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Christopher Douce

Preparing online tutorials

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 31 Mar 2024, 21:21

Most OU tutorials are currently held online. The term ‘tutorial’ is one that can mean different things in different institutions. In the OU, a tutorial is a ‘learning event’ for a small group of students (although tutorials can sometimes be offered to larger groups of students), that has a specific purpose. The purpose of a tutorial is, of course, linked to module learning outcomes and a module’s assessment strategy.

This blog post shares a sketch of how I prepare for my own online tutorials. Different tutors (and groups of tutors) might adopt different approaches. One way to approach this article is to pick out bits and ideas that work best for you. Think of all the headings that are shared here as representing elements of a really simple framework.

In the earlier days of the university, face-to-face tutorials took place at designated tutorial venues. Depending on your module, tutors might be sent a simple tutorial title or description, such as ‘TMA 1 tutorial’ or ‘block 2’ tutorial. With this title, tutors (who are, of course, have been employed as educational professionals, who know how to teach their subject) would be required to create an event related to those titles. To make best use of the time, tutors would devise different activities to get students interacting with each other, and to help them engage with the ideas that are presented in the module materials.

When preparing online tutorials, it is important to consider the notion of an activity. A challenge with online teaching is that the online tools can themselves become a barrier to sharing and collaboration, which can make it difficult to design interactive and engaging tutorials. In some ways, the tutor has moved from being a ‘learning facilitator’ to a ‘learning producer’, where a tutor produces (or highlights) connections between elements of module materials.

The notion of online tutorial time is different from face-to-face tutorial time. Interactive activities can take much longer to get through when working online, due to the necessary administrative overheads of checking sound levels, allocating students to online rooms, and waiting for responses. On the other hand, you can get through the sharing of some difficult module concepts really quickly since you may choose to record certain elements of your tutorial and encourage students to listen back to your ‘difficult sections’ at a later date. Some aspects of pedagogy transfer well from a face-to-face setting, whereas other do not transfer well at all.

It is true to say that online teaching is difficult since online pedagogy is difficult. It is difficult to check for understanding, and it is difficult to ask questions, since different students may be using their technology in different ways, and it is difficult to run meaningful online activities. It is also probably true to say that technology has been evolving more quickly than online pedagogy.

One way to understand online pedagogy is through a framework called TPACK which is an abbreviation for Technical Pedagogical Content Knowledge. It is useful since it is pretty simple. To do face-to-face teaching well, you need to know your subject (content knowledge), but you also need to know how to teach it (which is pedagogical knowledge). Pedagogical knowledge is, of course, all about the ‘stuff’ that you do in the classroom, such as: giving a lecture, running an activity, asking students questions, or even doing a bit of role play. When we move to the online space, we need to know another bit, which is the technology bit. Essentially, we need to know what buttons to press, and when. To do this well, we need the time to acquire a mental model of how our tools work.

There’s also an added complexity to this in that we need to know how to use our technical tools in a pedagogical sensible way. Whilst we could just share a PowerPoint during a tutorial, that wouldn’t necessarily lead to a good online tutorial. To make a good online tutorial, tutors need to understand intersections between the technical, the pedagogical, and the content knowledge.

What follows is a simple framework to get you started with preparing your online tutorials. Much of this will, of course, sound pretty obvious. Before I get into the framework, here are some things to bear in mind:

  • Accept that online pedagogy is difficult; we’re all trying to figure it out. It can sometimes seem a bit overwhelming, but with time, persistence and practice, it will become easier and less stressful.
  • Think of yourself as a facilitator-producer rather than a facilitator-teacher role. This represents an important shift away from the perspective that you might have adopted previously with face-to-face tutorials. The idea of producer-facilitator (as in an event producer) is an important shift in mindset.
  • Tutorial time is elastic: during your tutorials expect that some types of interactive activities can take a long time, whereas other will take less time than expected. Be prepared to be surprised.
  • Expect silence from students, but also expect that the amount of silence that you have may depend on the online tools that are used, and the confidence of your students in using those tools. Whilst the silence can be a bit unnerving, don’t be worried or put off by it.

Use whatever features you have within your online environment to ‘poll’ your students regularly. Ask them for low demand interactions, such as clicks on buttons, or for simple responses through text chat.

