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Face-to-face versus Online Tutoring Support in Distance Education

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The experiences of students taking the same course by distance learning were compared when tutorial support was provided conventionally (using limited face-to-face sessions with some contact by telephone and email) or online (using a combination of computer-mediated conferencing and email). Study 1 was a quantitative survey using an adapted version of the Course Experience Questionnaire and the Revised Approaches to Studying Inventory. Study 2 was another quantitative survey using the Academic Engagement Form. Study 3 was an interview-based examination of the students’ conceptions of tutoring and tuition. In all three studies, the students receiving online tuition reported poorer experiences than those receiving face-to-face tuition. Study 3 showed that tutoring was seen not only as an academic activity but also as a highly valued pastoral activity. To make online tuition successful both tutors and students need training in how to communicate online in the absence of paralinguistic cues.
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Studies in Higher Education
Vol. 32, No. 1, February 2007, pp. 1–20
ISSN 0307-5079 (print)/ISSN 1470-174X (online)/07/010001–20
© 2007 Society for Research into Higher Education
DOI: 10.1080/03075070601004366
Face-to-face versus online tutoring
support in distance education
Linda Price*, John T. E. Richardson and Anne Jelfs
The Open University, UK
Taylor and Francis LtdCSHE_A_200332.sgm10.1080/03075070601004366Studies in Higher Education0307-5079 (print)/1470-174X (online)Original Article2007Society for Research into Higher Education321000000February 2007LindaPriceL.Price@open.ac.uk
The experiences of students taking the same course by distance learning were compared when tuto-
rial support was provided conventionally (using limited face-to-face sessions with some contact by
telephone and email) or online (using a combination of computer-mediated conferencing and email).
Study 1 was a quantitative survey using an adapted version of the Course Experience Questionnaire
and the Revised Approaches to Studying Inventory. Study 2 was another quantitative survey using
the Academic Engagement Form. Study 3 was an interview-based examination of the students’
conceptions of tutoring and tuition. In all three studies, the students receiving online tuition reported
poorer experiences than those receiving face-to-face tuition. Study 3 showed that tutoring was seen
not only as an academic activity but also as a highly valued pastoral activity. To make online tuition
successful both tutors and students need training in how to communicate online in the absence of
paralinguistic cues.
Introduction
There is an increasing use of information technology in higher education (Alexander
et al., 1998). On the one hand, there is a move from paper-based to electronic mate-
rials; on the other hand, there is a move from face-to-face support to online support
(see ‘Working towards e-quality’, 2002). In campus-based programmes, both kinds
of development may be happening simultaneously, and so it is difficult to disentangle
their respective consequences for the students’ experience. In distance education,
there is often a clearer separation between the central design and production of
instructional materials and the provision of tutorial support at a local level, and so it
becomes feasible to evaluate the impact of technological innovations on each aspect
of the curriculum in a quasi-experimental manner.
The Open University was founded in 1969 to offer degree programmes by
distance learning across the United Kingdom. It accepts all applicants over the
*Corresponding author. Institute of Educational Technology, The Open University, Walton Hall,
Milton Keynes MK7 6AA, UK. Email: l.price@open.ac.uk
2L. Price et al.
normal minimum age of 18 without imposing formal entrance requirements, subject
only to limitations of numbers on specific courses. Originally, nearly all of its courses
were delivered by specially prepared correspondence materials, combined with tele-
vision and radio broadcasts, video and audio recordings, tutorial support at a local
level and (in some cases) week-long residential schools. In more recent years,
however, the University has made increasing use of computer-based support, partic-
ularly CD-ROMs, dedicated websites and conferencing links.
In the present investigation, we compared the experiences of students taking the
same course by distance education when tutoring support was delivered either
conventionally (using limited face-to-face sessions with some contact by telephone
and email) or online (using a combination of computer-mediated conferencing and
email). Participation in tutorials is not compulsory and is regarded as supplementary
rather than prescribed. Most of the tuition is student-driven through contact that they
initiate via telephone or email. There may only be eight face-to-face tutorials, and
online tutorial support is at a commensurable level (in both cases, students are addi-
tionally encouraged to initiate contact with one another).
Since the aims, content and assessment demands were held constant, we were
able to evaluate the impact of online tutoring support on the students’ experience.
In Study 1, we carried out a quantitative survey to compare students receiving face-
to-face and online tuition with regard to their perceptions of the academic quality
of their courses (as monitored by an adapted version of the Course Experience
Questionnaire), and with regard to their approaches to studying (as monitored by
the Revised Approaches to Studying Inventory). In Study 2, we carried out another
quantitative survey to compare the students with regard to their academic engage-
ment with the course (as monitored by the Academic Engagement Form). Finally,
in Study 3, we carried out an interview-based investigation to examine the students’
conceptions of tuition and tutoring when these were delivered either conventionally
or online.
Study 1
Method
The course chosen for study was U213, ‘International development: challenges for a
world in transition’. This is a multidisciplinary course at an intermediate undergrad-
uate level, and runs from February to October. It is worth 60 credit accumulation
transfer (CAT) points in the UK, and hence equates to 50% of one year’s full-time
study. It is assessed by six tutor-marked assignments and an unseen final examination
taken at a regional assessment centre. In 2002, the course was offered with conven-
tional tutorial support, consisting of face-to-face tutorials with telephone and email
support, or online support provided by email and computer conferencing. Students
were free to choose either version of the course (for instance, because they preferred
a particular mode of tuition, or because their personal circumstances made it difficult
for them to attend face-to-face tutorials). A postal survey was distributed to all 52
Face-to-face versus online tutoring 3
students who had completed the course with online tutorial support, and also to a
random sample of 102 students who had completed the course with face-to-face tuto-
rial support (the remaining 400 students received a separate survey carried out for
internal quality-assurance purposes).
