by Dr. Maria Eleftheriou
Dr. Maria Eleftheriou is the director of the AUS Writing Center and an assistant professor at the Department of Writing Studies
When the pandemic hit and our university moved online, the AUS Writing Center schedule was busy for weeks to come. Our students were counting on us for writing support, and we were able to help them by drawing upon our prior online experiences.
In the past, it had been difficult to garner tutor interest in our online program because tutors were intimidated by the technology and reluctant to give up the friendly, supportive community of the Writing Center. Sixteen of our tutors did respond to the emerging situation by volunteering to participate in online training. I reevaluated the platform we had been using for online tutorials and decided to use Blackboard Collaborate Ultra because the university was using this platform, we had technical support for it, and our tutees were familiar with navigating it for their classes.
In addition to learning the technical aspects of navigating Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, the tutors and I discussed strategies that would facilitate online tutoring. In the process of designing this online training program, I drew upon the findings of a study I had previously conducted about our online writing tutorials (Eleftheriou, 2013). I encouraged tutors to create opportunities for rapport building when they first make contact with tutees by email. They can use first names when they introduce themselves and express interest in the tutorial. During the tutorials, they can find opportunities to affirm tutees’ needs, empathizing with them, encouraging them and engaging in casual conversation at the end of the tutorial. I advised tutors to confirm students’ comprehension before moving on to the next point to compensate for the lack of non-verbal cues. We discussed strategies such as open-ended questions, asking for clarification of specific points and checking for understanding to encourage student participation and enable tutors to assess student progress. I developed a support system for online tutors by creating a WhatsApp group where they could exchange concerns and ideas relating to the on-line format.
Some Observations of our Online Program
Student Post-Tutorial Surveys
Thirty-six tutees responded to our post-tutorial survey. Although some of these tutees mentioned disconnection, audio problems and microphone issues, they all rated their sessions positively on the Likert scale:
Eighty-three percent of tutees strongly agreed and 16.67% agreed with the following statements:
● My tutor listened to me.
● I felt comfortable enough to ask questions
● The tutor answered my questions clearly
● I could understand the way the tutor spoke
● The tutor helped me participate in the session
● The tutor provided helpful suggestions
● This appointment helped me improve my assignment
One hundred percent of the respondents said they would return for another online session at the Writing Center.
The tutors shared their experiences on our WhatsApp group throughout the semester and at the end of the semester when I requested their feedback on the online program.
Flexibility and Resourcefulness
Tutors quickly adapted to online tutoring, and they seemed surprised at their own skills and at how smoothly the sessions were running. Tutor Konstantina Spyropoulou said that she was initially afraid of how time-consuming the preparation for the sessions would be but that soon “creating a session and adding the students and their papers on blackboard became second nature.” Tutor Aisha Almaazmi was hesitant to go online because she imagined it would be awkward without being able to read her tutee’s expressions, so she was surprised when “it turned out to be very beneficial for tutees.” She thought this might be attributed to people feeling at ease talking about their work from the comfort of their homes. Tutor Laila Moustafa said that after her first tutorial, she was unsure whether she had helped her tutees, so she asked and was pleased to discover that her tutee found the session helpful.
Tutors became increasingly adept at using the technology and even adapted to troubleshooting and finding alternatives when Blackboard Collaborate Ultra was not working. Many of them discovered that Google Documents and Google Meet were possible substitutes, and some tutees preferred this combination to Blackboard Collaborate Ultra. Tutor Renad Hamouda said that the majority of the tutees she tutored preferred Google Docs and Google Meet and that some of them would ask immediately, “Can we do this on Google Meet?”
There was consensus that the biggest challenge was encouraging resistant tutees to participate actively in the tutorial sessions. Tutor Farah Awney explained the difficulty she faced when encouraging some of her resistant tutees to participate: “It was hard sometimes to get [tutees] to communicate a bit back and forth because sometimes they’d be silent. They’re more inclined to not say anything online than they would be during face-to-face, and the ‘five second rule’ of waiting for them to respond doesn’t always work as well as it does physically. That was ultimately the biggest challenge.” Tutor Manaswi Madichetty agreed that some tutees took advantage of the platform: “They would sit there and say, 'Tell me what to do, tell me what to do, and student engagement was low.”’
However, the tutors agreed that the online platform encouraged many tutees to take the lead during the session. Farah, who described her challenges with online interaction above, said that for her more responsive tutees, “it was really nice to let them take control of the Google Doc and be able to find their own errors…. It was more helpful than face-to-face for them to have the document open because.... they were able to figure out their own errors and figure stuff out for themselves more easily.” Konstantina said that she found her tutees came to the sessions well-prepared with questions and that “some of them were more comfortable with the online setting.”
Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, the main platform we used to conduct tutorials, allows the tutor and student to share video, audio, an interactive whiteboard, documents and screens. Although tutor and student can share a screen and a document on Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, we were initially disappointed to discover that only one person can make modifications to the document while sharing the screen. To ensure student-centered tutorials, many of the tutors set up the session so that only tutees could make the modifications to the essays on their screens. The tutor was able to tell their tutees that they had to take initiative on the revisions because the tutors were unable to do it. This way, the tutees revised their documents as the tutors guided and advised. This technique had its own benefits in preserving student agency, and tutors reported that online sessions were often more interactive than face-to-face tutorials. Manaswi, who above complained about the lack of interaction she faced when she first started tutoring, noticed that some tutees were more motivated when they shared their screens with her and made the changes to their essays by themselves. She said, “When I realized that was working, I made people share their screens rather than sending the document to me, making me a tutor rather than an editor".
Tutors commented directly on the unexpected, but beneficial, effect of online tutoring during the pandemic. Manaswi talked about being able to hear the “sadness in some of [the tutees] voices”, especially the ones who were trapped in their dorm rooms during the lockdown. She said that she often started her sessions by asking tutees how they were doing and by engaging them in conversation that became an outlet for these tutees’ social lives.
Konstantina summed up the lessons she learned and her appreciation for her tutees’ responses:
“Now that the Writing Center is closed I miss our everyday appointments, our chats with the students, our jokes about the quarantine, our inventiveness in finding ways to make technology serve the needs of our sessions. Throughout this experience, I realized the value of our face-to-face tutorials, and I think the transition to online tutoring has taught me valuable skills such as patience, preparedness and having warmth and empathy in my voice and expressions to motivate students I couldn’t see. All in all, it makes me proud to know that despite the challenges, we all had good communication and managed to get through this together, providing the necessary help to students. Their amazing response to this help, their appreciation and thankfulness will stay with me forever. It really felt as if we were doing something very special by being available for them during this time.”
Konstantina’s comments epitomize the attitude of the tutors and their empathetic resourcefulness in finding ways to deal with the exigencies of the pandemic in order to help their tutees. Valuable insights derived from this half term of online tutoring will inform a purely online Writing Center in the fall term; moreover, they will complement face-to-face writing center appointments when it is feasible for them to resume.