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The Challenges and Opportunities of Online Tutorials

This blog post is written by Carol Edwards and Andrew Maxfield, Student Experience Managers and Tutors for the Open University. This post focuses on their research on the use of microphones in online tutorials, with findings drawn from a small survey with some OU tutors. The blog post highlights some key findings of the analysis, including the identification of some barriers to participation using the microphone, ideas to encourage student engagement and tutor observations.

Following on from Jess Guth’s post of 23 June 2020, calling for more practical dos and don’ts of online teaching, we decided to share our recent small-scale research on the use of microphones in the online tutorial room. Our research was based around a module on the LLB at the Open University.  The module chosen was an Introduction to Law (referred to as W101) and this is often the first module students will study on the degree.  However, many of the comments made are relevant to all levels of study.

The Open University is a leading provider in distance online learning and all of our law students have the opportunity to take part in online tutorials.  Each law module will offer a selection of dates for each tutorial, some of which will be recorded and others non-recorded.  The idea behind recorded tutorials is that students, who are unable to attend in person, can listen at the time most convenient for them.  Also, students are able to listen again to confirm understanding.  Our non-recorded tutorials allow students, who do not wish to be recorded, to participate and fully engage in a learning activity.  For students who are anxious this can reduce the stress.

In our role as Student Experience Managers we observe and discuss tutorials with our Associate Lecturers (ALs), and a common part of the discussion is the lack of microphone usage by students. This encouraged us to undertake research to identify, whether or not, non-recorded tutorials had any impact on student microphone usage.  We considered various research methods.  Out of several lines of enquiry one proved particularly valuable, and this was a tutor questionnaire.  The questionnaire was issued to all W101 ALs who taught online and, to our complete surprise, we achieved 53% return rate with ALs ranging in experience of online delivery from 2 to 10 years.

Our results showed that the majority of students indicate they have working microphones at the start of the tutorial.  However, AL experience shows that only a minority elect to use their microphones during the tutorial.  Most students favour using the chat box to type questions and responses.  So, it is key the AL remembers to monitor the chat box to keep students engaged in the tutorial activities. However, some ALs commented that they often observe the students using the microphone in the breakout rooms (online rooms set up in addition to the main tutorial room to allow group work).   This supports our own experience.  If we go into the breakout room (which is not recorded) to check on our students, we often find an active conversation with several students using their microphones freely.

ALs identified a number of barriers to students engaging with the microphone.  For those of you who are used to online tutorials, they may seem a little obvious, but for many of you finding yourself moving into the online environment for the first time, we felt it was worth sharing these.

Students have the fear of getting things wrong and it being recorded.  In the online environment which lacks the visual cues, getting it wrong can be very intimidating.  Careful consideration needs to be given to pace; we all know it is easy to be distracted by other things online.

Some ALs felt that students may be uncomfortable with the technology and this could impact on involvement, but a bigger issue was when the ALs lacked confidence.  There was a general feeling that this lack of confidence could transfer to the students, reducing their engagement. For many of us delivering online tutorials for the first time, it is natural to lack confidence in the technology.  Non-recording does reduce this pressure.

Online delivery provides the opportunity to work more flexibly but there can be challenges in engaging with the outside world from our home environment.  For example, many students (and ALs) have work or caring responsibilities and there may be other family members trying to work or relax.  Sometimes finding a private space for tutorials can be difficult.

Our research established that there are alternative but equally valuable ways of getting students involved.   An obvious way of getting students to participate is the chat box and this does reduce the stress on students, and they do seem to enjoy it.  ALs also stated that students engaged well with drag and drop exercises and writing on the screen.  These can take longer but still be as valuable as a verbal discussion.

Another technique we have observed in practice is the use of the webcam to welcome students to the session.  Some ALs will put the webcam on at the start of the session to introduce themselves and then switch it off due to broadband issues.  This can be a great way of making the tutor a real person.  Remember to check your background!

We have found that a higher percentage of students watch the recordings so it is worthwhile considering what parts of the tutorial will and will not be recorded. This enables the students who attend the opportunity to raise questions and interact outside the recording.

Our experience, and this has been supported by the responses to our questionnaire, has shown that learning materials are another aspect to be given consideration.  You cannot just lift a face to face tutorial and deliver it online.  Careful planning is required, remembering things do take longer in the online room.  Online tutorials require very careful design and skills on the part of the tutor to develop a relaxed and stimulating environment for learning.

A key message from our ALs is that engaging with training, seeking support from colleagues and mentors, to become familiar with the tools of online tutorials, can help us to gain confidence quickly.  This is an exciting time, as so many of us are engaging with the online environment, in both our professional and social lives, enabling us to become more familiar with this technology.  This offers a wonderful opportunity to make learning fun and accessible to all.


Carol Edwards and Andrew Maxfield

1 thought on “The Challenges and Opportunities of Online Tutorials”

  1. Thank you for your helpful and timely sharing as we are about to start our new school year as well.

    The observation in the breakout room suggests that our students are comfortable with using the microphone to share their views as long as it is not recorded. This is understandable as even in face-to-face tutorial classes, we tell our students that it is a safe place for expressing their views and what was discussed during the tutorial should remain with the tutorial group only.

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