The Course Experience Questionnaire (CEQ) was devised by Ramsden (1991) as
a measure of the academic quality of degree programmes. Since 1993, an adapted
version of the CEQ has been administered to all students graduating from Australian
universities. An extended version of the CEQ was evaluated as a research instrument
by Wilson et al. (1997), and was found to be psychometrically robust. Lawless and
Richardson (2002) adapted this version of the CEQ for students who were taking
courses by distance learning. This yielded an instrument containing 36 statements in
seven subscales, and respondents indicate their level of agreement with each state-
ment on a scale from 1 to 5. The defining items (i.e. those that showed the highest
loadings) on the seven subscales are shown in Table 1.
The Revised Approaches to Studying Inventory (RASI) was developed by
Entwistle et al. (2000). It consists of 52 statements in 13 subscales that measure
different aspects of studying. Once again, respondents indicate their level of agree-
ment with each statement on a scale from 1 to 5. A deep approach is defined by four
subscales: seeking meaning, relating ideas, use of evidence, and interest in ideas. A
strategic approach is defined by five subscales: organised studying, time manage-
ment, alertness to assessment demands, achieving, and monitoring effectiveness. A
surface approach is defined by four subscales: lack of purpose, unrelated memorising,
syllabus-boundness, and fear of failure.
Table 1. Defining items of the seven subscales in Lawless and Richardson’s (2002) version of
the CEQ
Subscale Defining item
Appropriate Assessment Assessment on OU [Open University] courses seems to be more to
do with testing what you’ve memorised than with testing what
you’ve understood.*
Appropriate Workload The sheer volume of work to be got through in OU courses means
that you can’t comprehend it all thoroughly.*
Clear Goals and Standards On [course], it is always easy to know the standard of work that is
expected of you.
Generic Skills As a result of taking OU courses, I feel more confident about
tackling unfamiliar problems.
Good Materials The teaching materials for OU courses are extremely good at
explaining things.
Good Tutoring Tutors make a real effort to understand the difficulties that
students may be having with their work.
Student Choice The students on OU courses are given a lot of choice in the work
they have to do.
Note: items indicated with asterisks are coded in reverse.
4L. Price et al.
The CEQ and the RASI were combined in a questionnaire. The students were
asked to think about their course as a whole rather than about individual units, topics
or tutors. When considering their relations with tutors, they were asked to ‘think
about tutorial contacts of all kinds: e.g. face-to-face, phone calls, email or computer
conferencing’. The survey was distributed after the final examination for the course,
and a reminder was sent two weeks later.
Results
Completed copies of the questionnaire were received from 99 students, representing
a response rate of 64%. This would be considered to be good for a postal survey
(Kidder, 1981, pp. 150–151; Babbie, 1990, p. 182). Of these 99 students, 66 had
received face-to-face tuition, and 33 had received online tuition; the respective
response rates were 65% and 64%, which were not significantly different from each
other (X2 = 0.02; d.f. = 1; p = .88). Of the 99 students, 41 were male and 58 were
female. The proportion of female respondents was somewhat greater on the online
version of the course (70%) than on the face-to-face version of the course (53%), but
the difference was not statistically significant (X2 = 2.52; d.f. = 1; p = .11). The
respondents’ ages ranged from 22 to 69, with a mean of 40.6 years. The students
taking the online version of the course had a mean age (40.7 years) that was very simi-
lar to that of the students taking the face-to-face version (40.5 years).
CEQ scores
The scores on each subscale of the CEQ are obtained by averaging the responses to
the items in question, and an overall measure of perceived quality is obtained by aver-
aging the scores on the seven subscales. There is a 37th item concerned with students’
general satisfaction. Table 2 shows the mean scores obtained by students taking the
two versions of the course.
A multivariate analysis of variance showed that the difference between the two
groups in their scores on the seven scales approached statistical significance (F = 1.85;
d.f. = 7, 91; p = .09). However, univariate analyses showed that this was associated
with a significant difference only on the good tutoring scale (F = 7.97; d.f. = 1, 97; p
= .01). There was also no difference between the two groups in their overall percep-
tions of quality (F = 1.07; d.f. = 1, 97; p = .31), or in their general satisfaction with
the course (F = 0.00; d.f. = 1, 97; p = .95). Table 2 shows that the students who
received online tuition gave lower scores on the good tutoring subscale than those who
received face-to-face tuition. The size of the relevant difference equated to 0.59 of a
standard deviation, which would be regarded as being at least a moderate effect
(Cohen, 1969, pp. 22–24). The differences on the remaining subscales, on their overall
perceptions of quality and on their general satisfaction were small and non-significant.
The good tutoring scale is composed of nine items, and it is possible that the
pattern of scores obtained by students taking the two different versions of the course
was determined by differences on just one or two of these items. Table 3 shows that
Face-to-face versus online tutoring 5
Table 2. Study 1: mean scores on the Course Experience Questionnaire
Face-to-face tuition Online tuition
Subscale M SD M SD Effect sizea
Appropriate Assessment 3.93 0.85 3.84 0.80 0.10
Appropriate Workload 2.20 0.93 2.18 1.00 0.02
Clear Goals and Standards 3.11 0.87 2.84 0.96 0.29
Generic Skills 3.37 0.84 3.24 0.84 0.16
Good Materials 3.64 0.93 3.60 0.88 0.04
Good Tutoring 3.62 0.77 3.13 0.92 0.59*
Student Choice 3.10 0.73 3.27 0.71 0.24
Overall Perceived Quality 3.28 0.54 3.16 0.62 0.22
General Satisfaction 3.77 1.16 3.76 1.32 0.01
aStandardised mean difference. According to Cohen (1969, pp. 22–24), a standardised mean difference of 0.2,
0.5 and 0.8 constitute ‘small’, ‘medium’ and ‘large’ effects, respectively.
