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Online tutoring skills
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by Clive Shepherd
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The tutor is the primary customer-facing representative of the online learning provider and the main point of contact for learners. The tutor casts a much-needed 'human' eye over the online learning process, filling in the gaps that are left by self-study alone. But what exactly are the responsibilities of the tutor? Is tutor even the right term? In this article, Clive Shepherd takes a look at three potential roles for the tutor - as subject expert, coach and assessor - and at the skills the tutor will need to display to function effectively online.

Contents
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Three roles for the online tutor
The tutor as subject expert
The tutor as coach
The tutor as assessor
Building relationships
Working with online tools
Becoming an online tutor

Three roles for the online tutor
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There are many potential roles for the tutor and many ways of describing them, but here's three of the most important:

The tutor as subject expert
One of the roles for the tutor is to supplement self-study materials - filling in any gaps, clarifying any misunderstandings and pointing learners to sources of information.

The tutor as coach
The second main role is to act as coach, mentor or counsellor. These terms may have unique definitions but they also have a lot in common. The coach is responsible for helping the learner to achieve their learning goals by challenging, encouraging and providing constructive feedback.

The tutor as assessor
In many cases the tutor also has to act as assessor, checking to ensure that learners have achieved the learning objectives.

Let's take a closer look at each of these roles and their associated skill-sets.
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The tutor as subject expert
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In many situations the tutor will be asked to function as a subject expert, sometimes acting as the primary source of content but, more likely, supplementing and acting as a backup to content that is presented elsewhere.

This role is not dissimilar to the traditional teacher, lecturer or instructor, but what exactly does it entail? These are the principal behaviours you would expect of the subject expert:

Presenting
With many online courses, the majority of content is presented in the form of self-study materials. The subject expert may well have had a role in the preparation of these, perhaps even as presenter of any audio or video materials.

In other cases, the subject expert may need to present information in a synchronous, real-time environment. This could range from a text chat through to broadcast videoconferencing.

Demonstrating
With certain types of skills, whether cognitive or psychomotor, the subject expert may be required to provide a demonstration. This may be available as a resource for self-study or as part of a live event. Of course, psychomotor skills will not be easy to demonstrate without video.

Referring
There is a great danger that learners will become dependent on a subject expert, if every question they ask is answered in detail. To avoid this, the subject matter should, where possible, refer learners to available resources, whether within the learning materials, or in books or web sites. Spoon feeding simply makes the subject expert a reference tool for lazy learners.

Contributing
The subject expert will have a key role to play in contributing to knowledge bases, FAQs and other reference tools for learners. They are also going to be valid contributors to discussion forums or chat sessions, although never in a dominant capacity.

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The tutor as coach
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There will be many times when the tutor will need to act as a coach, helping to facilitate learning rather than presenting content directly. This role is especially important in an online environment where learners may be working for long periods on their own initiative.

These are the principal behaviours you would expect of the online coach:

Questioning
Questioning is a vital skill for the coach to possess. By asking the right questions, the coach will stimulate learners to think for themselves, leading to more powerful insights than could ever be obtained with more didactic methods.

Listening
Listening goes hand in hand with questioning. Without the ability to listen - and in an online context that's just as likely to mean reading - the coach will never properly understand the learner's position or needs, and frustrate them into the bargain.

Feeding back
Having read or observed the learner's work, it is the duty of the coach to provide the learner with honest, constructive feedback, based on specifics rather than opinion and balanced towards the positive.

Encouraging
Many learners will find it hard to summon the self-discipline required to study on their own. The coach can help enormously by providing encouragement to learners to keep at it.

Motivating
Motivation comes when learners are set challenging but achievable goals, which, when achieved, lead to outcomes that the learner regards as attractive. It is up to the coach to know just how challenging the goals should be for an individual learner and the types of outcomes that will provide the right incentive.

For most learners, recognition will be the most powerful incentive - and luckily this costs absolutely nothing. Other learners will be motivated by achieving a pass, overcoming a perceived weakness, stimulating their intellect or developing their skills.

Controlling
It sounds like a strange behaviour for a coach, but online group work, whether asynchronous or synchronous, may, upon occasions, require a degree of control. Although learners will ideally be able to manage their own learning experiences, at times the coach will have to exercise some control to keep them on track.

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The tutor as assessor
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With some online courses, assessment is integral to the self-study materials and no 'human' intervention is necessary. In other cases this may be neither possible nor desirable and the tutor will be required to conduct an assessment of the nature and extent of the learner's knowledge and skills.

There are, of course, many different forms of assessment in which the tutor may get involved:

In these situations, you would expect the following principal behaviours from the online assessor:

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Building relationships
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One of the first tasks for the online tutor is to get to know the learners for whom they are going to be responsible. That means:

Of course, it is only right that they should get to know as much about you!

One way of establishing the relationship between tutor and learner is to agree a 'learning contract', defining the parameters for the way you work together. The contract could include the following:

Once the tutor has committed to the contract, they must endeavour to keep to it. If they promise to respond to all emails within 24 hours, then they must follow this through in practice. And some thought needs to be given to how cover will be organised in the case of holidays, sickness and other unforeseen absences.
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Working with online tools
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Whether the tutor is acting the role of subject expert, coach or assessor, they will be operating in an environment that has its own unique advantages and constraints. Here's just a few suggestions for tutors to consider when working with online tools:

Email
Email will almost undoubtedly be an important means of communication between the tutor and learners. The tutor should:

Discussion groups
Many courses use discussion groups for asynchronous group communication. The tutor should be prepared to:

Text chat
Synchronous methods take a lot more management and experience. The tutor needs to:

You can probably think of many more rules. If so, please let me know and the list can continue to build.
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Becoming an online tutor
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How do you get to become an online tutor? Here's a few possibilities:

Whatever the situation, you will be entering a profession for which no clear-cut rules have yet been established. You are unlikely to have all the knowledge and skills necessary to act as subject expert, coach, assessor and user of online tools, so there will be a lot to learn. Hopefully this brief article has offered a few suggestions to set you on your way on what could be a very exciting and rewarding journey.
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