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Research on Online Tutoring by Katie Brundage, De Anza Online Tutor

An Analysis of Online Writing Labs (OWLs) and Their Place in Tutoring College Level ESL Composition Writers

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With the invention of the Internet have emerged numerous possibilities for the use of this technology in the education field. In the TESOL field alone, the Internet has provided a wealth of materials to enhance lesson plan objectives and opportunities for learning. Perhaps most importantly, the Internet has given instructors and learners possibilities for expanding the language learning environment beyond the classroom. The use of e-mail in the ESL / EFL classroom, for example, has made possible the ideology of a “small world” in which students are able to enhance their learning by communicating with native English speakers around the globe. The use of online discussion boards serve to promote student to student and teacher to student interaction outside of the classroom. Resources on the theories and methods of second language acquisition instruction serve as virtual mentors to educators looking to gain perspectives in their field. And these examples only scrape the tip of the proverbial iceberg in the possibilities this technology offers to traditional ESL / EFL classroom instruction. One growing use of technology in the ESL environment is the advent of online tutoring services for college level ESL composition writers. Taking place in cyberspace, Online Writing Labs (OWLs) take traditional in-person tutoring to a new level by granting tutors and tutees access to a powerful advocate in the tutoring process: the Internet and virtual communication. As an online tutor for De Anza Community College in Cupertino, CA, I have gained firsthand experience in this field, and my experiences are the basis for gathering and analyzing data in this project. For the sake of discussion, I have limited my data presentation to two major areas: feedback / error correction for ESL writers and online communication between tutors and ESL writers. I have also limited my analyses to the two OWLs that elicited the most data: De Anza Community College’s Online Writing Assistance Center (OWAC), and Purdue University’s OWL. While it does not serve to take a (1.) stand on any issue, this project will report the benefits, drawbacks, and place that online tutoring holds in the future of the TESOL field. It is hoped that this project will engage the reader in a number of facts and insights about this expanding practice.

In Technology for Teaching Foreign Languages Among Community College Students, author Estelita Calderon-Young (1999) makes a valid point when she asserts: “the technology that we have at our disposal has the potential to empower students when it is used appropriately and correctly”(1999, p. 161). This observation is especially relevant to my experiences serving as an online writing tutor for De Anza College’s pilot OWL project. As a pilot tutor--and now as a “veteran” assisting new tutors--I can attest to the empowering potential that technology has when used appropriately and correctly in the tutoring field. “Appropriate” and “correct” are the key words in this analysis, as no technology system is without certain drawbacks that must be considered when implementing these services. Before dually examining the drawbacks and potentials of this technology in the ESL composition tutoring environment, however, I will provide a brief background of this field as told through my own experiences.

By definition, an Online Writing Lab (OWL) gives students virtual access to writing tutoring and online resources that provide guidance in the writing process. In the Fall of 2003, I took part in a pilot project to bring OWL services to De Anza Community College. Collaborating with Tutorial Center Director Diana Alves de Lima, we launched our online tutoring service via an instructional technology program called Etudes and embarked on our first quarter tutoring writers in cyberspace. As the pilot tutor for the project, I reviewed a rough estimate of five composition essays that quarter. From a tutoring perspective, our first quarter was both successful and revealing. I began to see that tutoring students online was an entirely different approach from tutoring students in person. Having only an ambiguous knowledge of who I was tutoring--sending my thoughts off to some unknown--was an experience that took some adjusting to. However, these feelings made me more aware of the patience and careful thought that goes into the tutoring process.

From a technological standpoint, we also encountered a number of setbacks with Etudes on our first run. We encountered problems accessing student essays posted in the “Essay Center Forum” due to system incompatibilities. Further frustrations ensued when tutees would post attachments of their work; often these attachments were incompatible with our system. (2.) However, these technological kinks were worked out over time. Furthermore it is through these initial setbacks that we gained a number of ideas to revise and improve our system so to better serve our students in the future. Since the launch of our project, the OWAC has expanded into a fully operating service assisting ESL and native speakers in their development as composition writers. At present we have six tutors on board and receive approximately 20-30 essays a quarter. Although we occasionally encounter our share of setbacks, these experiences have taught me the advantages of using technology as an adjunct to traditional ESL classroom instruction. This position was reported often in the data I collected, and thus stands as the next area I will discuss in this project.