Identify your tutorial dates and titles

Every module has something called a group tuition strategy (which is sometimes known as a group tuition policy). The strategy offers a sketch of what ‘learning events’ are to take place during a module presentation. To all intents and purposes, learning events are tutorials. These tutorial events take place within specified time windows. The learning events can take place for a tutor group (of up to 20 students), a cluster (of up to 10 tutor groups), or they could be module wide. Typically, module wide tutorials are facilitated by module team members or experienced tutors working in collaboration with the module team.

The strategy has a number of related objectives: 

  • It shares what is in the head of the collective module team. In other words, it describes what subjects and topics, and broadly what tutors will present.
  • If a module is delivered across a number of different clusters (which is a group of tutorial groups, all working together), it ensures that these clusters are roughly delivering the same tutorials. It aims to provide consistency to make sure that all students are provided with tutorials that cover similar materials.
  • It provides students with useful description of learning events. It will also describe whether individual tutorial will (or will not) be recorded. This enables students to make a choice about whether they attend specific sessions.

When you begin a presentation, familiarise yourself with the list of tutorials you are required to deliver, and when they are to be presented. Put these dates in your diary. Students can book onto these tutorials at the start of a module presentation, which means that they cannot easily be changed. If this is your first presentation, you may well be asked to team up with either your mentor, or other tutors, to gain experience of what is involved with online teaching. Have a good read of the learning event description; it should allude to some of the module learning outcomes that you need to cover.

Identify the learning outcomes

Irrespective of what you think about learning outcomes, they are important tools that are used by module teams. They are, of course, used to guide what materials are covered and what is assessed. Subsequently, it’s important to make sure you appreciate what you module’s learning outcomes are, how they relate to a learning event description (the group tuition strategy) and what you need to (broadly) cover in your tutorial.

A point to note is that although a learning event description might specify what outcomes you need to cover, it doesn’t always specify how it should be covered. You should apply your technical, pedagogic and content knowledge to make decisions about how you do this. 

Review your module calendar

There is a rhythm to every module presentation, and every module has a module calendar that shares that rhythm with students. Is useful to familiarise yourself with the module calendar to relate your scheduled tutorials to what is being studied and when. Pay particular attention to the dates of the student’s assessments. If your tutorials are close to any points of assessment, it is a good idea to highlight themes that relate to forthcoming assessments in your tutorials.

Prepare your materials

The big question is, of course: what are you going to do during your tutorial? Online tutorials are often structured around a PowerPoint presentation (but they don’t have to be). If you do use PowerPoint, be aware that the university updates its PowerPoint templates from time to time, so do seek out the latest version.

The exact contents of your tutorial will, of course, depend on what is in the group tuition description. Design a number of activities with varying level of interactivity. Also, plan for having different numbers of students at your tuition event: plan for either 2 students turning up, or 20 students.

Activities could include sharing interactive questions, debating an idea, indicating an opinion on a continuum by adding a mark using a virtual pen, screen your sharing with students and asking them for their direction, or putting students into break out rooms and asking students to contribute to plenary discussions.

Do begin your session with a contents and introductory slides. At the end, briefly summarise what you have covered. I remember a colleague saying to me: ‘tell them what you’re going to teach them, then tell them what you’ve taught them’.  At the end of your session, also leave a space for a question and answer session which is not recorded.

When I use PowerPoint, I like to use simple animations. I use animations to show the different parts of a slide a bit at a time. My motivation for using animations is that it can be useful to draw student’s attention to the specific themes and topics, and prevents them being distracted by what is going to be spoken about next. Although animations can sometimes be a bit tricky to work with (PowerPoint has something called an animation window, where you edit how all your animations appears, and what each trigger is to start an animation) I think it is a feature worth getting to know. A practical recommendation is: keep your animations simple. I tend to use only two: an ‘appear’ animation, and I start an animation through a mouse click.

Finally, I make use of the notes section of each PowerPoint slide. This serves a couple of purposes: it acts as a prompt in terms of what I am going to cover within the session, and provides a set of useful notes that I can share with students afterwards.

Tell your groups

Although your tutorials will be visible to students through their StudentHome page and the learning event management system, it is always a good idea to remind them that you are going to be running a tutorial. A few days before a tutorial, do send a group email to all the students in your tutor group reminding that you will be running a tutorial. If appropriate, do emphasise that you will be sharing some guidance about a forthcoming assignment. This should act as a draw, which should then increase tutorial attendance. More students, of course, make for better (and hopefully more interactive) tutorials.

