Successful Online Tutoring Part I: Getting Started

Beth Smith, and the 2011–12 Counseling Library Faculty Issues Committee

Part II will address common platforms and effective practices in online tutoring

The goal of online tutoring is to create a virtual tutoring environment for students that emulates a face-to-face experience which can help a student achieve success in a given class. Online tutoring can provide a service that supports distance education students as well as students who are taking classroom-based courses. Demand for online services of all types is increasing, and colleges might consider developing online tutoring opportunities for all students. Before a local senate can recommend the development of an online tutoring program, faculty should discuss the benefits of an online tutoring program, availability of resources to support the program, and commitment to provide the necessary support to those students who need more help to pass classes.

Academic Senate Resolution 13.04 in Spring 2008 called for the Senate to research and prepare a paper on effective and non-effective practices for establishing online tutoring programs. Information has been gathered from Association of Colleges for Tutoring and Learning Assistance (ACTLA) members as well as from others involved with tutoring at their colleges. In all cases, the same advice was offered: start small, look for interest from students and tutors, and find disciplines willing to cooperate by developing training for tutorial support providers and evaluating the effectiveness of the program.

Start Small
Colleges that have online tutoring programs recommend starting with a small number of disciplines or students when considering an online tutoring service. Distance education faculty might be a good group to begin discussions of a pilot or to launch a small project. These faculty will already be knowledgeable about use of the Internet for learning and how to engage students in the online arena, and they may already have access to technology necessary for such a program. Tutor training might be more easily managed with the distance education faculty as well, since they will have experience with the styles of communication used online and how student tutors can successfully navigate this environment when assisting students.

Another way to start small is to limit the online tutoring program to one or two disciplines. By doing so, the startup issues can be contained to fewer students and tutors, and faculty in those disciplines can communicate directly with students in those specific classes about changes to the online tutoring offerings, schedule, interface, or difficulties in service. If the online tutoring program will be open to all students in a particular course or in a discipline, then training for students on how to use the service can be provided in all sections of the course or in the discipline. Ideally, such a service requires minimal or no training. For disciplines where tutor training already takes place for face-to-face tutoring, it will be easier to expand the training necessary for those tutors working in an online environment. If tutors can do a good job in person, then they may well be good tutors in an online environment if that is a direction in which they wish to go.

Evaluation of a small program will also be easier. Faculty will want to track how many and which students use the service, the effectiveness of the technology in use, the training needs of tutors, marketing and advertising issues, and issues that may emerge as the program is scaled up. Surveys of student satisfaction along with faculty monitoring of usage will be valuable sources of information as the college considers adding more tutors, changing or purchasing software providers, or abandoning the program because of limited applicability. Group tutoring rather than individual tutoring online is another way to start small. Making tutors available in a synchronous way to work with a small group of students can provide real-time training for tutors eventually asked to tutor individual students depending on the course content and technology support for the tutoring. The California community college system makes a mechanism available for such tutoring sessions at no cost through CCC Confer ( Group tutoring online could have other benefits as well, such as students from different sections of a course participating together to share knowledge and strategies. Alternatively, if the students were all from a single section or all taught by the same instructor, the tutor could be trained to support the syllabus of that teacher.

Interest from Students and Tutors
With so many resources online, colleges may assume that tutoring is also needed online. However, that assumption may not be accurate. A college interested in starting an online tutoring program should survey students to see if they want this service available online. The survey could be limited to students in specific courses or disciplines or only those students who enroll in distance education courses. Feedback directly from students can give insight into the number of tutors needed, the hours for scheduling online services, whether tutoring must be synchronous or asynchronous, and other important aspects of online tutoring for students. According to the current accreditation standards, colleges are required to offer equivalent services for students no matter what or where the delivery of the class. Yet, this requirement does not mean that online students want only online tutoring available to them. Colleges will respond to the accreditation standards appropriately by acknowledging the variety of resources available to students in the different programs throughout the college.

Tutor interest must also be part of the equation. Not all tutors will want to tutor in the online environment, and not all will be successful online. Again, the college may want to survey tutors to learn of interest, skills, and suggestions for developing an online program. Availability of tutors to manage both synchronous and asynchronous tutoring should be discussed before hiring of any tutors to do online tutoring. Because online tutoring may be more dependent on audio (speaking and listening) capacity, tutors may need to be screened for this work differently than those working in face-toface tutoring situations.

Finding Compatible Disciplines
Sometimes looking for disciplines that are compatible with online tutoring means looking for faculty who are interested in making the program work, but online tutoring may be more effective in some disciplines than in others. Simply from a numbers perspective, online tutoring in the basic skills areas may be a good place to start. Basic skills courses typically reach a significant number of students, so beginning an online tutoring program at this level may be cost effective. Mathematics and English are two disciplines with a long history of the use of tutors, so these programs overall may be good choices as well for where to start online tutoring. Writing Centers may already have an online function available which can be a model for other subject areas where students typically need support with writing assignments.

In some cases, the course content for which tutoring is needed is complicated, and the use of technology only makes the tutoring more complex rather than less for students. Therefore, these disciplines might not be good for start-up programs unless the technology available to the tutors and students is simple enough to navigate so the tutoring session can focus on the content of the class. Specific training may be necessary for tutors in some disciplines for how to demonstrate equations, formulas, diagrams, and other necessary elements of a course in the online environment.

Cost is also an issue for beginning a tutoring program online. Technology, including both hardware and software, may need to be purchased, and tutors will need training on the technology and other aspects of successfully tutoring students online. The number of such tutors will be a factor in determining cost, as is compensation for faculty time to monitor and evaluate the tutors hired to work in the online arena. Colleges may wish to do a cost-benefit analysis of creating and sustaining an online tutoring program.

The next Rostrum will contain Part II of this series on online tutoring. It will cover types of software available and other online resources for an online tutoring program, and discuss effective practices from colleges in the state that are providing tutoring services online.

The articles published in the Rostrum do not necessarily represent the adopted positions of the academic senate. For adopted positions and recommendations, please browse this website.