As a general rule of thumb, the goal of tutoring ESL writers “is to assist students in making long-term improvements in their writing... [T]eaching writers how to improve involves teaching them how to revise, [being] that revision is the primary way that both thinking and writing evolve, mature, and improve”(Murphy, Sherwood, The St. Martin’s Sourcebook for Writing Tutors, 2003, p.17). In the data I collected, this feeling was reflected in the manner that OWLs approach error correction and feedback for ESL writers. The majority of the OWLs I analyzed were consistent in the view that teaching ESL writers to learn how to help themselves is the primary goal of their services. Although this goal is challenging, OWLs present a number of ways to reach it. The first respect in which the OWL environment helps ESL tutees develop their writing skills is that online tutors are able to identify major areas of an ESL tutee’s work in need of revision. This concept is not a new one, and it easily applies to in-person tutoring as well. However, the difference lies in the nature of online tutoring. Online tutoring forms a text based relationship between the tutor and the tutee . Interpersonal dialogue is replaced by a computer screen and word processed communication. Though on the surface this environment is not without its challenges, online tutoring is conducted as “a dialogue concerning better writing that occurs in the form of writing”(Carlson and Apperson-Williams, 2003, p.241). In other words, tutors position themselves not as technicians of writing but as equals in the process; writers responding to writers. Thus in suggesting the major areas in need of revision--two writers “talking shop”, so to speak--the tutor not only makes the tutee aware of the areas in question, but also places the tutee in the position of revising his/her own work. Tammy Conard-Salvo (2005), Assistant Director of the Writing Lab at Purdue University, affirms this thought in a recent e-mail interview: “Online tutoring is simply another form of writing tutorial--and even if it replaces or surpasses face-to-face sessions, it's not a problem as long as online tutoring remains collaborative”(May 9, 2005).

Collaboration between the tutor and the tutee is the key to any successful tutoring session, whether it takes place in person or online. And so the impact that the faceless nature of online communication has on the collaborative process can prove problematic for tutors and tutees. “I sometimes fear that tutees feel, ‘Who are you as a stranger to tell me how to change my work?’ ”, reflects De Anza online tutor Bettina Brockmann (2005) in a recent e-mail interview. She observes further:

Of course it [the collaboration process] is difficult because you don’t see how the tutee responds to your criticism. I feel like I have to be really careful when commenting on mistakes. Sometimes I feel like I’m not able to do my job as a tutor because I spend so much time making sure my response does not sound overly critical. I am [especially] aware of this with my ESL students since writing is a delicate area [for them]. It does not feel so collaborative. (May 4, 2005).

