Note: This was originally posted in my OU Course blog on 5th May 2010
I wasn't particularly surprised by Price et al's findings. I think that, given the choice, most people would prefer to receive tuition / tutoring in a face-to-face manner. When I have suggested the possibility of online tutorials to my own students (who are on traditional, face-to-face courses) they are quite clear that they would accept them only as a supplement to the traditional methods. They were uncomfortable with the prospect of online tutorials replacing face-to-face tutorials. Having said that, their commitment to face-to-face tutorials does not necessarily extend to actually attending them! In my experience attendance rates for face-to-face tutorials is often quite poor. I think this relates back to a point I made in my previous blog posting about students being 'strategic learners'. Many students (and part time students in particular) have a tendency to focus on the aspects of the course which relate to assessment, so unless the tutorials are associated with marks then they are unlikely to attend. I think this would apply equally to online tutorials and face-to-face tutorials.
Nevertheless, when students are struggling with a subject, being able to talk face-to-face with a tutor is something they clearly value. In this sense, the distinction which Price et al draw between tuition and tutoring is important. I would certainly see 'tutoring' as having a pastoral function, and therefore being heavily reliant on the development of personal empathy between tutor and student. In my view this is much harder to achieve in an online environment, and I think the 'paralinguistic cues' referred to are undoubtedly relevant here.
There is a potentially significant point here. One might assume that anyone who signs up for a course which is delivered entirely online ought to know what they are letting themselves on for. However, for many people who choose an online course over a traditional course, their rationale may be based primarily on the flexibility which online learning offers. They may not even consider the tutorial support they might need throughout their course. Students who are relatively inexperienced learners, or who perhaps lack confidence in their own academic ability, could be disadvantaged by the lack of face-to-face support. Courses delivered wholly online are therefore perhaps more suited to students who are mature, independent learners, and who rely much less on tutorial support.