*p < .05 (two-tailed test).
Table 3. Study 1: mean scores obtained on items constituting the Good Tutoring scale
Face-to-face
tuition
Online
tuition
Items that yielded significant differences
Tutors make a real effort to understand the difficulties that U213
students may be having with their work.
3.88 3.09
Tutors on U213 normally give helpful feedback on how well you
are doing.
4.14 3.61
I have often discussed with my tutors how I was going to learn in
U213.
2.27 1.67
Tutors on U213 show no interest in what students have to say.a1.73 2.21
Tutors on U213 make clear right from the start what they expect
from students.
3.14 2.55
Items that did not yield significant differences
Tutors on U213 motivate the students to do their best work. 3.74 3.39
Tutors on U213 often give the impression that they have nothing
to learn from students.a
2.26 2.67
Tutors on U213 give a lot of time to commenting on students’
work.
3.55 3.09
On U213, feedback on students’ work is usually only provided in
the form of marks or grades.a
2.12 2.36
Note. The scores in this table reflect the level of agreement with each item on a scale from 5 (strongly agree) to
1 (strongly disagree). Mean scores greater than 3 indicate broad agreement, whereas mean scores less than 3
indicate broad disagreement.
aThese items have a negative meaning, and students’ responses to these items are reversed before calculating
the total score on the Good Tutoring scale.
6L. Price et al.
statistically significant differences arose on five of the nine items. In each case,
students who received face-to-face tuition gave more positive responses than those
who received online tuition. Indeed, the same pattern is evident even on the items
that did not yield a statistically significant difference.
RASI scores
The scores on each scale and subscale of the RASI are obtained by summing the
responses to the relevant items. Table 4 shows the mean scores obtained by students
taking the two versions of the course.
A multivariate analysis of variance showed that the difference between the two
groups in their scores on the 13 subscales was not statistically significant (F = 0.59;
d.f. = 13, 85; p = .86), and univariate analyses revealed no significant differences on
any of the 13 subscales. Another multivariate analysis of variance showed that the
difference between the two groups in their scores on the three main scales was not
statistically significant (F = 0.03; d.f. = 3, 95; p = .99), and once again univariate anal-
yses revealed no significant differences on any of the three scales. All of the differences
were small in Cohen’s (1969) terms.
Table 4. Study 1: mean scores on the Revised Approaches to Studying Inventory
Face-to-face tuition Online tuition
Subscale M SD M SD Effect sizea
Deep Approach
Seeking Meaning 16.15 2.37 16.03 2.72 0.05
Relating Ideas 15.29 2.69 15.18 2.62 0.03
Use of Evidence 16.48 2.25 16.09 2.32 0.17
Interest in Ideas 16.21 2.89 17.12 2.47 0.33
Total 64.14 8.12 64.42 7.62 0.04
Strategic Approach
Organised Studying 12.15 3.35 12.33 3.44 0.05
Time Management 14.30 4.07 14.12 3.45 0.05
Alertness to Assessment Demands 13.68 3.06 13.64 2.91 0.02
Achieving 15.89 2.61 16.06 2.56 0.06
Monitoring Effectiveness 16.56 2.46 16.94 2.18 0.16
Total 72.59 11.74 73.09 10.62 0.04
Surface Approach
Lack of Purpose 7.15 3.48 6.36 3.00 0.24
Unrelated Memorising 10.30 2.92 10.48 2.48 0.07
Syllabus-Boundness 11.64 3.81 11.67 3.36 0.01
Fear of Failure 13.62 3.88 13.61 4.26 0.00
Total 42.71 9.56 42.12 9.05 0.06
aStandardised mean difference.
Face-to-face versus online tutoring 7
Coursework and examination marks
The students were assessed by coursework and an unseen examination. Both the
coursework marks and the examination marks were significantly correlated with their
scores on perceived quality (r = +0.40 and +0.29, respectively) and their ratings of
general satisfaction (r = +0.33 and +0.25). They were also significantly (and nega-
tively) correlated with their scores on surface approach (r = 0.34 and 0.31), but not
with their scores on deep approach (r = +0.15 and +0.12) or strategic approach (r =
+0.10 and +0.10). In other words, the assessment regime tended to discourage a
surface approach, but it did not encourage deep and strategic approaches.
The students who received face-to-face tuition obtained a mean coursework mark
of 70.95, whereas those who received online tuition obtained a mean coursework
mark of 64.30, a difference of 6.65. The students who received face-to-face tuition
obtained a mean examination mark of 62.06, whereas those who received online
tuition obtained a mean examination mark of 55.12, a difference of 6.94. The former
difference was statistically significant (F = 4.44; d.f. = 1, 97; p = .04), but the latter
difference was not (F = 2.71; d.f. = 1, 97; p = .10). This was not because the difference
was smaller for the examination marks than for the coursework marks, but because
the examination marks were subject to greater variability than the coursework marks.