Furthermore, trying to create a collaborative online environment can prove uncertain when there is a need by the tutor or the tutee to clarify messages posted online. What might take a matter of minutes during an in-person tutoring session can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days in an online tutoring session. There is no way to tell when a tutee might be online, so if a tutor needs the tutee to clarify aspects of his/her writing or assignment goals, the tutor must post a new response and wait for the tutee to respond. Likewise tutees might not fully understand a response from a tutor.
Oftentimes this lack of understanding is not fully apparent until the tutee has re-posted a new draft of writing, if they post a response at all . In Anxieties of Distance: Online Tutors Reflect, authors David A. Carlson and Eileen Apperson-Williams support this idea: “In a face-to-face session, [the tutor] could act on a student’s confused look or hesitation by proceeding with another approach, saving both parties time and frustration”(2003, p.240). Respectively in these circumstances, many tutors and tutees regard online tutoring sessions as less effective than in-person tutoring sessions.
Not every tutor or tutee regards the faceless nature of online communication as a drawback, however. In relation to feedback and error correction, a second advantage OWLs grant tutors and tutees is the anonymity of the OWL interface. As “[e]mail tutorials do away with some of the personal anxieties that accompany face-to-face meetings...”(Murphy, Sherwood, p.23), OWLs encourage shy or insecure tutees to seek assistance when needed. Writing is a very sensitive subject for many ESL learners. Hence approaching a tutor in person with an essay that the tutee very likely spent hours on--only to have the tutor act in the role of “writing authority” and tear it apart-- is enough to discourage even the most experienced ESL writers from seeking in-person tutoring. More often than not this approach on the part of the tutor is due to a lack of adequate training and the fact that the tutor is working with a non-native English speaker. What is seen as being “helpful” by the tutor--highlighting every global and local error in an ESL tutee’s paper--is seen as harsh and overly critical in the eyes of the tutee. As a consequence the tutee is left embarrassed, ashamed, and insecure about his/her writing abilities. Furthermore, in certain cultures it is considered inappropriate to disagree with one in an authoritative position--such as a tutor--and so tutees do not always voice their feelings to their tutors. The anonymity of communicating textually, however, allows both tutors and tutees to approach writing issues more frankly, through which the risk of anxiety and embarrassment is lessened. Muriel Harris (1997) of Purdue University supports this thought: “In person, ESL tutees’ [communication of their writing issues to tutors] were more minimal, more guarded, and less critical...The anonymity [of online tutoring] and the privacy of writing [from a distance] seemed to free students of their anxieties”(Harris, 1997, p.190). Similarly, in E-Mail Tutoring: A New Way to Do New Work, author David Coogan (2003) reports, “E-mail enabled me to perform close readings of student work--or more precisely, of the student--without the old fear of ‘how will the student react?’ ” (5.)(Coogan, as cited by Carlson and Apperson-Williams, p. 23) The result is that tutors and tutees alike appear more comfortable with giving and receiving criticism on a written work. What’s more, the role of tutor-as-authority is lessened in a text based relationship; the tutor and the tutee are more like equals and thus more comfortable with each other. This comfort in turn benefits both the tutor and the tutee.
Nevertheless, in certain situations OWLs are viewed as being too anonymous. Perhaps the greatest drawback of online feedback and error correction is the fact that tutor feedback is rarely responded to by tutees. Consequently, the tutor is left wondering if his/her response was truly helpful to the tutee. Rajshree Chauhan (2005), an online tutor at De Anza College, voiced her frustrations on this issue in a recent e-mail interview: Out of 10 [tutoring sessions], I might get one [response from a tutee]. I feel great when I get feedback! I feel perplexed when I don't get any feedback. [At times] I see the same tutee give another tutor positive feedback regarding another paper. I wonder what I did or didn't do to elicit a [lack of] response. I wonder what the other tutor did to get the response. I'm human, [after all]. It’s frustrating. (May 3, 2005)
Ms. Chauhan is not alone in her impressions. In the primary OWLs that I investigated, a lack of response to a tutoring session on the part of the tutee was one of the greater drawbacks of online tutoring. This lack of response might stem from a number of reasons, a major reason being the assumptions that many tutees have about OWL services. Too often tutees regard OWLs as “editing services”, posting their work not to be tutored, but to be edited for grammar or mechanics errors. In other words, OWLs are viewed as “the proverbial dry cleaners, where students simply drop off papers to be proofread” (Conard-Salvo, May 9, 2005). As OWLs abhor the practice of editing and correcting student work, however, it is possible that a tutee would fail to respond as he/she did not get what he/she wanted out of a tutoring session. In a survey submitted to students who have used the OWAC at De Anza, approximately 15 percent mentioned that they “wished the tutor had changed their grammar, [and that they]...expected more editing on [their] paper[s].”(Student responses, OWAC User Survey, Fall 2004 and Winter 2005 Quarters). The fact that De Anza (nor any of the other OWLs I analyzed) do not correct student work is apparently as frustrating to tutees as the request to edit student(6.) work is to tutors. <br.

