Online tutoring: a beginner’s tale

Katherine Bilsborough
Katherine Bilsborough

By Katherine Bilsborough

New experiences in cyberspace

In June 2016 I taught my first ever fully-online course for teachers. The course was directed at teachers who were interested in learning more about how to create ELT materials. When I’d originally agreed to design and deliver the course, I hadn’t really given it much thought. After all, I’d done webinars before and wasn’t this just a series of 4 webinars with a few other bits in between? As the starting date loomed, I began giving more thought to what would actually be involved and realised that (for me at least) the webinar parts would be reasonably straightforward. It was the bits in between that required some consideration. My previous, relevant experience included:

  •       writing online materials;
  •       being an online student on a 12-week course in 2006;
  •       using collaborative hangouts while working on projects with multiple authors;
  •       having regular Skype or phone meetings with co-writers and editors;
  •       designing and delivering face-to-face courses for teachers;
  •       being the parent of a son who was doing an online degree and was giving me regular updates on what he hated and what he loved about each aspect of it.

I wondered how much of this experience would be of help when the course kicked off. As it turned out, I drew on reserves from all of these sources. But what really facilitated my first experience as an online tutor was my decision to enroll as a participant on an online e-Moderation course that was running simultaneously. Some might say the timing wasn’t thought out well but, as it turned out, the timing was perfect. After fine-tuning the skills of time management, the situation offered me a unique opportunity to (a) put much of what I was learning on the e-Moderation course into immediate practice and (b) have a ready-made support system of expertise (my tutor) should I run into difficulties. I kept a journal through the month of June, recordings highs and lows and making a note of any revelations. There were lots! But for this post I’ve chosen six which I’ve presented as useful tips below.

Extracts from reflective journal and tips to would-be online tutors

Late May

Today I received a pre-course questionnaire to complete from my tutor on the e-Moderation course. What a great idea! It made me feel (a) welcome and (b) that they really cared about who I was and where I was coming from. I’m not just a reference number on an Excel sheet! They will use the information I give them to better address my particular needs. They’ll know which things I might be worried about (Have I got enough time? Will I be able to get my head around the ‘technology’ side of things?) and they’ll advise me accordingly. Tomorrow I’m going to design a pre-course questionnaire for the participants on my course! Copy cat? Of course.

Tip 1: Build in a pre-course element to your course to find out valuable information about participants.


Day 1

I’ve had a look around the platform of my E-Moderation course and I love the fact that there are defined areas and forums for different activities, actions, and interactions. It reminds me of a real world learning environment with classrooms, a library, a café for informal chats, and so on. I wonder whether there are any other spaces out there in the world of VLPs (virtual learning platforms) that have yet to be considered. I’m thinking a virtual cinema might be a good idea with a selection of topic-related videos. Maybe it’s already been done. The course I’m giving has fewer places to hang out but that isn’t a problem. In fact, for me right now, it’s a good thing. We’ve got all the spaces we need and in this particular case, less is definitely more.

Tip 2: Do a needs analysis that focuses on which spaces are necessary for a particular course.


And we’re off

Today I wrote my first comment in a discussion thread on my E-moderation course. It felt a bit scary, to be honest. I don’t want my fellow participants or tutor to think I’m stupid. I was thrilled (and relieved) to get a swift response from my tutor. The content of the response gave me confidence, and the fact that he didn’t make me wait too long reassured me that he was there and really interested in our thoughts and opinions. Note to self: I must show that I have read the contributions from my own course participants and sooner is better than later.

Tip 3: Let your presence be felt in discussions and forums! Even a single word sends a message that you are there … and listening. It’s probably better to make frequent short visits to the forum rather than longer, less frequent ones.



We’ve been given a short writing assignment that is really motivating because it allows us to focus on something personal of our choice. I already know what I’m going to write about and I’m intrigued at the thought of what my colleagues will write. What a great way to get us motivated. I’ve decided to invite my participants to share something personal, too: a photograph of a person, a place or a thing that inspires them … The results have been overwhelming – lots of beautiful photos of all kinds of things that help us all learn a little bit more about each other. I’ve figured out who the cat and dog people are! One participant made my day when she wrote “Thank you for this opportunity to share photos. It’s lovely to get a glimpse into the lives of my colleagues and learn a Little bit more about them. ”

Tip 4: Create opportunities for sharing something personal … but make sure personal isn’t intrusive! The key is in giving participants choices, either in whether to share or not … or in what they feel comfortable sharing.


Week 3

I’d been intrigued at the prospect of interaction on an online course, especially ways of setting up pair work and group work. We’ve had two different kinds of group tasks on the e-Moderation course so far and both were inspiring. One involved a chain of turn-taking and it made me realise the importance of participants actively … ehm …participating! In this kind of activity, you only need one learner to obstruct the process and the whole thing breaks down. It’s probably a good idea to spell this out at the beginning of the course. Make sure participants (a) understand the importance of active participation in collaborative tasks and (b) have communication pathways to let you know about any potential problems with collaborating. I’ve looked ahead at a third group task and am now convinced that any face-to-face interaction can be mirrored in an online course. In the course that I’m running, I’ve stayed away from explicit pair and group tasks but – human nature being the way it is – I’ve noticed partnerships forming between like-minded participants who are making plans to collaborate on future projects. This is heart-warming. I know that since the course ended, several partnerships have been set up between course participants including a joint blog and some self-publishing ventures.

Tip 5: Make sure participants know not only what to expect of the course but also exactly what is expected of them for the duration of the course. Giving them the reasons behind these expectations is also a good idea. Sometimes what is obvious to a tutor might be a mystery to a learner.


A final few words

To conclude I’d like to encourage those teachers considering teaching online to give it a go. Online teaching offers all kinds of exciting new opportunities for those prepared to grasp them.

Tip 6: If you are thinking of being an online tutor, become an online learner! You might like to enroll on an e-Moderation course as I did or you could find something completely unrelated to teaching. Keep a reflective journal. I’m sure it will come in handy when you eventually decide to take the plunge.


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Katherine Bilsborough

Katherine Bilsborough is a freelance ELT author and teacher trainer. She has written more than thirty coursebooks for many of the top ELT Publishers as well as online courses and mobile learning materials for the BBC and the British Council. She writes monthly lesson plans for and is the author of ‘How to write primary materials’, published by ELT Teacher 2 Writer.

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