Do students perceive online tutor support significantly different than face-to-face instruction? Earlier this week I discussed the paper from Price (Price et al., 2007). The authors found that students with online tutoring reported a lower quality of tutorial support than their counterparts who enjoyed face-to-face tutoring. However, the authors concluded that more training was needed for both tutors and students alike to compensate the specificity of online tutoring, notably its absence of “paralinguistic” clues. The authors didn’t make the conclusion that online tutoring is inherently of a lower quality than face-to-face support.
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Richardson (2009) performs a similar analysis, but included 2 OU courses in the analysis, a beginners’ course and an advanced course both in humanities, assuming that the multidisciplinary nature of the course in Price’s study might have caused the effect.
The results don’t show any significant difference in tutor support quality or overall quality between the courses, apparently contradicting the findings of Price’s paper.
However, both authors reach similar conclusions. They are confident that online support has an equal value to face-to-face support, giving enough training for tutors and students.
A flaw in the research to my opinion is the lack of a randomized trial. Students were free to register either for the online version or the face-to-face version. Richardson (2009) points, not entirely convincingly, to other research claiming that characteristics of students in both groups are likely to be similar. I would argue that there might be a group students which strongly prefers the face-to-face tuition, with strong anti-technological feelings. This group may still judge online support inferior when not given the choice.
Finally, it seems to me that both authors have insufficient data to address the research question whether there is a difference between both tutoring modes, taking into account other variables such as a the nature and level of the course, institution, culture, students’ ICT skills, balance between synchronous and asynchronous communication and the tutors’ experience. This requires a wider approach involving more courses over a longer time and preferably a randomized trial approach (although morally difficult to realize). Without it, it will be difficult to answer the question convincingly.