Discussion
This study has compared students taking two versions of the same distance-learning
course. In one version, support was provided through face-to-face tutorials, with tele-
phone and email support; in the other, support was provided by electronic mail and
computer conferencing. The profile of scores on the CEQ and the RASI was virtually
identical in students taking the two versions of the course except in one respect: the
students who received online support obtained lower scores on the good tutoring scale
of the CEQ. The size of the difference was significant in both statistical and practical
terms. The difference was more pronounced on some of the items constituting the
good tutoring scale than on others, but there was a consistent pattern for students who
received online support to rate their tutors less favourably across all of the items.
One possibility is that the tutors who provided online support were less competent
or less well trained than the tutors who provided face-to-face support. Staff in higher
education need specific advice and training on how to use electronic facilities to
provide tutorial support. Even staff who are very experienced in face-to-face tuition
can encounter problems when working online (Kitto & Higgins, 2003). In the present
case, however, the course team had gone to considerable lengths to identify experi-
enced tutors for the online version of the course (two tutors were already experienced
in online tutoring), and to provide them with appropriate training and support in their
role. On the face of it, then, it is unlikely that the results are due to characteristics of
the tutors.
An alternative idea is that the results are due to characteristics of the students who
opted for the online version of the course. This could not, of course, be controlled in
8L. Price et al.
an experimental sense, and so the students who opted for the two versions of the
course may have been different on a variety of background variables. They were simi-
lar in both age and gender, and in previous work students who opt for online tuition
have been found to be similar to those who opt for face-to-face tuition in their broad
attitudes to studying (Carswell et al., 2000). Nevertheless, the pattern of marks
obtained suggests that the students who received online tuition were academically
weaker on average than the students who received face-to-face tuition. It is possible
that the online students needed more guidance and support than they actually
received. Again, there are anecdotal accounts of the problems encountered by
students in attempting to access online tutorial support (Hara & Kling, 2000). Yet
another possibility is that tutoring provided by face-to-face tutorials with telephone
and email support is more effective in helping students to understand the materials.
Nevertheless, there was no sign of any difference between the two groups in their
scores on the other scales of the CEQ, or in their ratings of their overall satisfaction
with the course. This is of theoretical interest, because it suggests that variations in
the mode of tutorial support do not affect students’ perceptions of other aspects of
academic quality. It is also of methodological interest, because it confirms that the
individual scales of the CEQ are measuring distinct aspects of teaching quality.
Moreover, there was no sign of any difference between the two groups in their scores
on the various scales and subscales of the RASI. This implies that approaches to
studying in distance education need not be influenced by whether tutorial support is
delivered face-to-face or online.
Study 2
In studies of campus-based higher education, researchers have used the term ‘engage-
ment’ to refer to ‘the quality of effort students themselves devote to educationally
purposeful activities that contribute directly to desired outcomes’ (Hu & Kuh, 2002,
p. 555). It is generally agreed that involvement in both the academic domain and the
social domain is important for student engagement (Nora, 1993; Milem & Berger,
1997). Kember (1989, 1995) proposed that, in the context of distance education,
‘academic integration’ should encompass the different facets of course delivery, while
‘social integration’ depended on the extent to which students were able to reconcile
the demands of their courses with their ongoing commitments in their work, their
families and their social lives.
Foster et al. (1999) constructed the Academic Engagement Form (AEF), which is
a questionnaire containing 114 items designed to assess the affective and behavioural
aspects of engagement in campus-based higher education. Richardson et al. (2004)
selected 36 items from the AEF as being particularly relevant for students in distance
education. An analysis of responses given by 239 students with hearing loss and 166
students with no form of disability yielded the 12 subscales shown in Table 5. This
version of the AEF was administered to the next cohort of students taking the course
described earlier, and we also included the good tutoring subscale of the CEQ in an
attempt to replicate the findings of Study 1.
Face-to-face versus online tutoring 9
Method
In 2003, the course was again offered with face-to-face tutorials or with online
support provided by electronic mail and computer conferencing. A postal survey was
distributed to all of the 478 students who were available for sampling. The question-
naire consisted of the nine items constituting the good tutoring subscale from the
CEQ and 35 of the 36 items in the version of the AEF used by Richardson et al.
(2004) (one of the items in the communication subscale was accidentally omitted,
and hence only results from the 11 remaining subscales will be reported). In respond-
ing to the AEF, students were asked to say how often each item had been true for
them in their experience of studying with the Open University, using the AEF’s
original 6-point scale from 1 for ‘never’ to 6 for ‘always’.
Results
Completed copies of the questionnaire were received from 209 students, representing
a response rate of 44%, which would be considered adequate for a postal survey
(Kidder, 1981, pp. 150–151; Babbie, 1990, p. 182). Of these 209 students, 175 had
received face-to-face tuition, and 34 had received online tuition; the respective
response rates were 46% and 36%, which were not significantly different from each
other (X2 = 3.03; d.f. = 1; p = .08). Of the 209 respondents, 98 were male and 111
were female. Once again, the proportion of female respondents was somewhat greater
Table 5. Defining items of the subscales in the Academic Engagement Form
Subscale Defining item
Role of Peers
Affiliation with Peers The people on my course(s) are like a family.
Institutional Affiliation I’m proud to be an Open University student.
Learning from Other Students I learn most from other OU [Open University] students.
Participation in Tutorials I participate in tutorial discussions.
Role of Self
Learning from Materials I learn most from the course materials.
Motivation to Learn I care about learning new things.
Self-confidence I can do well in my course(s) if I want to.
Student Autonomy I can come up with my own solutions to problems.
Role of Tutors
Communication I wish I could communicate more with other OU students.a
Relations with Tutors Tutors and students on OU courses respect each other.
Student Control Tutors on OU courses let students decide things for themselves.
