In July 2020 we wrote a blog entitled “Challenges and opportunities of online tutorials” (https://lawteacher.ac.uk/online-learning/the-challenges-and-opportunities-of-online-tutorials/) which summarised the findings of our small-scale research project focusing on a level one, introduction to law module, delivered at the Open University[i]. Within the blog we shared our research findings relating to student use of microphones and some of the unexpected themes that had emerged. In this blog we plan to explain how our research has moved forward and share some of our student’s views regarding online pedagogy.
Our initial research involved a tutor questionnaire regarding student use of microphones. In light of covid-19 and the move to online working and socialising we wondered whether or not student use of microphones would increase in online tutorials. We therefore decided to reissue our questionnaire to the same group of tutors and were surprised to note similar results – students were still not willing to use the microphone. This has led us to consider whether or not students view tutorials differently to other online activities due to interacting with strangers or being judged in an educational setting.
In addition, tutors identified that their level one students did not like breakout activities which we had not anticipated. We felt this needed to be explored further and decided to conduct a level one student questionnaire. This was sent to 870 students and we obtained a 10% response rate. We adopted a thematic approach to our analysis.
The questionnaire covered a range of areas but we intend, for the purpose of this blog, to share students’ views on what they enjoyed about online tutorials and why. We hope this may help colleagues who are intending to take a blended approach in course delivery for the next academic year.
Our starting point with the questionnaire was to determine what students enjoyed most and least about live online tutorials. Students enjoyed the “interaction with other students” but this was juxtaposed with others stating that the online tutorial felt like “a void” and “they did not feel part of a group”. Developing a sense of belonging in an online tutorial can be difficult. As we both manage tutors, we are actively encouraging tutors to put their cameras on at the start and end of tutorials to try and address the impersonal nature of the online room. We hope that as this becomes standard practice with our tutors, students might also start to do this. Therefore, addressing some of the isolation issues. We plan to investigate this further.
The online platform we use allows tutors to use a range of activities and we asked students to rank them in order of enjoyment. We found the most popular was the chat box because students found it was informal, quick, easy to use and allowed them to ask questions, without impacting upon the tutorial flow. The second most popular was drag and drop activities, closely followed by polls.
We expected students not to like using the microphones as this had been previously confirmed in our earlier research. Various reasons were provided for this including “embarrassing”, “dislike the sound of own voice”, “can’t see how people are responding to you”, “not sure when I can talk”, “too shy” and “anxiety”. It is worth noting that for students who were comfortable using the microphone, they identified a number of reasons including “quick and easier to use,” and “the most natural form of communication”.
The student questionnaire confirmed the tutor’s feedback that a high number of students dislike the breakout rooms. We had always assumed students would enjoy the opportunity to chat with other students without the tutor present. However, this does not appear to be the case at level one. Reasons given for disliking the breakout rooms included, “they were awkward”, “time consuming”, “they are confusing” and “they break the flow of the tutorial”.
Both microphones and breakout rooms are valuable methods of learning and should not be excluded from tutorials. However, they do need to be carefully scaffolded to ensure the students develop confidence and understand the value of the method. This is particularly so with breakout rooms, where the student must clearly understand the purpose of the activity to ensure this is not viewed, to quote one student, as “an excuse not to teach us”. Anecdotally we are aware that level three (final year students) engage far more with breakout activities. We wonder if in the early stages of online study, breakout rooms are a step too far for new students. In future we would like to research whether level one and three students have the same objections to breakout rooms. However, we appreciate that whatever level your students, when engaging online for the first time, your experience may be the same.
In conclusion our research is very small scale but we do feel it provides an insight into the student experience when approaching tutorials which can only be useful as we plan for the future.
We would be interested to hear your own experiences in two areas:
- In terms of student engagement in online tutorials, the use of the microphone and student’s response to breakout room activities.
- Taking into account the platform your institution has adopted, if your students have been able to use their cameras in online tutorials, has this made engagement easier?
If you would be interested in taking part in this, please let us know.
Carol Edwards and Andrew Maxfield
[i] Andrew and Carol are Lecturers and Student Experience Managers at the Open University, a leading provider of online education. Their role involves managing over 40 tutors supporting approximately 800 students each over levels 1 and 3. Level one is equivalent to year one of a full-time degree and level 3 to year three.