Another way to increase the visibility of your tutorials is to mention their dates and titles on your introductory email and within the TMA feedback you provide. It is a good thing to join together different elements of your tuition together.

Review your registrations

A few days before your tutorial, review the list of students who have registered. Not only will you get a sense of how many students to expect, but you will be able to see whether any of those students have disclosed additional requirements.

If you do notice any students do have records which suggests that adjustments may need to be made during tutorials, it might be necessary to contact them individually in advance, to ask the question: ‘what do I need to be aware of to ensure that I can provide tuition that meets your needs?’ 

Be led by your student. Sometimes, it might be a good idea to adjust the design and layout of your PowerPoint resources, or in other occasions it might be a good idea to send your student a copy of your PowerPoint in advance, so they can read it through in before your tutorial.

Prepare your online room

If you are using Adobe Connect to deliver a tutorial it is important to make sure that your online room is prepared and set up before the day of your tutorial.

Adobe Connect uses an analogy with a real teaching space; your online room will be left in whatever state the previous occupant left it. The previous occupant may have chosen to layout your room in a way that worked for them. Adobe Connect uses an interesting and powerful idea: it uses something called a layout. You can choose your own room configuration by creating and using your own layouts. 

If your room is shared with other tutors, it is a good idea to create a new layout and put your name next to it. You may well want to create different layouts for the various activities you wish to run. Different layouts can be used to collate together text from notes gathered up from breakout rooms, for example.

When you’ve created a layout and have updated your PowerPoint resource, it is then time to upload it to a share pod (which sits within one of your layouts). When this has been done, you can move through all your slides.

If you do a lot of screensharing in your tutorials, it is important to be aware that how your screen appears to you might be different to how your screen appears to students. If you are using a computer with a very high resolution monitor, what you share might be difficult to read to some students who have an older generation monitor. If you want to do some screensharing, a recommendation is to share through a monitor or a display that is set to a lower resolution. It is a good idea to do this before your tutorial. You can change the resolution through your computer’s control panel. 

Running your tutorial

My own practice is to login to my tutorial room approximately fifteen minutes before it is due to start. After logging in I make sure that I have a glass of water, have selected my chosen Adobe Connect layout, uploaded my required PowerPoint (if I’m using one), and make sure my microphone and headset is set up correctly. If you use a laptop with a headset, Adobe Connect might ‘see’ two microphones: one that is built into your laptop, and the other one which is connected to your headset. Do make sure you ensure the correct microphone is selected.

When delivering a tutorial, I use two monitors. One monitor that is used for Adobe Connect, and another that has a copy of the PowerPoint that has been uploaded to Adobe Connect. The reason for this is simple: having two views of my presentation enables me to remember what my next slide is, and also allows me to access the notes that I have prepared earlier.

At the very start of a session, I turn my webcam on, so students get a sense of a real person behind the slides. To prepare for this, also check to make sure that my laptop’s video camera is at a good eye level, and the lighting in my room is reasonable.

After a friendly welcome to all students, I start the recording if this is something that is required by the group tuition plan. If a recording going to be made, I make a point of making all students aware that this is happening. This gives them the opportunity to drop out from the tutorial if they do not personally consistent.

During a tutorial, I might use a number of different layouts, whilst at the same time trying to keep things simple. I typically use no more than three different layouts, but more often than not, I mostly use only two. Before changing layouts, I always make sure to tell students what is happening. I also do the same whenever I’m screensharing.

If I use breakout rooms, or run activities where students are requested to share options or debate ideas, I always pause the recording. One of the main reasons for this is, of course, to encourage students participate freely. Also, if students see they may have potentially missed something interesting, they may well be tempted to come along to the next version.

Finally, if I turn up to a tutorial which is scheduled to be recorded, and no students turn up, I do the session anyway. I make what is known as an ‘empty room’ recording. Even if I don’t have any students at the allotted date and time, students may seek out a recording.

Using advanced features

Online tutorial tools have a lot of features, and these can take quite a lot of time and courage to master. Here is a summary of some of the more advanced features that are provided by some tools:

Breakout rooms: These are student led discussion rooms which can be used to discuss different themes and issues. Since participants are often reluctant to speak, only use them if your group are familiar and comfortable speaking online, or if you have a reasonably large group. In Adobe Connect you can ask students to make notes, which you can then collate on a shared layout. In turn, this can lead to a discussion.