Tutor Pace Tutors don’t go on to new things before they know that we
understand the old ones.
aScored in reverse.
10 L. Price et al.
on the online version of the course (56%) than on the face-to-face version of the
course (53%), but the difference was not statistically significant (X2 = 0.13; d.f. = 1;
p = .72). The respondents’ ages ranged from 22 to 75, with a mean of 42.6 years. On
this occasion, the students who were taking the online version of the course tended to
be slightly younger (mean age = 38.9 years) than the students who were taking the
face-to-face version (mean age = 43.3 years) (t = 2.02; d.f. = 207; p = .05).
On examination of the completed questionnaires, 64 (or 30.6%) of the respondents
had failed to provide a response to one or more of the items, and so these students
had to be dropped from our analyses. This left 120 students who had received face-
to-face tuition and 25 students who had received online tuition. Table 6 shows the
mean scores obtained by the two groups on the subscales of the questionnaire. A
multivariate analysis of variance showed that the difference between the two groups
in their scores on the 12 subscales (including the good tutoring scale) was statistically
significant (F = 2.88; d.f. = 12, 132; p = .001). Univariate analyses showed that this
was associated with significance differences on participation in tutorials, relations
with tutors, tutor pace and good tutoring. Table 6 shows that the students who
received online tuition produced much lower scores on all these subscales than those
who received face-to-face tuition. These effects would be regarded as medium or
large on Cohen’s (1969, pp. 22–24) criteria. The differences on the remaining scales
were all small and non-significant.
Table 6. Study 2: mean scores on the Academic Engagement Form and on Good Tutoring
Face-to-face
tuition Online tuition
Subscale M SD M SD Effect sizea
Role of Peers
Affiliation with Peers 2.48 0.83 2.50 1.01 0.02
Institutional Affiliation 4.08 0.75 3.98 0.88 +0.12
Learning from Other Students 2.12 0.95 2.22 0.93 0.11
Participation in Tutorials 3.62 1.03 2.92 0.95 +0.70*
Role of Self
Learning from Materials 4.45 0.56 4.50 0.43 0.10
Motivation to Learn 4.74 0.36 4.58 0.49 +0.39
Self-confidence 3.98 0.70 4.08 0.73 0.14
Student Autonomy 3.89 0.61 3.91 0.60 0.03
Role of Tutors
Relations with Tutors 4.06 0.56 3.59 0.62 +0.82*
Student Control 3.88 0.63 3.77 0.86 +0.15
Tutor Pace 3.28 0.84 2.72 0.75 +0.69*
Good Tutoring 3.76 0.70 3.33 0.89 +0.55*
aStandardised mean difference.
*p < .05 (two-tailed test).
Face-to-face versus online tutoring 11
Further univariate analyses showed that the two groups were significantly different
in terms of their scores on seven of the 35 items in the AEF. These items are shown
in Table 7; in each case the students who received online tuition produced lower
scores than those who received face-to-face tuition. Table 8 similarly shows the mean
scores obtained by the two groups of students on the nine items in the good tutoring
scale. Statistically significant differences arose on four of the nine items; in each case,
students who received face-to-face tuition gave more positive responses than those
who received online tuition. Again, the same pattern is evident even on the items that
did not yield a statistically significant difference.
Discussion
Like Study 1, this study compared students taking two versions of the same distance-
learning course. In one version, support was provided by means of face-to-face tuto-
rials; in the other, support was provided online. The findings regarding the good
tutoring subscale of the CEQ replicated those of Study 1: the students who received
online support obtained lower scores than the students who received face-to-face
support. The two studies are thus consistent in showing that online tutoring is
perceived to be of lower quality than conventional tutoring.
The students who received online support also obtained lower scores on the AEF
than the students who received face-to-face support. Significant differences arose on
the subscales concerned with relations with tutors and tutor pace, and also on the
subscale concerned with participation in tutorials, which students seem to regard as
a function of tutoring (see Table 5). Consistent with the results from the CEQ, vari-
ations in the mode of tutorial support affected students’ experiences of tutoring but
did not affect other aspects of their experience.
Table 7. Study 2: items yielding significant differences in the Academic Engagement Form
Face-to-face
tuition
Online
tuition
Participation in Tutorials
I participate in tutorials when new material is being discussed. 3.33 2.48
I participate in tutorial discussions. 3.55 2.48
Relations with Tutors
Tutors on OU courses treat students fairly. 4.59 4.04
Tutors on OU courses make it clear what they expect of students. 3.92 3.52
Tutors and students on OU courses understand each other. 3.56 3.20
Tutors and students on OU courses respect each other. 4.18 3.60
Tutor Pace
Tutors on OU courses make sure that they don’t teach faster than we
can learn.
3.52 2.68
Note. The scores in this table reflect how often the relevant statement has been true for the respondents on a
scale from 6 (‘always’) to 1 (‘never’).
12 L. Price et al.
Study 3
Studies 1 and 2 have shown that students taking the same course perceive online tuto-
rial support less favourably than face-to-face tutorial support. This may well have to
do with the extent to which the students’ experience of online or face-to-face tutoring
conforms or fails to conform to their own conceptions of tutoring and tuition. We
therefore decided to explore this issue by conducting interviews with a sample of
students who had returned completed copies of the questionnaire used in Study 2.
Since the participants were studying on a part-time basis, had many competing
commitments and were located at a geographical distance, the interviews were carried
out by electronic mail. This provides an environment where participants can comfort-
ably reflect and exchange their views (Mann & Stewart, 2000), offering the researcher
a rich source of qualitative data (Kivits, 2005). It is particularly useful in situations
where sensitive issues are being explored and where confidentiality is paramount
(McAuliffe, 2003). The use of email enabled the interviews to be structured in an ‘epis-
tolary’ manner (Debenham, 2001), so as to build up rapport and encourage disclosure.
