Teaching Online 5: Five steps to becoming a (good) online tutor

Monday 25 October 2010

by Nicky Hockly

Photo by Chewy Chua

One question that I am often asked is: ´How do I become an online tutor?´

Nowadays, language teachers are increasingly expected to offer online options to their learners. Perhaps your school or institution has asked you to start teaching part of your course online. Perhaps your students themselves would like some of their classes to take place online rather than face-to-face. Perhaps you yourself would like to travel less and offer your private students part or all of their course online. The big question is, where to start?

Below are five steps to help you get started as an online tutor:

Step 1: Take an online course yourself

This does not necessarily need to be a language course (although that would be useful). You could take a course in an area of interest to yourself, such as fitness training, photography or cooking. Or you could do an online teacher training course. Whatever course you choose, ensure that it is an example of good practice in online teaching/learning. Taking an online course yourself as a student will give you immense insight into not only online course and task design, but in how it feels to be at the receiving end of online teaching.

Step 2: Get training

You will need training in both soft skills and hard skills. Soft skills refer to knowing how to do things such as tutoring, or knowing how to design good online tasks. Hard skills refer to knowing how to use technology in your online course. You should consider using both synchronous (real-time) tools such as a videoconferencing platform. You should also consider using an asynchronous platform for course content and tasks, such as a VLE (Virtual learning environment), or a wiki.

Step 3: Start small

Rather than launching an entire course online, first try putting a small part of a face-to-face course online. Consider this as a learning experience/pilot course. Look at your face-to-face syllabus, and identify approximately 20% of that course content that you could offer online. Plan how you would do so, and what tools and tasks you reduce. Try that out over a period of time (e.g. a term), and evaluate the experience. Keep a list of insights and learning points as you go along. Get your peers and learners to provide feedback on the online course experience as well.

Step 4: Get support

Being the only one in an institution trying out new stuff can be daunting. Try to get your director of studies/school administration/colleagues on board with your pilot project. Plan a pilot course (as in step 3 above) with peers. Sharing and bouncing ideas off other people can be an enriching experience.

Step 5: Consult resources

Don’t reinvent the wheel. Plenty of people before you have offered online courses. Look where possible at other online language courses, and look at online training resources already available on the web. Below are a few resources to get you started. Clearly, the first and most important resource you need is Lindsay and my book, Teaching Online, which is written to help and support language teachers who would like to offer some or all of their courses online!

Good luck!

Nicky Hockly


1 Online language courses (look at the sample material):

– Netlanguages

– Livemocha

– Macmillan English Campus

– English 360 (Business English)   

Note: these courses are not necessarily THE way to offer language courses online, but they will show you some of what is currently out there.

2 Videos about online course design and delivery:

– Dr. Curt Bonk (Indiana University) – a series of short 10-minute videos on designing and delivering online courses

13 responses to Teaching Online 5: Five steps to becoming a (good) online tutor

  1. Ceri says:

    Hi Nicky, thanks for this list! I’m more or less trying to take all five steps at once at this very moment, which is sometimes a bit exhausting – not to say confusing – but also very rewarding. And it’s very reassuring to see that my particular personal training plan fits in more or less with your five steps. Nice to know I’m on the right track :)

  2. Nicky Hockly says:

    Hi Ceri,

    Thanks for your comment!I took a step 1 (take an online course as a student) only after I had been moderating online for a while – and it was a real eye-opener. I since read somewhere that research has shown that online tutors tend to me more effective if they have already had training, but more specifically, if they have experienced online learning themselves. Probably no great surprise, but interesting nonetheless.

    Thanks! Nicky

  3. Robert says:

    Hi Nicky,

    Thanks for this post! I also agree with you in that I’m currently experiencing this. I had a little online tutoring experience and while doing the course on E-Moderation: A course for Online Tutors, I can confirm or say that research you read is right… I can see that many of the things we discuss DO make more sense. It was the same thing when I did my DELTA after teaching for 7 years. I believe this is because of the bridging and hugging that takes place when we’re confronted with theory which triggers connections between it and our schemata. Truly exciting!


  4. Lize Odendal says:

    Hi there, Nicky and Ceri!

    Yup, nothing like hands-on experience! Another great way to get a feel for what is happening online, is to ask if you can sit on a class (what would we call that virtually – hover…?) or observe a class before you decide to join.

    This is a great way of experiencing different approaches and ways of teaching and of deepening your insights into what can be done in a classroom by experienced teachers.

    I know most language learning sites will allow you a trial period before you buy. I tried and and am still doing so on an ad hoc basis to stay ahead of what is happening in the field. Interesting how much one can learn from other’s mistakes :)



  5. Nicky Hockly says:

    What an excellent idea, Lize, thanks for that (and for dropping by to comment). Another resource I didn´t mention above but which you might know is Myngle ( http://www.myngle.com), where you can find yourself a private online language teacher, even if just for an hour. A good way to experience a synchronous (real time) class as well.

    Thanks, Nicky

  6. Nicky Hockly says:

    Thanks Robert, glad to hear that your own personal experiences bear out some of the research :-)


  7. Patty says:

    Congrats, Nicky, on this set of guilines. I find them uselful, straight to the point and very clear. Good job!

  8. Patty says:

    Sorry, I meant guidelines.

  9. […] Nicky Hockly / Delta Publishing: Teaching Online 5: Five steps to becoming a (good) online tutor […]

  10. kerrie says:

    Do you think adding an image of the online lecturer benefits the student?

    • Nicky Hockly says:

      Hi Kerrie,

      Yes indeed, having your photo – or even better, a short introductory video in your learning platform, can make you seem that much more ‘real’ to your online participants. Of course if your participants can also use photos on their profiles, and even produce short videos themselves during the course, so much the better!

  11. susan says:

    I am doing a course online and if my online tutor had done an online course herself, she would maybe recognise that I am struggling and I have sent personal emails to her about the course which I needed urgent answers to but she doesn’t come online to check our forums every day and doesn’t get back to us for like, 4 or five days. By that time, I’ve moved on and had to keep pushing forward.

    I understand people have a lot to deal with in their organisations but I also believe, that communicating with your students is priority since they are paying fot the course and for your online teach skills and guidance.

    My five cents… Only cos I’m a bit angry.


    • Nicky Hockly says:

      Hi Susan,thanks for dropping by.

      I completely understand how frustrated and disappointed you must feel if you have a tutor who is not responding. As a rule of thumb, tutors should be responding to postings/e-mails from participants within 12 hours, with an absolute maximum of 24 hours. Creating a sense of social presence and the relationship between tutor participants, and between the participants themselves, is fundamental in any online course, in my opinion. I’ve blogged about how tutors can enhance their social presence on my personal blog here:
      – you might want to point your online tutor in that direction 😉

      Best, Nicky

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