This topic is as much of an issue of communication as it is an issue of feedback and error correction. This thought also leads to second major area I will discuss in this project: online communication between tutors and tutees. Communicating appropriately, sensitively, and clearly is a must have in any one-on-one tutoring session. When these factors are not applied properly to online communication, misunderstandings can occur. Of course, misunderstandings are motivated by a number of factors: culture, gender, age, language abilities, personal beliefs, social expectations, and comfort with emotion or feelings, to name a few. However, maintaining an awareness of these issues is not only essential to the success of communicating online, but also presents online tutors with a fresh set of challenges. Chris Berry (2005), Director of the Writing Lab at Purdue University, expressed his thoughts on this issue in a recent e-mail interview:

In a purely textual medium (instant message or e-mail, for instance), it can be very difficult to communicate emotion, and since time is always a concern (we don't want to spend more time responding to a paper than the student spent writing it), it can sometimes be very difficult to get meaning across. (In e-mail interview, May 10, 2005).

Online communication thus introduces the tutor to many questions. What exactly should be communicated to the tutee? How should these issues be communicated? How can we communicate criticism without hurting the feelings of the tutee? Can we avoid misinterpretations, or are some misinterpretations inevitable? These are all valid questions to consider. And while there are no definite answers, the solutions are most likely discovered as a tutor becomes more experienced in this field and is able to deal with the various challenges such questions pose . Of course, exposing the reader to these challenges is not meant to paint an adverse picture of online communication. Communicating in cyberspace has many direct benefits for both tutors and tutees, which will be discussed first before addressing the aforementioned challenges.

One direct benefit of online communication for both the tutor and the tutee is the time that a tutor has to respond to a tutee’s concerns . Bettina Brockmann reports that (7.) communicating online allows her to be more thorough in her responses to tutees. “I do not have to ‘think on my feet’ as much as for [in-person] tutoring,” says Bettina. “I can take my time thinking about the student’s issues, rather than feeling the pressure of responding to the student immediately.” (e-mail interview, May 4, 2005). Time management is an integral part of the tutoring process. In online communication, the issue of constructing the most precise response with the greatest time efficiency comes into play. If tutors are given enough of a turn-around time to review a tutee’s essay , his/her responses are more likely to be critical, accurate and precise, and therefore beneficial for the tutee.
The OWL at Purdue University takes online communication one step further by implementing the use of audio and video technology in their tutoring sessions. Chris Berry expands this idea here:

At Purdue we have access to Macromedia Breeze software which allows us a textual, audio, and visual connection with other participants in a Breeze session....Breeze allows sessions to be saved, so the student can "rewind" the session to any point to hear what the tutor had to say about a particular section of a paper or the development of a particular idea. If they want to return to the paper a week later, the original session is still archived there for them. (In e-mail interview, May 10, 2005)
It is likely that this approach to online communication produces favorable results because it captures elements of in-person communication. Where this method surpasses in-person communication, however, is in the option it grants tutees to “revisit” past tutoring sessions at any given time. This option is especially helpful for ESL writers, as my experiences at De Anza can attest to. When responding to a tutee, I divide my essay review into two sections: global errors and local errors. Global errors, or errors made by ESL learners that interfere with the meaning of their ideas, take precedence over local errors, or errors made by ESL learners that are not as likely to interfere as much with meaning. By structuring my response in a way that communicates the importance of addressing global errors first, I present the tutee with a concrete guide he/she can use in the revision process. Although De Anza’s OWAC has yet to implement the audio-visual technology Purdue currently uses, the text based responses we post are just as beneficial for tutees. My tutor review can be revisited as many times as needed, and so the tutee (8.) is more likely to absorb the tutoring session than he/she might have in person.

