Managing successful online courses: 3. The tutor

A lot of online language courses are tutored in one way or another and in most of these courses the tutor plays a significant role in the success or failure of the course. The tutor will mitigate the impersonal nature of online courses and provide that personal touch which can make all the difference in our clients’  appreciation of the course. So, if you are setting up an online tutored course, what tutor issues do you need to consider?

The choice of course materials inevitably affects the role of the tutor. At one end of the spectrum some courses merely require tutors to track the students’ progress, follow up on student inactivity and encourage the students to keep up with deadlines and get through the course. In this type of online course, an administrative person who is familiar with the course and who can communicate with the students in their L1 (in the case of mono-lingual groups) could more than satisfactorily carry out this role. In fact it would be neither relevant nor necessarily effective to use a teacher to tutor these students.

In the middle of the spectrum there are a lot of online courses in which language and content is delivered and practised by the course material itself. The tutor’s role in these courses is limited to helping the student to produce language outside the constraints of the programmed exercises (in tutorials, for example). The role of the tutor here is not to present language but to give the student feedback, support and encouragement in developing their speaking and writing skills. A tutor in this type of course will probably also deal with any questions the student might have about the online content. There is therefore a strong emphasis on remedial support and this role, in my opinion, requires the knowledge of a relatively experienced teacher.

At the other end of the spectrum the tutor can be required to actually put together the course by selecting the contents of the course from a bank of content and exercises, structuring its delivery, and holding online group or one-to-one classes which can involve presenting language as well as skills practice. This role would require a highly experienced and skilled teacher.

Another issue is the rate of pay. Typically tutoring rates are lower than teaching rates (with the exception of when the tutor has to create the course). While teaching rates typically include preparation and the marking of homework, the hourly rate of a tutor often doesn’t need to include these elements i.e. the hour paid corresponds to an hour worked. In addition, most tutoring work can be done from home so no travelling is expected and the tutor can log on to the platform to deal with student questions and written work when convenient and not necessarily at set times.

However, the lower rate of pay can be an issue for a school’s regular face-to-face teachers and cause a certain amount of resentment and negativism towards tutoring. In these cases it is often more successful to contract tutors from outside the school for whom the attractions of tutoring outweigh the disadvantages of the lower hourly rate of pay.

The role and skills of a tutor can be quite different from the role of a teacher in a face-to-face context. Traditional language schools putting together online courses should not expect that great face-to-face teachers will automatically make great online tutors.

Bearing all this in mind, it is important to define very carefully the role of the tutor in the online course you are putting together by producing a comprehensive job description. And once you have defined the role of the tutor, you should give careful thought to the sort of person who will effectively fulfil this role and elaborate a detailed person specification.  If you do this successfully and then provide a thorough training course for the tutors selected before the start of the course and support during the course, your tutors should play a decisive part in the success of your online course.