Is academic guidance sustainable at distance?


In return for the freedom to pursue the discipline they love, academics are lumbered with a wide variety of tasks, some of which are distinctly of the Marmite variety.

Personal tutoring has to be near the top of that list, with some seeing it as a chore to be endured and others embracing the opportunity to connect with students. Either way, there is little recognition of a profoundly important role that is becoming ever more crucial at a time of pandemic-induced stress.

Personal tutoring involves a mix of academic and pastoral guidance, blended according to the judgement of the university and the whim of academics themselves. This can mean that personal-tutor meetings are incorporated into the curriculum, in a personal career-development module, for example, or else are available at the student’s request. Sometimes, too, responsibility for providing different aspects of personal tutoring may be spread among advisers, mentors, counsellors and programme tutors.

This ad hoc approach means that the value the students derive from personal tutoring is heavily influenced by their own expectations. This is most pertinent in the first year. Those from families in which university attendance is well established, or whose high schools prepared them for the new learning environment, generally slip into the personal-tutor relationship with ease. For others, the experience is more mixed.

At the University of Greenwich, we are fiercely proud of our diverse and inclusive student intake. This is augmented by a broad international cohort and we have been quietly successful at melding them into a cohesive student body. Even so, we have taken for granted our ability to support these raw recruits. Regular face-to-face contact allowed students to see personal tutors as trusted representatives of the university, available for dispensing wisdom on both academic and pastoral topics. But Covid-19 has thrown this cosy relationship into disarray.

The functionality of online work was always tempting, and if you’re at the Open University (OU), you might well declare at this point that online personal tutoring isn’t rocket science. The digital learning pioneer Gilly Salmon has developed a five-stage process for supporting students through e-learning and if the OU can adopt it, why can’t everyone else?

But Salmon’s model assumes that the student is a willing member of the online learning environment. It struggles to show how to socialise those who have been dropped into it overnight. And despite the herculean efforts of academics and administrative staff to reconfigure the learning environment when the lockdowns came in, hard evidence of success is not obvious.

With just weeks to go before the end of term, many students accepted the closure of the campus as an early holiday. Lectures intended for 100 souls attracted barely 20, and even combining numerous tutorials into one mass online session only resulted in a cosy meeting of the faithful minority. The final assignments were carried over the line by their own momentum rather than by course design.

The great worry is how the sector will fare at the start of the new academic year. At Greenwich, we have master’s and first-year business undergraduates who started in January and continued through the summer term. To an extent, then, their experience can be seen as a rehearsal for the full-scale restart. The indicators are, you might say, like the curate’s egg: good in parts.

Relieved though we were by the master’s students’ continued participation, we rapidly lost contact with many of the undergraduates. Feverish efforts were made to reconnect with them, but while there are multiple digital channels of communication, that very proliferation is problematic as it only allows you to communicate with one set of students at a time. There was only one option left: to talk to them in real time using the human voice.

In classic personal-tutor style, one of our business lecturers, Kim Bui, spent the better part of an afternoon on a missing-persons hunt, armed with only a telephone. To our dismay, we discovered that students were generally disengaged from online learning, focusing solely on assignments – often merely to fulfil the conditions of their visas. Moreover, students were sometimes doing those assignments – as well as all their other university interaction – on their phones.

Far from offering flexibility and choice, online learning looks as if it will sow confusion across the sector. Direct contact with personal tutors right from the start will be crucial. But offering this will be very labour intensive. Where previously we could deal with an issue during a chance meeting after class or in the corridor, we will now have to chase down students via private email and telephone to find out what is going on.

Experience so far suggests that this is unsustainable. Quite how unsustainable will be revealed in October, when we will have a matter of weeks to socialise a whole new intake into university culture before they simply wander off into the ether.

Author Bio: Michael Wynn-Williams is Senior Lecturer in International Business at the University of Greenwich.