The structure of the OWL interface further illustrates this point. As OWLs are mainly public forums, anyone who is a member of a forum can post questions or read tutor/tutee responses from past sessions. Permitting tutees access to past tutor responses helps tutees to feel more comfortable with the online tutoring process as tutees are able to gauge what kind of feedback they will receive before the tutoring session actually takes place. This access not only creates a welcoming environment for tutees, but also opens up online communication to a number of students at any given time. The end result is that “online tutorials [allows tutors to] offer [their] services to a wider audience” (Berry, e-mail interview, May 10, 2005), which in turn creates positive learning experiences for both tutors and tutees.

Nevertheless, online communication encounters its share of problems, namely in the form of text based misinterpretations that can occur between tutors and tutees. The first and foremost disadvantage of online communication is the lack of verbal and nonverbal cues that enhance meaning and understanding in conversation. Facial expressions, gesticulation, intonation, and inflection contribute to our understanding of how language and ideas are communicated. When these cues are replaced by a computer screen and a word processor, the meaning of the message must be carried solely through text . As a consequence misinterpretations between tutors and tutees inevitably occur at times. Online tutor Rajshree Chauhan echoes this point. “Tutoring online can get very tricky,” comments Rajshree, “The tone can sometimes be imagined by the tutee who might be sensitive or [in]secure in [his/her] skills. It is also difficult to develop a relationship of trust with the tutee. This can be important because tutees..[often] feel strongly about their work, and...without some kind of ongoing relationship [between the tutor and the tutee], it is hard to tailor feedback [for the tutee]” (In e-mail interview, May 3, 2005).
Ms. Chauhan raises a significant point in the issue of online communication: the importance of establishing a trustworthy relationship between a tutor and a tutee. The difficulties that are encountered in the establishment of trust begin with the roles assigned to both the tutor and the tutee. The tutor is assigned the position of offering criticism, and the tutee is assigned the position of receiving criticism; neither role is particularly comfortable or easy. And so to best create a sense of trust, a tutor strives to communicate a friendly and informal tone through positive language and constructive criticism in his/her response. This tone might be (9.) apparent to the tutor as he/she is the author of the message. The tutee, however, might very well misconstrue the message because he/she is on the receiving end. This point is further illustrated by a scenario all too common in the OWLs I analyzed. Tutees often have the tendencies to overlook positive tutor comments in lieu of focusing exclusively on tutor criticism. The tutee “can’t see the forest for the trees”, so to speak, which not only creates a negative experience for the tutee, but also hinders the development of a relationship with his/her tutor. This reaction in turn discourages the tutee from returning to online tutoring. And so this example further illustrates why tutees often fail to respond to tutor reviews, a point addressed in the earlier section of this paper.

Furthermore, in a situation as illustrated above, outside factors often contribute to the cause of a tutee’s strong reaction, such as low self-esteem, perfectionism, or a general ill regard towards the writing process . Although I do not have the space in this project to discuss the challenges psychological and/or personal factors pose in online communication, I nevertheless present these ideas as food for thought for the reader.
An equal concern in the development of effective online communication is the fact that some tutors are neither comfortable with faceless communication, nor used to the complexities of communicating online. Tech savvy advocates of online instruction would present a simple and straightforward solution to this concern: train tutors in a combination of computer skills and tutoring methods to produce optimal results. But as Oscar Wilde (1899) stated in his usual paradoxical manner, “the truth is rarely pure and never simple”(Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, Act 1, pg. 6). And so in this respect it stands to reason that training online tutors in the practice of what is undoubtedly a complex hybrid of linguistic rules, technology, and interpersonal skills is somewhat daunting and far from simple.

