The Revealing Shift to Online Tutoring

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By Kari Karlsbjerg

An Eye-Opening Experience

At Vancouver Community College’s (VCC) Learning Centre, answering student questions is our business, and ever since the abrupt move to online instruction last March, our students have had A LOT of questions. Overnight, our usual focus on providing English, job-hunting and study-skills assistance for our students dramatically expanded to include answering questions about the new logistics of accessing their classes, questions about their kids’ schools, plus listening to their fears about the daily rising COVID-19 numbers and worries about the future. The hundreds of hours of online one-on-one EAL tutoring sessions we have done with VCC’s students over the last eight months has truly been an eye-opening experience. We have discovered firsthand the isolation of so many of our immigrant students, the challenges of the deepening digital divide, and the substantial changes required to effectively tutor students in an online setting.

Some Background

For some background, VCC students can sign up for three 30-minute online tutoring appointments every week. We provide English, career and study skills tutoring to any VCC students taking English courses from LINC to Pathways to University Transfer and all the career programs, like Hospitality. To ensure that our students received a continuity of support, we moved all tutoring services online in mid-March. We shifted to using the WCOnline video tutoring platform, which allows us to have video chats with students while simultaneously looking at their questions and papers posted on the shared Whiteboard. 

Isolation

The blurring of boundaries that naturally resulted from the location shift from campus to private online meetings in our homes resulted in students sharing far more about their lives. As the months went by, a concerning issue came to the forefront – the deep loneliness of many of our immigrant students who had few local connections and felt cut off from their homeland. It was not uncommon for us to hear that speaking with us was the only conversation they had in a week besides their limited online classroom time. On the lighter side, online sessions in their homes also lets student show us other aspects of their lives and personalities by showing us their beloved pet or special piece of art or decoration in their home. 

The Digital Divide

Online tutoring also exposed the two vastly different digital worlds of our students: one group accessing our services through the latest expensive devices using speedy Wi-Fi connections and the other group struggling to access our session using ancient used computers and unreliable, dodgy internet connections. Unfortunately, the second group rarely signed up more than once for online tutoring sessions as it was just too frustrating and discouraging for them and almost impossible for us to give them any meaningful assistance. In addition, many low-level students simply lacked the basic English skills required to book an online tutoring session. As a result, the change from face to face sessions to online ones has meant that we have sadly lost much of our LINC four and lower level students. 

Adapting

Online appointments have resulted in a few changes to our regular tutoring practice. One of the most significant is in the way we start our sessions. In person, we could incorporate body language and indicate our welcome by smiling and pulling out a chair for the student while making small talk. However, online, it is harder to give a warm and personal welcome, and it feels so cold and robotic to directly move to asking how we can help them. Therefore, we make a point of looking directly in the camera and give them a smiling welcome using their name. We use the reader-response method of tutoring writing and insist that the students make their own edits during the discussion, but their slow typing speed can make the process frustratingly slow in the online setting. On the other hand, online video chat tutoring has been revolutionary for tutoring EAL students with their pronunciation and speaking skills. The private nature of the sessions completely removes any of their previous embarrassment of practicing sounds and doing minimal pair drills in a public library setting and there have been some stunning improvements as a result. 

The Final Word

All in all, online tutoring is working out and the English tutors have been fully booked since March. We are grateful that we can continue to be the backdrop of support for our students as they progress through their years at VCC. 

A Question

How has your institute dealt with transitioning online? Share your ideas in the comment section. Let’s work together!

Kari Karlsbjerg has been an English Tutor with the VCC Learning Centre for over 12 years. In addition, shenew best-selling bilingual guidebook, Everyday Vancouver (https://everydayvancouver.ca/) which contains practical cultural information about regular daily life that Korean newcomers need to feel at home here in Vancouver. Previously, she wrote similar books on everyday life and culture for Chinese newcomers that were published in both Canada and China in: “My New Life in Vancouver “and “Vancouver 365” which are also  bilingual (English and Mandarin).