Method
A random sample of 140 students drawn from the 209 who returned the questionnaire
in Study 2 were contacted by email and invited to participate in follow-up interviews;
Table 8. Study 2: mean scores obtained on items constituting the Good Tutoring scale
Face-to-face
tuition
Online
tuition
Items that yielded significant differences
Tutors on U213 motivate the students to do their best work. 4.18 3.20
Tutors make a real effort to understand the difficulties that U213 students
may be having with their work.
3.98 3.38
Tutors on U213 normally give helpful feedback on how well you are doing. 4.20 3.64
Tutors on U213 make clear right from the start what they expect from
students.
3.63 2.88
Items that did not yield significant differences
Tutors on U213 often give the impression that they have nothing to learn
from students.a
2.20 2.44
Tutors on U213 give a lot of time to commenting on students’ work. 3.81 3.64
On U213, feedback on students’ work is usually only provided in the form
of marks or grades.a
2.18 2.28
I have often discussed with my tutors how I was going to learn in U213. 2.18 1.88
Tutors on U213 show no interest in what students have to say.a1.77 1.88
Note. The scores in this table reflect the level of agreement with each item on a scale from 5 (strongly agree) to
1 (strongly disagree). Mean scores greater than 3 indicate broad agreement, whereas mean scores less than 3
indicate broad disagreement.
aThese items have a negative meaning, and students’ responses to these items are reversed before calculating
the total score on the Good Tutoring scale.
Face-to-face versus online tutoring 13
40 students responded but only 19 completed the entire interview schedule. They
comprised six women and two men who had received face-to-face tuition and ten
women and one man who had received online tuition. At the initial contact, the
purpose of the research was explained, and the students were asked just two or three
questions to begin the email exchange. The protocol for the interviews is shown in
Table 9. This was used as a general guide, but at each stage the questioning continued
until both parties had reached a common understanding.
Results
We initially adopted a phenomenographic approach to the analysis of these data (see
Marton, 1994), but this has been criticised on both conceptual and methodological
grounds (Ashworth & Lucas, 1998; Richardson, 1999), and for neglecting gender
issues (Hazel et al., 1997—this consideration is relevant, given the preponderance of
female students on the course). A phenomenographic approach also assumes that
different conceptions of a phenomenon must constitute a logical hierarchy, but this
outcome was not evident from our preliminary results. The approach known as
‘grounded theory’ (see Strauss & Corbin, 1990, 1994) avoids such assumptions. We
therefore employed this approach to address two broad issues. First, what were the
students’ conceptions of tutoring and did they view tutoring and tuition differently?
Second, what was their experience of the tutorial support that they received on the
course?
Most students made a clear distinction between tuition and tutoring. Tuition was
the teaching of a syllabus of knowledge where instructional designers had the greatest
influence on the nature of tutor–student interactions. It was conceived as a more
objective, impersonal activity intended to meet the needs of a group, and involving
interpretation and assessment of a subject. In contrast, tutoring was conceived as a
Table 9. Protocol for epistolary interviews
Question Purpose
What does tutoring mean to you? What is
tuition—is there any difference?
To establish students’ general conceptions of
tutoring and if they differed from tuition.
What kinds of things do you expect to happen
in tutoring?
To establish the range of activities that students
might conceive of as tutoring.
How would you prefer these activities to be
provided? (prompt: email, face-to-face, online
conferencing, telephone).
To establish students’ preferences for what mode
activities should take and why that might be.
What do you expect your tutor to do? To establish students’ conceptions of the role of
tutors.
What do you expect to do? To establish whether students perceive
themselves as being active or passive learners in
tuition.
Tell me about your experiences of the tutoring
on this course?
To establish the variation of experience of
tutoring on this course.
14 L. Price et al.
more subjective and personal activity that was intended to meet the needs of individ-
uals, where the students themselves had the greatest influence on the nature of tutor–
student interactions. It was pastoral and interactive, involving supporting, counselling
and mentoring students aimed at helping them grasp the big picture.
The email exchanges were analysed in more detail to examine students’ accounts
of their beliefs about tutoring and tutorial support. We identified five distinct
conceptions that are summarised in Table 10. These are similar to the four
conceptions of tutoring found by Ashwin (2005) in his study of Oxford tutorials,
but they include a fifth conception where students viewed tutoring as enabling
them to become an expert in the relevant domain and thus to act as professionals.
At this level of analysis the five conceptions could be construed as a developmental
hierarchy reflecting increasingly sophisticated views about the academic nature of
tutoring.
Nevertheless, on further analysis other conceptions became apparent that were
neither hierarchical in organisation nor specifically academic in nature. These relate
to the nature of the student’s interactions with the tutor and with other students, and
they are summarised in Table 11. This evidence suggests that the nature of the inter-
actions among the members of a tutorial group is as important an aspect of tutorial
Table 10. Students’ conceptions of tutoring
Conception Explanation
Tutoring where the tutor explains
materials the student doesn’t
understand.
Explaining concepts to the student in a different way;
providing greater understanding, providing different
examples applied to other scenarios, advice and guidance.
Making tutorials relevant to the course material by
‘teaching’ the course material.
Tutoring where the tutor enables
the student to see things as the
tutor sees them.
Someone who is there to explain their perception and
interpretation of the materials. Someone who enables the
student to see things as the tutor sees them.