The first challenge a prospective tutor faces is the transition from the role of in-person tutor to online tutor. This transition is especially challenging when tutors have never tutored in an online environment before. One online tutor (2005) from Cabrillo College describes the challenges she faced when making the transition to online tutoring:

When you [a tutor] are accustomed to tutoring in person, your position becomes your (10.) identity. You feel like you know how to relate [this identity] to your students... [To enter] a completely different environment [and atempting] to apply this [same identity to your new tutoring position] is really complicated. It’s almost like experiencing culture shock. You don’t know what to do with your old identity, or what new identity you should adopt. (Name withheld, in e-mail interview, May 7, 2005).

The reaction cited above is not uncommon in tutoring labs that integrate online services into traditional tutoring environments. Faced with a computer screen, many tutors fear their responses will come across as “cold and distancing”(Carlson and Apperson-Williams, p.234). As a result these tutors are hesitant about making the transition to an online environment as they fear losing the pedagogical beliefs and face-to-face comforts developed through in-person tutoring.

More often than not these fears are validated by a lack of proper online tutor training for prospective tutors. It is not enough for prospective tutors to possess knowledge of composition theory, second language acquisition theory, or language usage. Nor is it enough for individuals familiar and comfortable with online instructional technology to declare themselves online tutors. Rather, effective online tutor training is a unique combination of knowledge of language pedagogy and second language acquisition, proficiency in computer technology, and interpersonal skills developed for an online interface. Each of these elements is dependent upon the other in order to successfully train online tutors. As a consequence online tutors who are effectively trained are regarded as “‘interpersonal specialists’, [ably] readjust[ing] their conceptions of how to develop interpersonal relationships when tutoring online”(Carlson and Apperson-Williams, p.234). If these needs are met, online communication has enormous potential. If they are not met, however, we can expect minimal results in the prospect of moving online tutoring forward in the TESOL field. Chris Berry echoes this thought when he states, “Drawbacks [will] exist if [an online tutoring system] is not implemented properly...Without an easy-to-use system that is robust enough to encourage effective communication, online tutoring may fail when compared to traditional, face-to-face methods”(In e-mail interview, May 10, 2005).

Given all that has been presented in this report, what conclusions can be made about the future of Online Writing Labs in the TESOL field? One conclusion most certainly reached is the (11.) idea that OWLs offer a fresh and contemporary spin on the traditional tutoring environment. The use of technology in a practice normally grounded in tradition allows tutors to “reach a whole new population through online communication”(Conard-Salvo, e-mail interview, May 9, 2005). As a result, this practice supports learners who might not be able to use the services otherwise. A second conclusion surmises that in spite of the apparent advantages of this technology, there are still a number of obstacles to overcome before online communication reaches its full potential as an educational tool. Likewise, even if online technology becomes commonplace in the tutoring environment, it is unlikely that OWLs will ever replace traditional in-person tutoring. This view is not necessarily a setback in the use of technology in TESOL, however. Rather it ensures that traditional tutoring will still have its place in a field steadily adapting its teaching methods to encompass the advances of technology. The final conclusion reached in this project is perhaps the most significant. The data in this project clearly embodies the empowering potential that technology has when used appropriately and correctly. Thus it is essential to our role as educators that we not only ensure this potential is realized, but that technology is implemented in way that fully benefits our ESL learners. From the perspective of a self-professed technology geek, I readily accept the potential that technology offers to the future of the TESOL field. Yet I also accept that online communication will never replace in-person communication for some die-hard traditionalists. As technology only continues to advance and becomes more accessible, however, it makes more sense to accept its benefits and limitations, and instead encourage the powerful synergy between technology and traditional teaching methods to develop. As educators, we particularly owe this to the future of the TESOL field and our future ESL learners. The role of the educator is not only to educate, but also to facilitate. An integral part of this facilitation is to create a contemporary and optimal learning environment for our students. Thus I maintain if technology can help us reach this goal, then all the more we should adopt it into our practices. After all, what is the purpose of education if we only deign to accept past theories and methods as the basis for our teachings? The future of technology use in the TESOL field is bright. Embrace it.
 Updated Friday, July 1, 2005 at 12:41:48 PM by Diana Alves De Lima -
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