Sharing media: You can show students interesting resources, such as audio or video clips. Make sure they are always relatively short, and make sure that you poll students (ask students to push buttons) before and after sharing a media clip, just to maintain their attention.

Asking questions: To test knowledge and to gain an understanding of experience or opinions, you can share questions in different ways.

Sharing files: Adobe Connect provides a way to share ‘digital handouts’ to students. This can be done through something called a ‘files’ pod, where you can upload any number of files you wish to distribute to students. You might share a copy of a presentation, or maybe a set of notes. Just like face-to-face tutorials, a practical tip is to share handouts towards the end of a session, to avoid students becoming immediately distracted and reading them. Also, do note that files can only be shared through a file pod during a live tutorial, and cannot be distributed through a recording.

Screensharing: Screensharing is a powerful approach to introduce and to talk about different elements of a module, particularly if a lot of module materials are made available through a module website.

Screensharing

Screensharing is a really powerful tool. I do a lot of screensharing. At the start of a module presentation, I use screensharing to give students a quick tour of the key bits of the module website to help them understand what resources available, and what resources are important. I emphasise particular weeks in the module calendar, and talk them through the module assessment strategy. For one of the modules I teach, I show students the university library website and share some tips about how to search for articles.

Screensharing can be a really powerful pedagogic tool for modules that use computer software. One of the modules I used to tutor was called M250 Object-oriented programming. This was a module where students had to learn how to use a programming language and learn how to use a software development environment. To help students to learn more about their tools, I began by providing a tour of some key features. I then took a pedagogic approach where I asked them for their direction. Students attending the tutorial could then ask me questions about the software environment, what it was for, and how it worked.

If you want to use screensharing, the following tips may be useful. Do bear in mind that these relate to Adobe Connect. Other tools, of course, will work differently.

Plan what you are going to show: Before doing any screensharing, do spend a few minutes doing a bit of run through, or practice. This will help you to remember what bits you are going to click on. Don’t worry if you click on the wrong things; your session doesn’t have to be perfect.

Select which monitor you will use for screensharing: The monitor you choose matters. If you choose your main monitor, and this is a very large screen with a very high resolution, when you share your screen, the text you will share is likely to become impossibly small for students. To avoid this happening, adjust the resolution of your main monitor so it has a lower resolution. If you have a multi-monitor setup, make sure that the monitor you use for screensharing has a lower resolution. (You can, of course, check to make sure what students can see by making a test recording).

Create a layout just for screensharing: Create a layout that has an empty share pod. When you move to this layout, you can than then immediately start to share your screen. This avoids having to stop sharing whatever you are sharing, and having to reload it again when you have finished your screensharing.

Move the text chat out of the way: If you have a multi-screen setup, if you are screensharing, move the text chat to the screen that isn’t being shared. If you don’t do this, there will be a bit of the screen recording that will be blocked out for students. Moving the text chat area avoids that happening, and helps you to interact with your student group more easily.

Make sure you have an alternative: Not all students may be able to take advantage of your screensharing. Whatever you do share, make sure your students have a different way to access the same points of learning. You might think about adding additional or complementary notes in your PowerPoint file, or sharing an additional resource which might summarise a set of steps that you illustrated.

Washup, or after your tutorial

Post-tutorial ‘washup’ is an important part of delivering a tutorial.

There are a number of discrete tasks I always aim to complete as soon as a tutorial has finished. If I can’t complete them immediately, I make a note to ensure that I carry out all these activities the following day. 

The first three tasks need to be completed if you have recorded your tutorial.

Check the recording: The key question I ask myself is: did my tutorial record okay? I do this by clicking on the recording link, and listening to a couple of seconds. To save time, I sample a couple of slides, to also make sure that my slide and layout transitions are okay.

Edit your tutorial name and description: After a recording has been made, the recording software will allocate a default title. This title will not give students any information about the aim and objectives of the tutorial. Edit both the tutorial name and description, making it consistent with what tutors have done.

Make your recording visible: Recordings are not visible by default. You have to do something to make them appear for your students. The OU VLE adopts a curious metaphor to facilitate this: it uses an ‘eye’ metaphor. If a recording is not visible, an eye will be closed. You can make a tutorial visible by clicking the eye icon to open it. If you forget to make your recording visible, students may ask you to make it available to them.