Tutoring where the tutor helps the
student to see the bigger picture by
building a wider context of the
discipline.
Putting the course in a global context, complement the
course by learning from media items. Student contributes
their ideas and exchanges those with the tutor and other
students, chance to get things wrong as well as right.
Tutoring where the students have a
meaningful experience and where
students and tutors collaborate to
form a new understanding.
A learning experience that is meaningful in the context of the
real world—broad and encompassing—with peers and other
students as collaborators in the learning experience.
Building on constructive thinking and learning together,
engaging in academic discussions, coming to a new
perspective or viewpoint.
Tutoring that enables the student
to speak and think like a
professional in the domain.
Enabling the student to express themselves as professionals
in the domain, where they know the vocabulary of the
domain and how to use it. The student knowing how to
construct arguments and engage in academic discussions.
Face-to-face versus online tutoring 15
support as purely academic considerations about what tutoring is per se. In particular,
personal support seems to be a key component of tutoring for students. One student
commented:
[The tutor should] be personally supportive—this is CRUCIAL for many students, on a
level with academic ability, as because of the OU [Open University] ethos many people are
new to studying and need confidence and support.
What kind of support are you talking about? … Can you say anything more about this?
Even if the OU put in place other areas of support (e.g. student groups, counselling
services, online conference rooms) the academic and the personal will always be inextrica-
bly linked, and the main responsibility will inevitably fall on the tutor, particularly where
students are new to study or returning after a long interval. The scale of course materials
and the complexity of some issues may lead to a crisis in confidence, and tutors need not
only to understand the course materials but also understand students. Some of this is just
down to personality, but enlightened institutions would probably invest in other forms of
interpersonal training for their tutors (I don’t know whether the OU do this). (Male
student, face-to-face tuition)
Table 11. Students’ conceptions of the nature of the interactions in tutoring
Conception Explanation
Pastoral care The tutor offers support and encouragement, and provides the student
with confidence. The tutor develops a personal relationship with the
student where the student can talk freely. S/he listens to personal
difficulties and provides support when difficult circumstances in the
student’s private life affect studies. The communication, between the
tutor and the student, should be comfortable. The feedback between the
tutor and the student should be personalised.
Tutor enthusiasm for
the subject
The tutor is positive about the subject using facial and hand expressions
to demonstrate their enthusiasm. Tutors use an enthusiastic tone of
voice—this can even be detected on emails. They should provide
animation and warmth to the subject.
Providing leadership Tutors should lead the way forward and act as a guide.
Provide constructive
feedback
The tutor’s feedback must be of a developmental nature—i.e. tutors
should provide constructive feedback by presenting conceptual or
overarching criticisms as opposed to nit-picking. Prompt feedback on
TMAs [tutor-marked assignments] is essential.
Learner autonomy Tutors should enable the student to have some say in the tutorial content.
Tutors should not be authority figures—students don’t want an
authoritarian tutor.
Initiate group
learning/peer group
support, initiating
collaborative learning
Tutors should enable students to feel part of a group and share in a
collective experience. They should encourage personal interaction with
other students, setting up study groups (that ‘meet’ for years), working in
groups, being part of a study group, and should enable students to feel
part of a community.
16 L. Price et al.
The analysis of the students’ accounts of their experiences of tutorial support pointed
to a number of issues, particularly in online contexts. Many students stressed the
importance of face-to-face contact:
Online in general does not have the same feeling of personal focus/friendliness that email
or telephone, or especially face-to-face can have. (Female student, online tuition)
In my opinion there is no real substitute for face-to-face contact—and in between times,
telephone conversation. For me, the personal and immediate feedback and interaction are
important. I’m not adverse to any (or all) of the listed means of communication being
used, but not as a substitute for personal contact. (Male student, online tuition)
I found the tutor very supportive and when I was really battling invited me to come and
see her or meet her somewhere and just talk. I stopped feeling like just another ID number.
(Female student, face-to-face tuition)
The students who had received online tuition were more likely to report negative
experiences of tuition than those who had received face-to-face tuition, which
confirms the findings of Studies 1 and 2. We asked the chair of the course team for
his views on the factors that might contribute to variations in the students’ experi-
ences. His view was that this was a combination of poor technical ability and unreli-
ability on the part of a particular tutor (a student who had received online tuition
reported feeling abandoned by a tutor who proved to be permanently elusive).
However, any practical problems would be exacerbated in a medium where the
nuances of paralinguistic communication (e.g. intonation, emphasis and non-verbal
cues) were missing. A student’s experience in a face-to-face context would probably
be less frustrating as the physical presence of the tutor could compensate for any
misunderstandings.
Further analysis of the students’ perceptions of tutoring revealed that the students
had chosen to tell us what they had expected as well as what they had received. The
accounts that are summarised in Table 12 combine those aspects that both groups of
students reported to be important in tutoring, whether or not these had actually
occurred. For instance, some of the students who received online tuition via confer-
encing had expected tutorials to start and finish at specific times; this reflects their
prior experience of face-to-face tutoring, but it negates the value of an asynchronous
and collaborative online learning environment. Again, the students’ conceptions were
neither hierarchical in organisation nor particularly academic in nature: they focused
on the nature and organisation of the interactions among the tutorial group and how
these interactions contributed to the experience of distance education.
Discussion
This qualitative investigation has shown that Open University students exhibit a
number of different conceptions of tutoring. These conceptions lead them to have
particular expectations about tutoring, and these in turn affect how they evaluate their
subsequent experiences of tutoring. Conceptions of tutoring were similar in students
who had received face-to-face tutoring and in those who had received online tutoring.
