Developing an Online
Deborah Hardwick, Interim Manager
Houston Community College
Online Tutoring Program
Developing an Online Tutoring
Once you start thinking about an online
tutoring program, myriad decisions have
to be made. The purpose of this module is
to walk you through the decisions to find
the best solution for your institution.
But first, an introduction
Houston Community College operates what is
probably the largest content in-sourced online
tutoring program in the country.
We offer online tutoring at all levels of math,
biology, chemistry, physics, and English; for
papers in all disciplines; and two-tier tutoring in
We out-source the technology and in-source the
I manage the HCC online tutoring program.
We currently serve about 15% of the
55,000 students enrolled in the institution,
and that number keeps growing.
Typically, we respond to 1,000 – 1,300
student submissions per month.
We have 23 tutors.
We provide tutoring 24 / 7/ 365.*
24 / 7 / 365
Because we offer access to the asynchronous
parts of our program 24 hours a day, and
because I have several insomniacs on my
tutoring staff, we have an average turn-around
time of 6.5 hours for student papers and other
We work through breaks because students are
studying then, and since we offer mini-terms
between long semesters, we are available all the
This is a long presentation, but developing
an online tutoring program from scratch is
a complex process.
We jumped in and made many decisions as
we went along. That is NOT the best way!
I will be presenting The Ins and Outs and Ups
and Downs of Online Tutoring at the ATP
conference in St. Louis.
I’m also doing a round-table discussion on
developing a program at the League for
Innovation conference in Denver in early March.
Please join me at either or both conferences if
you are considering developing a program.
Before we begin, let’s take a few minutes
to agree on a common vocabulary. Some
terms are used in their generally accepted
meanings while others have specific
definitions in the online world.
The provision of academic and/or work
force content support through electronic
media rather than through face-to-face
Tutors can work from home in their robes
and fuzzy slippers, as can students. Others
work from vacation spots.
Synchronous Online Tutoring
Chat rooms and Instant Messaging are
examples of real-time online tutoring.
Tutors and students communicate in an
electronic form of conversation.
In chat rooms, one or several students
may be present, with or without a tutor.
Asynchronous Online Tutoring
This is a delayed response form of online
tutoring. Students submit papers and / or
questions, tutors answer them, and
students retrieve the responses later. It is
the most common, cost-effective, and
efficient form of online tutoring.
Open-Read Message Boards
This is an online communication system in
which anyone with access to the system
can read and respond to questions and
It is useful when tutors wish to post review
materials for many students.
It is also useful for information that many
students may be interested in.
Private Online Communication
Most communication in online tutoring is
in private communication, similar to e-
mail, between the tutor and student.
Private here means that other students
cannot read the information, but supervisors
and other tutors MAY be able to, depending
on the technology you use.
This is the purchase or use of technology
or content from an outside vendor.
Some textbook publishers now provide online
tutoring for students using their books.
Other sources are purchased by the
The opposite of outsourcing is providing
the technology and/or content from
The form of electronic service that will be
used depends on many factors. Servers,
operating systems, and archival systems
all need to be considered.
Add-ons must be considered, depending
on the technology you choose. We use
cyber-tablets for math and science tutors
and macro toolbars for English and math.
Who actually provides the tutoring is the
most important factor in the success or
failure of an online tutoring program.
The amount of help given must be pre-
Shall we offer online tutoring?
What will we tutor?
Who will we tutor?
Who will tutor?
Will we in- or out-source the technology?
Will we in- or out-source the content?
Who will be responsible for online tutoring?
What administrative structure do we need?
How will we convince students and teachers to use the
How do we measure its effectiveness?
Why Should We Offer Online
In today’s world, online communication makes
possible solutions to problems that were
unsolvable just a few years ago.
College students today, especially in community
colleges, lead incredibly complex lives. Online
tutoring eliminates a large stress factor.
Cost is a factor in all colleges. Online tutoring
means that tutors aren’t paid for sitting and
waiting. Additionally, space isn’t tied up that
could be used for additional classes.
Distance learning is HOT! Students need
the flexibility that DE offers, and online
tutoring supports online learning.
Even students who take classes on
campus can’t always make it to the
Tutoring Center when it is open.
What Will We Tutor?
Will we confine online tutoring to one discipline
or will we offer services in some or all subjects
If tutoring is offered in only one discipline,
management is relatively easy, but effectiveness is
If it is offered in multiple subjects, management is
more difficult, but effectiveness is broader.
Multiple subjects creates synergy. Students come
online for math, say, but discover that help is also
available for psychology.
If you decide to offer online tutoring in only one
discipline, management resides within that
department. Funding will probably come through
the discipline, as will tutors.
Face-to-face(F2F) tutors can work both forums.
We call such tutors “hybrid tutors.” This
minimizes “sitting around” time, but both forums
are usually busy at the same time.
Cross-referrals are easy.
Students may experience frustration at not
being able to access online tutoring for all their
tutoring needs. Franz Fanon called this “the
Revolution of Rising Expectations.”
