One of the most satisfying parts of my teaching role is supporting students through that tricky first semester in line with UKPSF A2, A4, K4 and V2. I’m very aware that students at university today are from many diverse backgrounds and many have difficult challenges to overcome in order to succeed in higher education (UKPSF V1, V4).
A key part of my support strategy is to make myself approachable. Although the courses I teach are conventional face-to-face courses, I do feel the need to adopt some distance learning practices because I’m an HPL and therefore not available on site outside teaching hours. I don’t want my students to feel abandoned in between the weekly sessions. As suggested by Coomey and Stephenson (2001), the need for support is a key part of online learning but the way this support is offered varies depending on the level of teacher control and formal structure of the course so I shall reflect on my own support strategy in this context.
I encourage my students to follow me on twitter and I have a # for each of my modules. I try to lead by example, using the # to RT relevant material and positive announcements. Gradually, some of the students join in and I make sure I engage in their comments and questions (UKPSF A3 and A4). For me, the beauty of twitter is that it enables me to create an accessible persona online with little additional effort.
I email students at least once during the week to remind them of preparation for the next class and comment on Good Things from the previous session.
Students email specific questions about assessments etc to me directly and I do my best to respond quickly to their individual needs.
In some ways, this strategy shares attributes with the PaMS strategy outlined by Simpson (2008) and certainly digital technologies – not discussed by Simpson – do facilitate this approach. However, I do find Simpson’s PaMS problematic since he does not refer to the number of students this approach is suitable for. Can tutors be expected to provide this level of support to large cohorts?
Certainly, this has become an issue for me. Having spent the first half of the semester working hard to develop my approachability, the second half of the semester is spent drowning under the weight of student emails!
So I’m starting to explore alternative ways of dealing with this such as an online forum, perhaps within the VLE. So instead of emailing me directly with a question about the assessment, students would be advised to post the question on the forum where I could respond publicly. I wonder, however, if some students would be reluctant to ask questions publicly for fear of looking foolish so perhaps I would need to find a way for them to do so anonomously?
This workload issue is addressed by MacDonald (2011) who recognises that the easy access afforded by email leads to students expecting “just in time” assistance and demanding more individual attention than was ever possible pre digitial technologies! (MacDonald 2011 p17).
The other implication of this kind of “just in time” support is that it could be too overbearing allowing little room for student autonomy. Am I creating a dependency which does not prepare students well for the world beyond university?! Certainly, my approach would put me in the NW quadrant of Coomey and Stephenson’s paradigm grid of online learning (Coomey and Stephenson 2001). Maybe I need to let go more?
Perhaps. But I do still feel that first term students do expect and require a high-level of support from their tutors whilst they develop their learning and collaborative skills. I do include lots of group activities in my sessions from the very start as a way of developing this and I’ve noticed – especially in my largest class – that students quickly learn to support each other. When it comes to the end-of-semester Newsday – a major collaborative project – the students supported each other via Facebook and I was pleasantly surprised how little they seemed to need me when they were working together.
Coomey, M. & Stephenson, J. 2001. Online learning: it is all about dialogue, involvement, support and control – according to the research. In J. Stephenson (ed.) Teaching and learning online : pedagogies for new technologies. London: Kogan Page.
MacDonald, J. (2011). Blended Learning and Online Tutoring: Planning Learner Support and Activity Design. London: Gower.
Simpson, O. (2008) ‘Motivating Learners in Open and DIstance Learning: Do we Need a New Theory of Learner Support?’ Open Learning: The Journal of Open and Distance Learning. 23:3, 159-170.
The Higher Education Academy (2011) UK Professional Standards Framework. Available from: http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/ukpsf