Karen* works full-time teaching childcare in a further education college. She is well supported by colleagues, some of whom have studied similar modules. She also discusses what she is learning with her friend and her mum and she has a supportive partner. She has not needed to contact her tutor during the module, but she receives emails from them and feels comfortable getting in touch if she needs to. She is part of a Facebook group and WhatsApp group and whilst she never posts, she does not want to leave the groups in case she misses anything. She was interviewed about the third and fourth tutorials in the module. Here are her thoughts about them in her own words.
* This is a pseudonym.
I like the tutorials. I know you’re not really speaking to other people, but you work away at home on your own and all of a sudden, other folk are there doing the same thing and asking the same questions or asking questions that you haven’t thought about. Last year, I did hunt out the ones that my tutor did because that made sense, but it didn’t seem to fit as well this year. My tutor seemed to do the face-to-face tutorials that I couldn’t go to.
Last year, I felt familiar and comfortable with the tutorials. Tutorial 3 was quite different. We had to think about the social factors that can impact on health, but part of the assignment related to a forum. What I really wanted out of that tutorial was to find exactly how we had to do that. I just couldn’t get my head round it. It became apparent in the tutorial that other folk were wondering about that as well. Prior to that, my partner was really ill. My studies gave me something to focus on for myself. He was home by then and it gave me a bit of normality. I think that tutorial just got my head switched back into it all.
On a couple of occasions the tutors used the whiteboard, and everybody had to chip in and write down their thoughts. It was quite straightforward. I think that was the first tutorial I’d been on that used the breakout room and it felt a bit strange initially. You’re just sort of put into these rooms and expected to communicate with people. But everybody’s in the same boat, aren’t they? Everybody just started typing and we got some kind of conversation going. It’s difficult typing though because as you’re typing, somebody else puts something else on and sometimes it doesn’t flow. I tend to just type, and I think most folk do. I wouldn’t say I’m not confident using the microphone. Maybe I’m not confident. I don’t know why I don’t use the microphone. Some people do.
There was two tutors there, so one was talking, and they took turns doing different sections. The other one was keeping an eye on the chat box, answering questions, whereas for tutorial 4, there was only one tutor there who asked us to talk because it’s difficult to facilitate plus keeping an eye on the chat box. There were odd questions going on at the side because somebody was on the tutorial from work, so they said they couldn’t use the microphone, but certainly not the same volume of chat box as the first one. I think it probably made it easier to follow what was happening. I’m normally listening, but I’m also reading the chat box the same time cos you’re scared in case you miss anything. Because the tutor was encouraging folk to use the microphone, they seemed to be more reluctant to do that. There’s a symbol where you can put your hand up. So, it’s well organised and controlled to a certain extent.
There were some technical issues with the sound. One minute the tutor was loud. The next minute they were quiet and a couple of times, somebody put in the chat box that they were having difficulty hearing. Actually, once you got used to it, you zoned in.
For this essay, you had to either pick one of two options. It was an hour and half and I think probably an hour was spent on the topic for first option. Although I did get a lot of information from it, most of it wasn’t relevant to the topic that I had picked. If there’s two options, you’ve always got to listen to the other stuff as well. It’s still important that I know the stuff about the other topic. You’re encouraged to link to the other topics in the module, so there was a couple of things actually that came up and I thought, ‘Ooh, I’ll just scribble a note of that’.
I haven’t joined any of the other sessions for that tutorial, but I’ll go back and look at the recordings. I don’t always cos I think they’re all much and such the same. Certainly, last year, when I was new to this, I was going back and looking at all the recordings and I’m not saying it muddled me even more but sometimes, you’re better just watching a couple and then getting your head down. One tutor is happy to accept one thing and another’s more flexible about it. If the tutorials were in the tutor groups, it would keep it more focused.
Generally, students always join in. I really would have liked to go to some of the face-to-face ones, but they would be a four-hour drive for me for a round-trip, probably having to stay over, so I really just have to go to the online tutorials. It would be nice to see faces to make it more personal. There’s quite big numbers in the tutorials though. Sometimes, there’s about 20 people. That would be a lot of faces on a screen when you’re maybe needing to work through some sort of presentation as well. I suppose the smaller the number, the more interaction you would be able to have. If it was your own tutor group, you would feel like you would know your own tutor a bit better or your tutor might feel they would know you a bit better. There’s not really that closeness. You don’t really have that face-to-face personal relationship when it’s online. I think, had I been face-to-face and actually met my tutor, that makes that personal connection then. It’s that putting a face to a name.
I would like to have more tutorials. They always seem to just be around when an assignment is due. They’re really good because you are just sitting at home in front of your computer, just working your way through it, feeling very on your own and even though you know your tutor’s there and there’s other students doing the same thing, it’s that connection, even if folk don’t want to use the microphones. It just puts you all in the same place for one common reason. You could choose to go for one or you could choose to go to three. If there was one of the assignments that you were finding really difficult, you would maybe go to them all.
There’s just a lot of virtual life going on just now. Even just on the telly and you’re seeing the guy that reads the weather from his back garden. You’re seeing people in their personal space and although it was quite strange initially, there is something quite nice about it. It makes it all personal. It makes it a bit more real.
I’m always aware of the tutor just because of my job and thinking, ‘Gosh, that’s a lot for them’. It’s a long time when it’s just you that’s talking. I’m now facilitating these virtual classrooms and its very strange cos I’m on the other side. I can totally see that folk don’t want to use the microphones [laughter]. At some of them, I will use webcams. I think the students would be better if they could all see each other. When you’re used to being in a classroom face-to-face with the interaction, whether it’s questions or comments or a bit of a joke or banter, I really miss that. You’re just very aware that it’s just your lone voice in the middle. It’s just a new way of working. But I guess, the university tutors, that’s what they do all the time. We’ve almost got to redesign our whole units. I’m at an advantage because I’m doing distance learning. I can picture it laid out and I can imagine what a virtual classroom looks like but for some of my colleagues, it’s just been terrifying.