7. Supporting Learners with Tutor and Peer Communications

This is the last week in the middle section of the course and after this week we will focus on aspects of managing Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) including evaluating impact. But for this week, the theme is how to give learners the support they need to progress in their learning, whether that comes from dedicated tutors or informally from peers.

Learning needs support most obviously when learners get stuck with concepts and practices, but also to provide different kinds of guidance, prompting and challenge.

During this week we won’t cover in depth all the different kinds of support and all the different ways of delivering it (these are mapped in a table in the Notes & Commentary). We will focus on instances of support that are online and provided through human interaction. These are the areas that are frequently used in TEL in higher education and present probably the biggest shift in approach from traditional teaching and learning practice.

This week’s aims

In this module we aim to help you explore ways of meeting the challenge of supporting online learners, both yourself as a tutor, and by harnessing the scope for peer guidance, feedback and support. We aim that this week will help you to:

  • Understand a range of models of learner support with TEL and their implications for teaching staff
  • Consider how you could create an environment for learning that is conducive to supporting self-directed learning, peer support and networking
  • Reflect on course design, activities, resources and skills required to facilitate self-directed learning, peer support and networking
  • Consider how peer review can contribute to peer support, communication and self-reflection

If you only do one thing…

On your blog or via Twitter (using #ocTEL tag), on this forum topic, or via the JiscMail list, write a post in which you consider one or more of these three questions:

  • In your experience of the ocTEL course so far,
    • describe an instance where the support you received from tutors or peers felt particularly good – what made it good?
    • describe an instance where the support had weaknesses – what made it poor?
  • In your general experience, what approaches create an environment conducive to supporting self-directed learning, peer support and collaborative learning? What do these kinds of learning mean to you?
  • What resources and facilitation skills do you need to support learners in communicating and providing support for each other? Which of these will be most challenging for you?

Come and join the live webinar with Nancy White

In the webinar we’re looking forward to a session led by Nancy White, who has been pioneering the development of online facilitation skills since the 1990s. The webinar will take place at this Elluminate link at the later time at 17:00 BST on Wednesday 29 May.

Have you ever felt like you were planning a dinner party when what you really wanted was a picnic? We have lots of options about how we design learning to engage and facilitate peer-to-peer learning. But sometimes it is easy to get stuck with “what we’ve always done.” Join Nancy to explore our repertoire of possibility for groups and learning. We’ll practise some of the real-time webinar facilitation techniques that tutors can use to enable a supportive, collaborative and/or co-operative environment.

Founder of Full Circle Associates, Nancy helps organizations connect through online and offline strategies. She is internationally recognised as an online interaction designer, facilitator and coach for distributed learning, teams and online communities. Nancy blogs, teaches, presents and writes on online facilitation and interaction, social architecture and social media. She is co-author with Etienne Wenger and John Smith of “Digital Habitats: stewarding technology for communities.”

Activities for this week

This week we are again providing a range of activities to choose from. They are all linked, but Activities 7.2 and 7.3 are more tightly coupled, so you might want to choose between either 7.1 or these two together.

Activity 7.1: Designing learner support

(1 hour 30 mins: spend roughly half the time assimilating and half the time designing)

Starting from the list of resources below, explore different models of learner support that you think might be useful in your own teaching. You can focus on tutor support, peer support or a combination of both.

We recommend starting your exploration of tutor support with:

And for peer support, start with:

Then – on your blog or via Twitter (using #ocTEL tag), on this forum topic, or via the JiscMail list – describe:

  • How you would you implement one or more kinds of support in some learning provision in which you are involved
  • How would these meet the needs of your learners (you may find it useful to refer to any work you did on Week 2),
  • The challenges you think they might experience.

Activity 7.2: The practice of peer review

(1 hour)

Review a fellow participant’s post on Activity 7.1 – whether it’s as a comment on their blog, a reply on the forum or on the JiscMail list – about how they would implement learner support in their own course and, taking account of any personal reflections they have already provided, consider:

  • If the design / approach or mix of approaches is appropriate for the given context
  • Aspects of the design you think work particularly well
  • At least one suggestion for improving the design
  • Resources they might refer to in order to improve or extend the design.

Note: in this and the linked activity 7.3, it’s the giving not the receiving of peer review that matters most. So don’t worry if you don’t receive a review, as the reflection in the next activity focuses on the process of writing one.

Activity 7.3: Reflecting on peer feedback

(30 mins)

Having reviewed a peer’s contribution, reflect on:

  • Did the experience of reviewing someone else’s learner support design, help you to consider aspects of your own design? What skills could peer review help you to develop as an online learner?
  • Consider your own learner support design, and articulate what changes you would make to your own design as a result of having reviewed someone else’s
  • If you have received a review of your own design, reflect on the review and articulate what changes you would make as a result of the review

Post your thoughts on your blog or via Twitter (using #ocTEL tag), on this forum topic, or via the JiscMail list.


  • Write a post answering one or more of the key questions this week #ocTEL
  • Come and join the webinar with Nancy White at 5pm on Wednesday afternoon
  • Have a look at the new archive of the Daily Newsletter
  • Get ready for the final three weeks of ocTEL!

What’s coming up next?

Maximising learning for minimum cost, starting 3 June.

Resources and more to watch, read and research

Learner support

Peer support

General publications on supporting technology enhanced learning

Other references

Notes and commentary

There are many ways of supporting learning in TEL, and almost as many ways of categorising them – the table below is just one of these and this week we will be looking at some examples and explore how you can use these in your own practice. In the table we have organised support according to its source and also to the location or presence of that source. For example, Eric Mazur’s work on classroom demonstrations which also, featured in Week 1, would fit into the top two cells on the right of the table. In this week of ocTEL, we focus on the two on the top left of the table.

Support provided remotely Support provided in person
Tutors Online facilitation
Learning centres
Peers Online support communities
‘Answer gardens’
Study groups
Learning centres
Automated Context-sensitive/‘intelligent’ help systems
Feedback from machine-graded questions
Self-service Frequently Asked Questions
Glossaries of terms
Table: Matrix of different kinds of learner support in Technology Enhanced Learning

Some forms of TEL are heavily instruction-led, and it is possible to automate the learner support because the range of issues is tightly defined or circumscribed (for example, many corporate organisations use this approach for induction training for new recruits or compliance training in heavily regulated domains). Learning and teaching in Higher Education tends to be much more open-ended.

The practice of supporting learners as a teacher is very different when mediated by technology, compared with being in a classroom — particularly when the course is delivered asynchronously (i.e. when learners schedule their own learning, instead of it being delivered in real time, as in a live webinar). Learners learn — as you are doing now — at their own pace and the way they go about their learning activities is driven by their own interests, as well as by the ‘programming’ of the learning materials and by the activity and feedback of their peers. When teaching, your role is more to support, channel and enrich these activities than simply to relate or direct them. This is captured in King’s (1993) memorable formulation that the role of the teacher shifts “from sage on stage to guide on side”.

Alongside the support learners might receive from their tutor or peer, is the support that can come from personal learning networks (PLNs), which learners create themselves. Personal learning networks might be tapped into by learners for a range of learning needs, such as to aid them while engaging in formal learning scenarios or to provide opportunities for informal, self-directed learning. We will not cover the area of personal learning networks in detail as it lies outwith the scope of the course but the idea of supporting learners to form and actively participate in their own learning networks, is key to this module. If you are interested in this subject, refer to George Siemens paper Connectivism: Learning as Network-Creation where he argues that “learning is a connection-forming (network-creation) process”. For some practical ideas on where to start in forming a personal learning network, see these tips and guides featuring current technologies.