In the final chapter of Emily Meyer and Louise Z. Smith’s The Practical Tutor, the educators begin with a brief discussion about how computers can be used in writing tutorials. The book, published in 1987, offers insight to the genesis of the technological boom and a helpful starting point in where tutoring with technology currently stands as well as where it might be headed. Meyers and Smith are most attentive to the use of word processing and outline generators than they are about using computers to communicate between tutor and tutee. Central to their discussion is the optimism that students will learn how to interact with computers as a tool for writing; “[w]e hope, of course, that very soon most high-school students will elect typing courses as eagerly as they take driver’s education” (316). My intention in presenting this example is to show that now, 25 years later, the discussion about technology and tutoring must not only continue, but changes to tutor-training must be implemented in order to keep in stride with our tutees’ exposure to technology during the writing process. Combining observations from my own tutoring experience at the University of Massachusetts Boston (UMB), scholastic research from educators whose aim is to integrate technology with tutoring, and examples of how other universities have successfully used internet communication in their online writing labs, I will present that in 2012 becoming a “practical tutor” at UMB means being prepared to tutor via email as well as face to face.
The Paperless Classroom
There has been a significant shift away from the use of paper in the classroom in the past decade. Of the five Freshman English sections I tutored for this semester (Fall 2012), only one instructor accepted paper copies of their students’ essays. My fellow tutors encountered two sections of Freshman English (I had the opportunity to meet with a student from one of these sections for several tutoring sessions) that were completely paperless. These sections were the result of a pilot program for the use of iPad technology in the classroom; all course readings, composition of drafts, instructor feedback, and revision were distributed or conducted electronically. One of the instructors whose sections I tutored for utilized the technology of wikispaces, where he had his students build digital portfolios in order to track their progression as writers and, with various assignments, see what their peers were writing. This instructor only provided revision feedback for his students electronically, inserting marginal comments via Microsoft Word, a common habit among educators in the technological age. When I would meet with students from his section for revisionary tutoring, our sessions required a computer and the negotiation of these marginalia. However, during our weekly tutoring seminar, whenever the matter of corresponding with tutees via electronic mail was broached (most commonly in the form of a tutee asking if they could email a draft for us to look over and provide feedback) we were told to deny this service and to only offer our support in person. While I acknowledge the risk of offering an electronic correspondence between tutee and tutor, namely if this is the only way communication and tutoring was offered, I cannot see how reviewing and commenting on a student’s draft sent electronically after a one-on-one session devalues the practice of tutoring. In fact, I would argue that denying our tutees this means of communication is a disservice to them. If they have to learn how to revise with an instructor’s electronic comments, why not give them practice by providing commentary electronically as a follow-up to in-person tutoring sessions? This practice would also be beneficial to tutors who are pursuing teaching positions, considering how prevalent electronic communication between professors and students has become in higher education.
The Evolution of Online Tutoring
Implementing an electronic element to tutoring requires not only a shift in the tutor-training model, but knowledge of the evolution of technology in higher education. Tracking the progression of integrating technology with tutoring has been the aim of many educators, namely because within the past decade, technology has found its way into the classroom in ways that Meyer and Smith might not have been able to imagine in the late 1980s. In a now outdated article, educator and online-tutoring enthusiast David Coogan describes the emergence of the computer in the writing center: “The greatest contribution made by the computer in writing centers proved to be the freedom these machines gave to writers to compose and revise at will” (174). What began with the computer as word processor and outline building tool has evolved into the relationship with the computer and the internet, making it a tool for communication. Coogan states, “[a]s teachers began experimenting with synchronous, electronic communication, and/or theorizing about its implications for a social theory of writing, they realized that their classroom authority had been displaced” (174). The progression from computer as compositional tool to communicational tool has not lost any momentum in higher education. This constant evolution requires us as tutors and educators to recognize that the many ways that technology has, can, and will be implemented into pedagogy.
Electronic mail marked the first format with which one could communicate with the goal of educating or tutoring online. As a way to implement email correspondence as a means for tutoring writing, universities began creating their own online writing labs (OWLs), which originally contained tips for brainstorming ideas, making outlines, writing and revising, and citing sources. Lee-Ann Kastman Breuch and Sam J. Racine, educators at the University of Minnesota, want to make a distinction between “online writing centers that use Web pages for promotional or supplemental, ‘handout’ purposes” and those that aim to connect writing students with “e-tutors” (246). While many OWLs are meant as a resource or reference for writers, like the widely popular webpage provided by Purdue University, many OWLs now include the option to email a writing tutor with specific questions or issues. Ideally, the student will also include drafts of their essays for the tutor to read and comment on.
