In this post, Douglas Hamano-Bunce, a Teaching Fellow in English Language Education (ELE) in the Centre for Open Learning (COL) describes how the centre’s successful pivot to online enabled them to reach a more diverse range of students and deliver a comparable student experience.
For a few years now, we at English Language Education (ELE) in the Centre for Open Learning (COL) have been offering writing tutorials for postgraduate students and members of staff across the university. These tutorials are primarily, but not exclusively, intended for students whose first language is not English and are provided by our team of qualified and experienced English for Academic Purposes (EAP) practitioners. With lockdown, we moved the tutorials online. This was achieved quickly and easily, and has so far been an unqualified success. Indeed, the pandemic has been the trigger for a development which was perhaps long overdue.
In normal times, the 25-minute one-to-one tutorials take place on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons in various rooms in the Central Area. The tutorials are advertised on the MyEd Events Booking page and directly to Schools. Students bring along a short piece of their own writing (350 words maximum) and a question, or questions, about their writing for discussion. ELE tutors help with all aspects of writing from the macro-level (e.g. organisation and rhetorical patterning) to the micro-level (e.g. grammar and punctuation) and provide suggestions for independent reference. However, we also clearly point out to students that we will not proofread their work.
With the COVID-19 situation, we found ourselves having to pivot our service to online provision. In the spring term 2020, the tutorials took place via Collaborate Ultra, which we access directly from the MyEd page without the need for a Learn page. Their length was increased from 25 to 45 minutes to allow for any technological troubleshooting and delays to spoken interaction. When piloting, we soon realized that in order for students to share their work, we needed add them to Collaborate Ultra sessions as Moderators rather than Participants. We drew up a protocol for announcing, setting up and conducting tutorials, and provided training for tutors who required it. We updated the information on the MyEd Events Booking page to point out to students that their writing needed to be saved in pdf format for upload to the Collaborate platform. In a further change from the pre-lockdown situation, we also allowed tutors flexibility in choosing the day and time of their tutorials each week. This allowed tutors to fit their tutorials around their other work and family commitments, and at the same time cater for students in various time zones. Tutorials took place from 9:00 am to 8:00 pm Monday to Friday.
By all measures, the online pivot of the writing tutorials has been a clear success. The Collaborate Ultra platform worked as promised. Attendance was much improved and there were fewer cancellations. Of the 96 tutorials scheduled in the Spring Term (12 per week), 74 were delivered (77%) – compared to 72% and 67% in the preceding Autumn and Winter Terms respectively. There were 139 students on the waiting list. Students were more widely drawn than previously from across the university coming from EDU, LAW, ECA, HEA, DIV, SPS, VET, EdMed, ENG, HSS, and PPLS. We served distance-learning students for the first time, including people in Australia, Bangladesh, Belgium and Nigeria.
Student and tutor feedback was also very positive. Students were very appreciative of the service. They found Collaborate Ultra easy to use on the whole (although two suggested using Microsoft Teams instead without stating why). Tutors enjoyed delivering the tutorials and are keen to do so again in the Autumn. They considered the online delivery successful, and enjoyed and saw value working with Distance Learning students for the first time. They appreciated the flexibility of being able to choose time slots. They also thought that Collaborate worked well despite being a little ‘clunky’. One tutor suggested that Microsoft Teams would be a better option for its functionality and ease of use. Tutors also reported that students greatly appreciated the opportunity for synchronous contact with a representative of the university. Whether they were distance students on the other side of the world or those holed up alone in accommodation in Edinburgh, we often spent part of the tutorial discussing how they were coping with the lockdown and it was apparent that many of them were under some stress. We had the sense that we were an important point of contact and that our tutorials fostered the students’ feelings of belonging to the University of Edinburgh community.
For a new and sudden development, there were surprisingly few problems and for those that did occur, we quickly found work around solutions. For example, in order to allow the student to upload their writing, we add them to the Collaborate Ultra session as a Moderator. When the student clicks on their email link, rather than directly entering the session, they are taken to their own Collaborate Ultra page, where they see their session labelled by name. Most students simply clicked on their name to enter the session. However, this was not obvious to some who became lost on the page. To solve this problem, we added ‘PLEASE CLICK HERE TO ENTER TUTORIAL’ to the student name when naming the tutorial. Thereafter, the problem did not occur. As for the expected connection problems, these were mainly at the student end. One tutor found that Microsoft Teams was a suitable back up platform.
Overall, the online pivot was a clear success. We increased our reach, safely conducting 74 online tutorials with a wider and more diverse range of students. We were relieved of the requirement of booking (and the students locating) a classroom. Attendance improved. Whatever the future brings, it is evident to us that the online provision of our writing tutorials is a permanent development for ELE. It offers greater flexibility, accessibility and inclusivity. While the lockdown continues, we will continue to offer tutorials online. When it is safe to return to face-to-face tutorials, we will offer both in tandem. As all our tutors agreed, face-to-face interaction remains the optimum mode for us. It offers the split-second turn-taking and paralinguistic clues so important to the scaffolding of learning, not to mention the mechanisms essential for second language development. Face-to-face therefore will always be our default setting. Yet, the online tutorials are a close second. Strangely, for us the COVID-19 emergency has been an opportunity and the unexpected catalyst for an overdue development of our provision.