Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Keeping pace with the times

When the supervisor of the writing center initially mentioned the prospect of online tutoring, I think there was talk of revolt amongst several of the more outspoken tutors. Only one of them left, though, and that was due to a combination of factors. The others have grudgingly accepted that this sort of thing is inevitable.

This spring, we made online tutoring available to a select few classes just to gauge interest and feasibility. A few bites, but no huge rush. Online will continue to be available for intersession (intense, five-day a week, two-week) courses and the summer semester. I was the only one to agree to do online tutoring for at least the intersession period. How hard can it be? It's the sort of thing I've done as faculty--look at a draft of an essay, point out what works, and address a few broad areas that still need work. The Internet is a medium I'm very comfortable with. And best of all, it means no 8:00 a.m. conferences. Sweet.

Application? I've done one this evening for a speech class (it's the first day, so this student is really on top of things). In some ways, it is easier--I can re-read it a few more times, think out what I want to say, and revise it for clarity. As long as I'm within the 24-hour window, I can do it at my convenience.

That said, I noticed a couple draw-backs. For one thing, I can't see the student's face--I can't tell if I lost him/her at the second sentence. I generally ask throughout a face-to-face conference if what I'm saying makes sense; no use explaining how to pedal a bike if someone's stuck on balance. Short of welcoming further questions, I can't get that feedback, and it certainly isn't in real time. Another shortcoming is the overall lack of physical presence--I can't pick up a scrap piece of paper to doodle a rough diagram for organization or grab a handout. Maybe I'll talk to my supervisor about making the handouts available on Blackboard so we tutors can access them remotely and send on to students as needed. Finally, it puts me as a tutor in a more directive role--more teacher than "peer" tutor. It's less give and take, more my saying "this is what you should do" instead of "here's one way to do this. Did you see how it works? Now let's see what you've got."

At present, the way I spelled them out, the negatives seem more prominent. I'm not against online tutoring; in time, I think students will come to expect such services to be available online, and we should be able to provide. I just don't think online can (or should) fully replace face-to-face. Indeed, there are some conferences, like brainstorming/coming up with topics conferences, I just can't see taking place online, short of some sort of instant messaging capability. That might be one way of working around the limitations of time lapsed communication--an imperfect one, but a start.

Now playing: Death Cab for Cutie - Grapevine Fires
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