In 2002, Dana Anderson conducted a study on the interface and tutoring offerings of 29 university OWLs. Anderson claims that at this moment in history, email correspondence was the most popular means of tutoring via computers. The aim of his study was to offer a survey of how the interfaces of various OWLs both communicate their services to potential tutees and how they also represent their tutors. What Anderson finds is that most OWLs have interfaces that describe the way in which the email tutoring session will work, which is helpful in providing student writers with a realistic set of expectations (73). What Anderson finds to be a difficult and inconsistent aspect with online writing labs, is the way they represent their tutors. In many cases, Anderson explains, the websites refer to their tutors merely as “staff” or “experienced readers” (81). He hints that there is a danger in this lack of information about the people who will be reading the students’ work. The anonymity of this faceless communication about writing (something that requires some personal knowledge or an understanding of the student’s worldview) causes a polarity between tutor and tutee, where there should be common ground upon which to build rapport. This danger is an example of what might happen if email tutoring was implemented into the Freshman English tutoring program at UMB without any face-to-face interaction between tutor and tutee. The anonymity that is created between tutor and tutee at some of the institutions Anderson studied must be averted for the integration of electronic and in-person tutoring to be successful. The University of Missouri is an example of a university that does not require an in-person meeting between tutor and tutee before an electronic tutoring session can take place. According to Anderson’s research, The University of Missouri’s online writing staff calls themselves “cybertutors” and on their site’s interface, one can read a blurb about their collegiate status and interests before they submit written work (81). Less than half of the OWLs that offer email tutoring services, however, offer any further personal description about their tutors (Anderson 80-2). It is with difficulty that I try to imagine feeling comfortable sending my writing to a not only faceless, but nameless entity with the trust and understanding that they will make sound judgments about my writing. This is not to say the tutors who staff online writing centers are unqualified to read, comment, and correspond with a tutee. What is at stake here relates to the obligation OWLs have to their tutees and tutors in representing their staff. The labs that do share their tutors’ information (name, likes, dislikes, etc.) are indeed more welcoming and offer the potential for establishing the rapport that is necessary in face-to-face tutoring, and, I would argue, essential in online tutoring. Anderson states, “[a] participating student does not need to know that tutor ‘Jody’ at one OWL likes fried chicken, as her explanatory blurb states, to engage in a helpful discussion about writing. But it might open up some possibilities for interaction that enhance their collaboration” (81). Why not take it a step further and require a meeting between the tutor and the tutee in the form of a face-to-face tutoring session? This would do away with the shroud of anonymity that exclusive email communication creates and replaces the unknowingness with a sense of comfort, or as Meyer and Smith emphasize as foundational to a tutoring relationship, “establish[ing] rapport” (23). What we can learn from Anderson’s study is that students who utilize their university’s OWL and email tutoring sessions, will only be successful if there is an exchange of some personal information between tutee and tutor. This proves that the ideal scenario when considering the use of email tutoring is that it should be used in conjunction with face-to-face sessions, either as follow-up to those sessions or after trust and a rapport is established between the tutor and the tutee.
Tutor Training: The Middle-Ground between Face-to-Face and E-Tutoring
In order to prevent the anonymity of online tutors and, more importantly, to ensure a successful tutoring via email and other technological mediums, there is a need for proper tutor training. Kastman Breuch and Racine, conducting research in 2000, when online writing centers were becoming prevalent in higher education, stress that online tutoring and face-to-face tutoring are different:
In response to the idea that online writing centers occupy spaces different from face-to-face centers, and in response to our own discoveries about online tutoring, we forward the argument that online tutors need training specific to online writing spaces. This argument rests on two important assumptions. The first is that training used in face-to-face centers does not translate easily to online writing centers. New understandings of space, time, and email interactions require us to learn new strategies and tutor techniques that work in online mediums. (246, their emphasis)
Although they state that training for these different mediums of tutoring are not equal, they do argue that “same pedagogical goals – namely, student-centered, process-based pedagogy – can be facilitated equally well in both mediums” (Kastman Breuch 246). Essentially, although the online medium of tutoring requires an awareness of the differences in communication (the displacement of time and space in communicating between tutor and tutee), the basic training and focus of the tutor will remain the same. The skills that a tutor must acquire and practice in face-to-face sessions (i.e. those espoused by Meyer and Smith in The Practical Tutor) remain the foundation of the tutoring session: allowing the tutee to generate ideas, providing them with resources, helping them with their reading assignments, getting them started with drafting, and providing tutorials about building sound arguments. These methods and goals remain at the heart of the tutoring session, whether it takes place via email or face-to-face. Kastman Breuch and Racine focus on the advantages of the online tutorial, which they refer also refer to as “text-only environments” (248): “In our experience, we have found that tutors provide extensive comments on papers through writing questions, comments, and suggestions in endnotes to help students work toward revision,” and even though the responses are not immediate, “the time delays involved may actually facilitate the writing process as we know it to be: recursive and ongoing, allowing for time between drafts” (248). While there is not a real time communication, there is an opportunity for a fruitful teaching and learning experience.
