders
All you need is a recent copy of Outlook and you are under way. Messages can even be sent to learners without Outlook, but they can not directly post responses back to the net folder. Similarly, if your organisation uses Lotus Notes, then the ability to set up discussions is built in.

Mailing list servers
If the servers run by your organisation or by your Internet Service Provider run under Unix, then you may be able to set up a discussion forum running with LISTSERV or Majordomo software.

Web and email-based discussions can be set up easily for free at Other free services are available - use your search engine to find them.

Incorporating asynchronous discussion in your course web site
Some learning management systems incorporate discussion facilities. Alternatively you can create web-based discussions extremely easily using Microsoft FrontPage (although your web server must have Microsoft FrontPage extensions installed).

Discussion software varies in the features that it permits:

Some discussion software organises messages into 'threads'. A thread is a collection of messages stemming from a single original posting. Threads can be 'nested', where responses are made not to the original posting but to one of the responses. Threaded discussions are easier to follow, because it is clear which responses relate to which postings.

Discussions can also be moderated. With a moderated discussion, messages go to the moderator (in online learning terms, the tutor), who determines whether or not a message should be posted. It is hard to see why discussions need to be moderated in online learning, unless your course has a huge number of students and you wish to ration the number of messages, or the queries to a subject-matter expert.


Managing asynchronous discussions
Asynchronous discussion facilities are primarily incorporated into online courses as a way for learners to communicate with each other. So where does the online tutor fit into all this? Should you leave your students to get on with it or do you need sometimes to intervene?

As we've seen, as a tutor you can play a useful role in ensuring that asynchronous discussion facilities are used effectively:

Establish the rules of communication
Asynchronous discussion software is not particularly complicated, but it is still important to make sure that your students are completely comfortable with the process:

  • the mechanics of using the software
  • the sorts of topics that you regard as suitable for discussion
  • how new topics are initiated (particularly if the discussions are moderated)
  • any issues of netiquette
  • any rules for acceptable behaviour

Initiate discussion topics
As with most discussions, it takes someone to get the ball rolling. Many students will prefer to read other peoples' messages rather than take the plunge themselves and, if that's how most of them feel, the facility will be unused.

You can stimulate the use of the facility by initiating topics that all your students will be interested in.

Encourage students to initiate their own topics
A discussion facility is useful as a way of resolving the particular queries and problems of individual students. Encourage students to make use of their colleagues in this way. Many tutors have found it helpful to build group activities into the study programme, thus forcing students to use the facility. Only by experience will students realise just how useful the facility can be.

Control discussions that are straying off course
Whilst you do not want to discourage social interaction between students, sometimes discussions can get so far off the point that the objectives for the discussion are not going to be achieved. If you identify this situation, all you have to do is send a message that gently directs the discussion back on track.

Summarise outcomes at each stage of the discussion
Another technique to keep discussions on track is to summarise the key points that have been raised and any conclusions reached at each stage of a discussion. You can then, redirect the discussion or bring it to a satisfactory close.

Act any against misuse of the facility
Occasionally the rules that you establish for the discussion will be broken and students will expect you to take action to remedy the situation. It may be that a 'flame war' is taking place, a student is using offensive language or all sorts of irrelevant messages are being sent. It all depends on what your rules are of course, but if they are broken, you can act to sort the problem out.

As in face-to-face situations, it's not a good idea to discipline people in public. Use email or the telephone to address the issue directly with the students involved. The action you can take will depend on the authority you are given by your organisation.

Delete dead topics
You only need to keep those messages that will be genuinely useful as an archive for new or existing students. The rest can be deleted.

So there you have it. The online tutor's guide to going asynch. Look out for our companion article on the joys of real-time communication for - you got it - the synchronous online tutor.

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