Share your resources: After a tutorial make available any resources you might have shared during a tutorial to other students. If your tutorial was a tutor group only tutorial, do post a copy of your resources to your tutor group forum. If your tutorial took place in a cluster room (where students from other tutor groups can attend), do paste your resources in the cluster forum. If your tutorial was recorded, also post a link to the recording.

Let everyone know that tutorial resources are now available: Now that all your resources have been uploaded, there are two final things to do. Firstly, send a message to all students who have attended your tutorial to let them know. You can do this by going to the ‘your tutorials’ section on TutorHome, and clicking on the ‘your past tutorials’ heading. You will then see a ‘send group email’ link. Use this link to let all students who registered for your tutorial know about the available of your resources. Secondly, let all students in your tutor group know by sending them a group email. Even if they haven’t attended, they might find your tutorial resources useful.

Working with others

All these points in this article have been written with a single tutor in mind. Tutorials are sometimes supported by two or even more tutors. Working with one or more tutors gives tutors and students some interesting advantages. Firstly, it offers redundancy. If your internet connection was to experience a temporary outage, the second tutor can immediately jump in and continue a tutorial. Secondly, it enables for an efficient division of responsibilities: one tutor can lead a session, and another tutor can be supporting the session by reading the text chat, and interacting with students. Another benefit is that students, get to hear different voices, which makes it more interesting. Finally, different tutors can facilitate interesting online pedagogies. Two tutors could, for example, argue with each other, adopting opposing viewpoints. The tutors might role-play, to demonstrate some key learning outcomes.

When working with other tutors, planning is important. Make sure you find the time to decide who is doing what some time before a scheduled tutorial. You might decide on this through a short online meeting, or you might develop a plan through an email conversation. You might also decide to work collaboratively on a presentation. Do make sure you share views about whether you have preferences in terms of covering certain learning outcomes, or have any specific technical or pedagogical skills you would like to emphasise or to draw upon. Clear communication facilitates effective collaboration.

Improving your practice

As suggested earlier, running online tutorials is difficult. It requires skills, practice, and different types of knowledge. It is easy to get things wrong, and things will go wrong. Like very many aspects of education, an important element of delivering effective online tutorials links back to the principle idea of reflection. It is important to continually reflect on your practice and aim to continually develop your skills.

When considering reflection, ask the following questions: What worked well? What didn’t work well? What bits did I struggle with? What part of the tutorial am I uncertain about? Also, what bit seemed to work well?

If you are newly appointed to a module, do make sure you have an opportunity to learn what your mentor does. Depending on your module, it might be possible to view another tutor’s tutorials. Ask your line manager and your fellow tutors if they would be happy for you to either come along to one of their tutorials, or listen to one of their recordings.

A key to developing your online teaching skills is to be comfortable taking practical risks. Online tools have a lot of features, and only a very small proportion of these features are used. Improving your practice as an online tutor means that sometimes it is necessary to feel uncomfortable. Don’t be afraid to try new things out. Find new ways to interpret the aims of a learning event. Also, do seek advice from those around you.

Reflections

I used to find all kinds of tutorial overwhelming. I used to ask myself: “what happens if I’m not able to answer a question?” I now know that although this was a legitimate question, the reality is that I’m not expected to answer every single possible question. If I don’t know something, I will say “thank you, I’ll find out and I’ll get back to you”; behind the scenes there is a lot of support: there is your line manager, and fellow tutors to seek help and guidance from.

Another question that I’m sure I have asked myself must have been: “what happens if I get something wrong?” The answer is, of course, you can always share corrections and updates later on.

Online tutorials are difficult. A bit of the difficulty lies with the silence that tutors face; it sometimes feels as if we are talking to ourselves, into a machine. The reality is, however, different. I can assert this since after tutorials, students who have never spoken have sent me an email saying that they have appreciated the tutorials that I have helped to deliver.

I take a practical approach when planning and delivering tutorial; I want students to go away with something. That might be a new way to understand concepts that are presented within the module materials, or a new understanding of what is required for their next tutor marked assignment.

I’m not going to deliver a perfect tutorial every time. Sometimes things go wrong, and I won’t push the right buttons in the right order, and that is okay. After all, we’re all learning.

Acknowledgements

This blog has been written as a part of an eSTEeM project which relates to STEM teaching practice. Thanks are extended to Fiona Aiken whose comments has helped to improve this article.

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