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.

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The 3 Rs: Recruitment – Retention – Redeployment

@CinthiaStella http://flickr.com/photos/eltpics

Have you ever had guests outstay their welcome or realised that you’ve outstayed your welcome? It doesn’t feel good either way.  And the longer the situation goes on, the more resentful and uncomfortable everybody feels.

EFL teachers can similarly outstay their welcome in the schools where they work. The result is a less than rewarding experience for both the teacher and the language school. Common symptoms of this phenomenon are managers complaining about inflexible and unenthusiastic teachers and teachers grumbling about unappreciative and disinterested managers.

So, if this is neither beneficial for the teacher nor the language school, why does this situation arise so frequently? And what can managers and schools do prevent this from happening?

The 3 Rs theory is a practice which, in my experience, is rarely implemented seriously, but if it is, can help to encourage teachers to move on when the time is right to the benefit of both teacher and language school.

Recruitment

This is something that all language schools do but with varying degrees of success. Good recruiting is an art which, if performed successfully, means that a school will have a team of like-minded teachers who fit into the culture of the school. These teachers will normally be more receptive to different initiatives and direction than a teacher who does not identify with the school culture so it is well worth spending time perfecting recruitment procedures.

Good recruitment practices require careful thought being given to the sort of person who will fit into the school culture, thinking beyond qualifications and experience. With this in mind, corresponding job descriptions and person specifications need to be drawn up which clearly communicate the job being offered and the type of person required. This coupled with effective interview procedures will help to select the applicant who will best integrate into the school.

Once the person has been selected and has accepted the job, managers should not underestimate the importance of a comprehensive induction programme which will help the teacher to settle into the language school quickly. The more thorough the induction programme, the sooner the teacher will become an effective part of the language school team.

Retention

When the teacher has settled into the school and knows their way around, how can we as managers, ensure that the teacher’s levels of enthusiasm remain high and benefit the school? It is important that teachers identify with the schools short and mid-term objectives and feel that they can make an important contribution to them. One way of doing this is to define and agree on a personal job plan for the teacher’s development which brings together both the teacher’s personal professional objectives and the school’s short or mid-term aims. By encouraging and supporting the teacher to work on their development in a certain direction and by finding ways of integrating what the teacher learns into school practice via workshops, training sessions etc, both the teacher and the school gain and should view these job plans positively.

Unfortunately, in my experience, it seems that relatively few language schools put into practice serious job development plans. Teacher training often takes the shape of a few token workshops which are on topics which are neither requested by the teachers or part of a larger development plan being followed by the school. If, however, teacher involvement in training programmes is encouraged, recognised and rewarded, and follows a coherent and previously agreed path which benefits both parties, the outcome should be positive for all.

Redeployment

There will come a time though when a teacher outgrows the establishment he or she works for and it is better for both the teacher and the school for the teacher to move on. This can happen sooner or later depending on the integration of the teacher in the school and the opportunities the school can offer the teacher. If a school realises the importance and benefits of helping teachers to leave and integrates a redeployment policy into school practice, fewer teachers will outstay their welcome. What’s more, if the school has carried out a successful retention policy, the investment in this teacher’s development will have been repaid manifold. A happy teacher leaving and being replaced by new, enthusiastic blood should be celebrated as a success.

However, to have the desired effect, incorporating a redeployment policy into a school needs to be more than just sending around a list of available jobs from an international network from time to time. A redeployment policy will encourage teachers to reflect on what they want to do next, the direction they want to move in and how they are going to do this. By providing support for teachers to achieve their objectives, there should be little surprise or upset when a teacher does actually leave. A happy teacher who leaves will be much more cooperative in handing over, and will make their leaving as smooth as possible.

Of course, it is never as easy as this but managers might find it useful to reflect from time to time on their current recruitment, retention and redeployment policies and how they could be improved.

Egg Yolks and Egg Whites (job descriptions)

There is a theory called the “egg yolk, egg white theory” which I was first introduced to when I studied the Advanced Diploma in Language Teaching Management, at ESADE, Spain (now called the International Diploma in Language Teaching Management).

The theory goes like this: all jobs have an element of prescribed tasks (this is the egg yolk) and less defined areas (this is the egg white). The more responsibility you have in your job, the smaller the yolk and the larger the white. So a new teacher with very little experience should, in theory, have a very detailed job description outlining the school’s expectations of the teacher.  This extreme of the spectrum is exemplified by a certain well-known chain of schools (to remain nameless) which offered a type of blended learning solution to students and required their teachers to “follow the script” in the class (all yolk and no white).

As we gain experience and are given roles of responsibility e.g. Level coordinator, ADOS, etc the amount of white increases and the amount of yolk is reduced. The base requirements of this position of responsibility will be outlined and hopefully agreed with the person in question, but the level coordinator will have the freedom to be creative to develop their functions within the constraints of their job description.

If we move further up the scale to Academic Manager, Director of Studies, Director of Teacher Training etc, again theory has it that the yolk reduces in size and the white increases. The white needs to be large to allow for innovation, and give these people the flexibility to deal with the inevitable unexpected issues which arise.

People’s experience, ambition and personality play a fundamental role in how comfortable they feel with the amount of yolk and white in their jobs. For insecure, inexperienced teachers, taking on a job with too much white and not enough yolk can be extremely stressful.

It is also very important that the job description actually matches the job to be carried out. Take the case of a woman who was looking for a low-stress job in which she just had to do what she was told. She didn’t want the sort of job which demands initiative and responsibility.  She applied for and got a job for which the job description, pay and advertisement implied that this would be the case. The reality was far from that. She walked into a job which demanded a high degree of organisation and autonomy. She was very stressed by the job, her colleagues were not happy with her performance, her confidence was undermined and she ended up leaving the company.

At the other end of the spectrum there can be too little definition in job descriptions of positions of responsibility and as a result conflict can arise. When job descriptions are not very defined, a person’s perception of their responsibility and role in an organisation may not correspond to their boss’ perception or to their colleagues’. This is often exacerbated by the fact that jobs evolve over time but job descriptions are not usually re-written, re-negotiated or shared with other members of the organisation.  Added to this is the potential confusion and association connected to job titles. People in positions of responsibility are usually assigned job titles which should communicate effectively and succinctly their role in an organisation. When job titles do not perform this function and cause misunderstanding, it is time for them to be changed.

Underestimating the importance of a clear job title and job definition which corresponds to the correct amount of yolk and white for the position in question, will cause unnecessary stress for all involved. And if the position or job evolves, especially at higher levels of responsibility, re-defining, agreeing and making public these changes, will not only help to make an organisation run more efficiently, but will lead to transparency, acceptance and fewer misunderstandings.