Tutoring and Technology

Originally published in the Scotsman.

Suddenly, after eight years in higher education, I’m the one at the front of the room, making sure things go smoothly. It’s only twenty students at a time, but the responsibility seemed enormous for someone who had never done any formal teaching before.

Everyone said I would like tutoring, and it turned out there was nothing to be nervous about. I’ve really enjoyed the workshop sessions so far, and I’m looking forward to more. They’re a lot more fun than I expected! Of course, if I didn’t think sociology was fun, I wouldn’t be doing a PhD. I wish I had more time with the students, but it’s probably good to start slowly.

The role of tutors on the first-year sociology course is to facilitate group learning. With over 400 students on the course and challenging material to cover, lectures can be a bewildering experience. Workshops give students a chance to discuss ideas and get their heads around sociological concepts. Tutors are there to lead the process, to encourage students to stretch their thinking, and to clarify misunderstandings.

Our workshop sessions are centred around student participation, with exercises and discussions taking place mainly in small groups within a larger group context. A group of twenty offers opportunities for cross-pollination of ideas, but it can be difficult for everyone to get an equal chance to speak. People are more comfortable in smaller groups, and interacting with students in threes and fours makes it easier for tutors to get a good sense of how everyone is doing.

The concept of small group learning has been embraced in different ways by different parts of the university. At a tutor training course, I met postgrads from another discipline who were enthusiastic about online tutorials. Rather than in-person meetings, their students interact through an online discussion forum, with fortnightly assignments to complete. Instead of speaking with students directly, tutors offer written feedback through the forum.

It’s a pragmatic solution to the administrative nightmare of organizing sessions for hundreds of students, but I can’t help feeling that those students are missing out. Online forums are a fantastic tool, but they’re no replacement for the spontaneous understanding that can come from real conversation. Especially during the first year, when it’s easy for students to withdraw and feel isolated, tutorials or workshops are one small way to help them engage with their course.

The other tutors argued that for just this reason, shy students might feel more comfortable interacting through a computer. But allowing students to stay inside their comfort zone in this way does them no favours in the long run. Eventually – whether later in their university careers or in the “real world” – they will have to interact with real people. Tutorials and workshops offer a safe space for practice. I know that many students only attend workshops because they’re mandatory, but for others it provides an important element of their learning experience. Besides, they already have enough to do online.

Arguably, a lack of face-to-face tutorials does allow students to take initiative and organize meetings themselves. But I imagine their learning would be even more fruitful if they had some real interaction with a tutor at some point in the process, to get immediate responses to their questions and feel like a real person is interested in what they’re doing.

Technology can offer substantial enrichment to the experience of students at modern universities, but it’s no replacement for real teaching. I’m glad that my department allows me to interact with students on a face-to-face basis, rather than keeping us separate and isolated behind impersonal computer screens.

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