Face-to-face versus online tutoring 17
This is not surprising, since most students will have acquired those conceptions
through the experience of face-to-face tutoring in other Open University courses or
in programmes at other institutions. However, they may have acquired conceptions
and expectations that are inappropriate to online tutoring.
Previous phenomenographic investigations of topics other than tutoring have
yielded sets of conceptions that are claimed to represent a logical and developmental
Table 12. Students’ perceptions of tutoring
Subcategory Definition
Overall conception: Group Bonding
Friendship Tutoring support needs to facilitate the formation of friendships
with other students. These friendships, whether academic or
otherwise, are important for sustaining students throughout their
studies. The tutor’s role is to facilitate the formation of these
friendships.
Interaction with others Tutoring support needs to facilitate students’ interactions with
other students on the course. The tutor’s role in this is seen as a
facilitator who enables purposeful interactions.
Non-verbal communication The use of non-verbal communication is an important factor in
interpreting the tutor’s comments and contributions about learning
and how they are viewed by others. Additional support needs to be
provided where this is missing to help interpret communications.
Overall conception: Interaction with tutor
Personalised feedback The tutor’s feedback/comments (usually assignment related) to
students needs to be personalised and specific to their
requirements.
Motivation The tutor is an important catalyst in sustaining student enthusiasm
in a distance education course and needs to inspire the students to
help them continue in their courses.
Matched learning and
teaching approaches
The tutor’s style of teaching should match with the student’s
approach to learning. Mismatches in these approaches caused
poorer perceptions of the quality of the experience.
Learner autonomy The tutor should provide an environment where students have some
autonomy in tutoring. Tutors should not drive the ‘teaching’ with
no input from students. Students want to participate in deciding
what kinds of things would be addressed in tutoring sessions.
Overall conception: Convenience
Travel Travel time involved in attendance at tutorials should either be
minimised or avoided. This has an impact on tutorial attendance
and was a reason why some students opted for online tutoring.
Prompt replies Tutors should respond promptly to student queries and to marking
assignments. The speed with which queries and assignments are
returned to affects the perceptions of the quality of tutoring
support.
Set tutorial times Tutorials should happen at set times (even for online tutoring
sessions).
18 L. Price et al.
hierarchy. These conceptions are purely cognitive abstractions divorced from a
personal context or history. In contrast, our investigation identified conceptions of
tutoring with both cognitive and affective components: our students were concerned
not only with achieving intellectual goals but also with satisfying their emotional
needs. It may be noted that 16 of the 19 students were women, as were both inter-
viewers. Hazel et al. (1997) argued that women’s voices had been lost from phenom-
enographic research, and emotions may be intrinsic to women’s conceptions of any
phenomenon. Equally, it may be that male participants are less willing to disclose
emotional concerns or that male researchers are less willing to heed such concerns if
they are disclosed.
Conclusion
Studies 1 and 2 employed the CEQ, the RASI and the AEF to compare students’
experiences of face-to-face and online tuition in distance education. The aims,
content and assessment demands of the course were held constant, and so it is
perhaps unsurprising that there was no difference in the students’ approaches to
studying according to the RASI. Nevertheless, the students who received online
tuition produced poorer ratings of the quality of tutorial support on the CEQ and the
AEF. This was confirmed by the use of epistolary interviews in Study 3. More gener-
ally, the data suggested that tutoring was viewed not only as an academic activity but
also as a pastoral responsibility that developed and supported students during their
course.
Naturally, we need to conclude with the customary acknowledgement of the need
for further research. One consideration is that a tutor’s role may be crucial in a multi-
disciplinary course where the students have to grasp concepts, methods and theories
drawn from two or more disciplines. The tutors’ expertise is unlikely to match the
particular mix of disciplines represented in such a course, and so they may be
perceived as being less competent in areas with which they are less familiar. In a
course that bridges technology and the social sciences, students and tutors with a
background in one field may have conceptions and expectations that differ from those
held by students and tutors with a background in the other field.
An issue that needs to be addressed is the nature and organisation of the interac-
tions that occur in tutorial groups. This is especially important in the case of online
contexts, which are severely impoverished from a communication perspective. Both
tutors and students need to be trained to compensate for the lack of paralinguistic
information through explicit verbal cues. Moreover, many students come to online
tuition with inappropriate expectations that undermine their opportunity to exploit
fully the advantages of working in an asynchronous and collaborative learning envi-
ronment. The present findings suggest that students would benefit from prior super-
vised experience of an online tutoring environment.
A related issue is that of tutors’ conceptions of tutoring and how they approach
their role in an online environment. Some students certainly felt that there were prob-
lems with the interactions that they had with their tutors. In many institutions, staff
Face-to-face versus online tutoring 19
development activities focus on the technical aspects of online tuition rather than its
communicative or pedagogical aspects. There need to be training opportunities
concerning effective online communication and how students make sense of interac-
tions in the absence of non-verbal, paralinguistic cues. In short, our results suggest
that there is much work to be done in helping students and tutors to understand the
nature of online communication and how to achieve effective online interaction
before online tuition can be deemed to be as effective as face-to-face tuition.
Acknowledgements
The intellectual rights and publication copyright in the Course Experience Question-
naire rest with Professor Paul Ramsden, the Graduate Careers Council of Australia
and the Australian Commonwealth Department of Education, Science and Training.
We are grateful to Professor Noel Entwistle for permission to make use of the RASI.
We are also grateful to the staff of the Open University’s Survey Office for identifying
the samples of students, preparing and distributing the questionnaires, and process-
ing the responses.
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