This opportunity exists because of the absence of temporal constraints on the tutoring session. The tutor has time to develop sound reactions and feedback for their tutees, which the time constraints might hinder in a face-to-face session. For example, the first time a tutee and I meet for an hour and look over a draft of an essay I may have little to say in order to guide them toward a more succinct presentation of their ideas. Despite my best efforts, I may feel the need to fill the time in ways that are not going to be beneficial to the tutee’s writing process. This issue could happen for the tutee as well. They may have an idea of questions they want to ask me, but they may not be able to articulate them during our one-on-one interaction. If they revise after this hypothetical session and email me a copy of that revised draft with a series of questions, a list of what they perceive to be strengths and weaknesses in the essay, etc., this constrictive temporal element causes no hindrance to their learning. I am now able to read the draft at my own pace, make notes, provide comments electronically, and dwell on what kind of feedback might be most helpful for the tutee. While it may require more time in order to provide the required feedback (“written feedback is the reason we found our average online tutorial session lasted 94 minutes” (Kastman Breuch 248)), I am able to witness the revisions from a face-to-face session that I would have been deprived of if the tutee had just told me they were going to revise before submitting their work to their instructor. I would also have the chance to give more detailed feedback that I would not be able to provide within an hour long face-to-face meeting. Kastman Breuch and Racine present a noteworthy concept from Coogan, who believes online tutoring is a return to the basics of text-based communication: “‘we can, finally, practice what we preach; that writing is an act of communicating, and that this act requires rhetorical skill, political compromise, and the ability to read and interpret each other’s textual intention’” (248). Although there is an absence of body language, there is an abundance of communication that comes from both parties involved, not to mention the student’s work itself. What I mean by this is that tutoring using email requires the student to pose specific questions and responses about their essays and in the same way it requires the tutor to develop clearly articulated responses and questions directed to the essay as well as to the tutee.
Ham and Davey: Findings that Complicate
After conducting two action research projects oriented on the use to email and virtual discussion boards for teaching, educators Vince Ham and Ronnie Davey realized the importance of a cautious navigation of tutoring via technology. It is necessary for their findings to be taken into consideration if we are to move toward the integration of online tutoring with the face-to-face tutoring program the already exists at UMB. The results of Ham and Davey’s project brought them to the understanding that it is vital for educators “to recognize the need for HE [higher education] tutors in such situations [email/online discussion board] to develop a clear pedagogical rationale for online teaching, rooted in a personal philosophy of teaching and learning, beyond the mere technicalities of how to do it” (259). While this echoes the argument made by Kastman Breuch and Racine, Ham and Davey present specific issues they found with email tutoring. Along with unavoidable technological difficulties, after conducting compiling from questionnaires and interviews with teachers and students who were involved in an email tutoring project, the results indicated that both groups would have preferred a specifically scheduled time to be in a computer lab working on the communications, and that many approached their revisions with an “‘out-of-sight-out-of-mind’ [attitude] at both ends of the communication loop if either the tutor or the school teacher was not there to encourage, galvanize or remind the pupils” (Ham and Davey 259). They explain the desire for allotting time for the email correspondences because of the fact that not all of the students had access to a computer off-campus. The findings reflected an overall “lack of real motivation to converse in a virtual world” (Ham and Davey 259). While it is possible that a tutee may not initially motivated to converse with their tutor via email, I believe that if electronic communication is used as an extension of the face-to-face tutoring session (provided they are motivated during these real time sessions), the student will be at an advantage by using the medium of email in developing their writing skills. Using Ham and Davey’s findings as a warning of the potential pitfalls that are involved with email tutoring will be helpful in bringing the tutoring program in alignment with the opportunities current technologies offer can offer in tutoring Freshman English.
I feel that it is necessary to contextualize my argument within the framework of the scholarship I have provided. Both the research conducted by Anderson and the claims made by Kastman Breuch and Racine deal with an exclusively online relationship and correspondence between tutor and tutee, which is mediated by an institution’s OWL. I use their findings as support for my claim that there are benefits to integrating the face-to-face tutoring session with email or other online means of tutoring for writing, not as a call for an exclusively online tutoring relationship.
Specifically, I am arguing that the Seminar for Tutors at UMB should train its tutors to understand the benefits of this technology and encourage its tutors to use email tutoring in conjunction with face-to-face meetings. During our weekly meetings, my fellow tutors often shared their woes with scheduling time for meetings with tutors. As graduate students, many of us are only on campus certain days and times during the week and there unavoidable instances where a tutee would arrange for a meeting and not show up or come to a tutoring session unprepared. The most common problem was finding times when both tutee and tutor were on campus at the same time. I am not suggesting that offering email tutoring would eliminate scheduling problems or reduce the number of tutees who miss appointments, but it would open up the possibility to reach students who are eager for help with their writing but cannot find time to meet with a tutor. It would also alleviate some of the struggle on the tutors’ part, because during the online correspondence of the tutoring, neither tutor nor tutee would need to physically be present on campus. As the scholarship I have provided shows, online communication technology has been integrated with tutoring, and with the proper training, it has been done so successfully. Practicing tutoring via email would also be in alignment with the technological methods our tutees have been using. The examples of the paperless classroom I have provided show that it is necessary to continue the integration of technology that students experience in their English classrooms during our tutoring sessions. It is an aspect of tutoring that must be addressed and implemented to the tutoring program in the Freshman English Program at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
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