Tommy, can you hear me

If you’ve ever done an online tutorial, you’ll likely have experienced a point where you have asked a question, and all you get back is a deafening silence. It is tempting to think, paraphrasing The Who, that nobody can hear you. The temptation is to blame being online, as though our face-to-face seminars and tutorials are overflowing with chatter-boxes.
What is happening, then, in these online sessions where students refuse to speak? One simple explanation is that it is something to do with the artificiality of using a microphone. This is plausible until we consider that the majority of our students seem to have a piece of technology welded to their ears most of the time and it does not hinder their ability to speak.
In an evaluative survey of 300 Open University students which I carried out last year, I tested the hypothesis that students did not like using a microphone. In an array of attitudinal statements 38% agreed that they did not like using a microphone. However, as a control, I also asked about whether they disliked talking in tutorials. Guess what? The figures agreeing that they were anxious about talking in tutorials was 38%, and when I correlated these two questions, it turned out that it was, more or less, the same people.
Now, we always need to keep some perspective when comparing face-to-face teaching with online as battle lines can easily be drawn and rather than a discussion we have an argument which neither side wants to lose.
My figures suggest that about 4 in 10 students are uncomfortable speaking – in any environment. I suspect that in the face-to-face setting we have tried and tested strategies for overcoming this. Putting students into pairs for example, or just doing all the talking for them. In the online environment, however, instead of thinking creatively we too often fall back on the old ‘the technology is to blame’ excuse.
Online tutorials are still relatively novel both for tutors and students, and as we feel our way into making them more mainstream we need to be bold in developing strategies for coping with things that we may have glossed over in our face-to-face experiences. The non-talking student is nothing new, but whereas in a classroom that student has the option to speak or not; in the online classroom built- in chat functions and interactive whiteboards provide an opportunity to engage students in ways that classroom teachers can only dream about.
So, is the problem of non-talking students overcome in the online classroom?


4 thoughts on “Tommy, can you hear me

  1. It’d be interesting to look at how crowd sourcing through Twitter or a Facebook page could be used within this? I’m going to be launching a study group for media students in the new academic year and will employ crowd sourcing during and in between sessions. Of course, the platform of online tutorials is a lot different and one I have no experience with. Are they one-to-one tutorials? Google Hangout offers chatrooms for them to talk in, regular breaks in the tutors discussion to review comments could help? This is an interesting topic, I’m glad you’ve raised it. As a student I’ve never experienced an online tutorial…!

    • I missed this when you first posted it. Apologies. You make some good points here. I have noticed that Twitter is increasingly being used for what is being called the back channel at conferences. As presenters talk and show off their Powerpoints/Prezis participants are relaying what they are saying and arguing with them via Twitter. Its a live feed. My initial reaction was ‘how rude – pay attention’, but on reflection I realised that this was a record of an event as it happened. Moreover, when I started doing it myself (having overcome my initial feelings of awkwardness) I realised that the tweeting was actually enhancing my understanding rather than pulling me away from the presentation. In the online environment I am familiar with (Elluminate, now Blackboard Collaborate) there is a chat option built in. Students tend to like this more than their tutors. As the tutors are going through their carefully designed slides the students are busy talking to one another. Some tutors (and I manage a team of them) have complained that the students ought to be paying attention. My riposte is that they are, but not in the way the tutors are used to. The chat, even the irrelevant bits, create a fantastic resource to improve the session next time. If they say ‘Wow, this is boring’ any tutor worth their pay-cheque should be thinking ‘I’d better change that next time’. In response to your other question online tutorials are just like face-to-face ones, except you can take part from the comfort of your own home. I can’t tell you what a great thing that is in the middle of winter. Thanks for your questions.

      • Ahh, great! That is good in the winter haha! Are they one on one or with the whole class can I ask?

      • They are whole class. But on average they are with 6-10 students, though I have run a couple of sessions with over 200 students. That was real fun! The technology also lends itself to online conferences, which I am also quite excited about, because as much as I love travelling to a conference and meeting people, sometimes I just like to dip in to a session and then go back home.

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