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
The mechanics of
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:
Alright, we all know email's invaluable, but when
is it the right method to use for online tutoring?
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 wont
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
You require a record of your message: Whether
its stored on disk or printed out, an email can give you a permanent record of your
message, something thats more difficult to achieve with online
synchronous methods, the phone or working
Don't use email when:
You need an immediate response: If youre in
a real hurry, use the phone, an online synchronous method or maybe
even use your legs for the purpose for which they were
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
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. Thats why we have graphics, audio and video.
- You are agitated: Sometimes its more tempting
to say what you think in writing than on the 'phone or in person. Dont. Its
e-rage and its not good for your career. If you are agitated, its 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
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
- 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.
Being a responsible email user means:
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
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
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 its just a holding
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
Having your mail dealt with while youre 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
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
Make your header
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.
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.
the message to help the reader
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.
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.
Use plain, simple
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.
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.
mechanics of asynchronous discussion
'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
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
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.
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
www.egroups.com. Other free services are available - use your search
engine to find them.
asynchronous discussion in your course web site
Discussion software varies in the features
that it permits:
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).
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.
As we've seen, as a tutor you can play a
useful role in ensuring that asynchronous discussion facilities are used
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
|© 2000 Fastrak