Schools with large distance programs will have
to explain why online tutoring isn’t offered
across the board.
Cross-over questions may not be answered as
completely as you would like.
Offering tutoring in all or some of the subjects
offered at your institutions widens the field while
making tutoring user-friendly. Students use one
log-on, one format, and one protocol for
tutoring in many subjects.
Cooperation among a variety of departments,
when it works, promotes collegiality. When it
doesn’t, it’s a headache.
How Much Help Will We Give?
Certainly, we all agree that tutors should never
DO homework for students, but how much help
is enough and how much is too much is a critical
In math, chemistry, and physics, we give more hints
and help to students who are completely lost. Tutors
often work through a similar problem, and then ask
the student to try and re-submit.
How many times can or should a paper be
looked at by a tutor?
In our English Center, we expect readable drafts. We
prefer to look at no more than two drafts of a paper,
but sometimes students slip a third one in.
English Tutoring Issues
Will we only offer online tutoring for
papers for English classes or for papers in
Will we focus on grammar, structure,
organization, content, or a combination of
If we provide English tutoring in all
disciplines, what do we do about content?
Tutors in our online English Center are not
content specialists in all the subjects for which
we get papers.
We piloted a two-tier approach with psychology
tutors, and it worked so well that we are
expanding it to other areas.
English tutors work the paper for grammar, structure,
Then, we pass the paper to psych tutors who deal
with the content.
Students get two responses.
Who Will Tutor?
If you choose to outsource the content,
the company you hire will provide tutors.
There are no decisions to be made.
if you in-source the content, you need to
look at many categories of potential
tutors. Active faculty (full-time and
adjunct), retired faculty, students, and
outside tutors should all be considered.
1. Consider faculty first. Your faculty know
the curricula, standards, materials, and
sequencing of classes.
They are familiar with your student
population and can tailor tutoring help to
the students in your school.
Full-time faculty who also tutor are
invested in the program and will
encourage its use to their students.
Release time or office-hour tutoring can
Overload tutoring provides income with
less work than teaching another class.
English teachers, however, often don’t
want to mark even more papers!
Adjunct faculty whose classes don’t make
or to whom you can’t give a full load can
be kept in the system by using them as
This is probably the richest source of
Retired faculty members or adjunct who
choose not to teach for a semester or two
are also a great resource. They have all
the advantages of faculty but can usually
tutor more hours per week than active
Peer tutors may prove useful. If you have a
strong SI (Supplemental Instruction) culture,
this can be a great source of tutors.
Upper division or graduate students are also
wonderful tutors. This is a way to groom
potential faculty for later. However, they
probably don’t have the knowledge of your
system, so additional content training may be
While outside tutors can enrich a program,
they probably do not know your system
well, so more training is necessary. You
may have to provide textbooks for classes
they will tutor in.
Who Will We Tutor?
There is a tendency to think that only
distance-ed students use online tutoring.
Approximately 80% of our students are
taking lecture classes, but their schedules
make online tutoring necessary.
Online tutoring isn’t only for
developmental students, either – a
In- or Out-sourced?
In-sourcing technology means working
very closely with your IT department.
Sufficient server capacity and back-up are
Archiving is needed.
Tech support help needs to be available.
E-mail can be used, but archiving and
oversight are problems.
Some schools use their in-house e-mail
system for tutoring. However, archiving
and oversight are much more difficult.
There is no way to effectively archive work for
review by supervisors and/or other tutors.
In my opinion, this is the least effective in-
sourced technology arrangement, but it
may work to show the need for a better
If you decide to in-source your
technology, you can design a system
tailored to your needs.
Tweaks and changes are quite easily
accomplished if you have a good working
relationship with your IT department.
Authentication of student-users must be
There are three primary types of
1. Commercial sites that provide
technology and content on a per-use
2. Textbook-linked sites that are typically
free to users of the company’s books.
3. Companies that provide the technology
but not the content.
This is the choice that we made. We use
askonline.net. There are a few more
companies coming along to do the same
thing, but I do not have experience with
(This is not a paid endorsement!)
In- or Out-sourced Content
This decision is the heart of the matter.
Commercial services that provide the
tutors are certainly easier to manage.
Checks just have to be written on time.
Depending on the company and the
agreement you have with them, selected
college personnel MAY have access to
tutor work for oversight purposes.
However ... (my opinion follows)
tutors who are unfamiliar with your
courses, your sequencing, your grading
standards, your calendars, and your
population may not be as helpful as tutors
who know these things.
This is why we chose to in-source our
These tutors can be really helpful, but
only to students who are taking classes
that use the texts.
MyCompLab and MyMathLab are two of
the biggest. Student- and teacher-
satisfaction with them are quite high at
HCC, but not all of our classes use
textbooks from ABLongman Publishers .
In my opinion, based on a year and a half
working with online tutoring every day,
out-sourcing the technology and in-
sourcing the content provides the best of
However, managing such a program is a
time- and labor-intensive process.
Who Will Be Responsible?
Depending on the size and complexity of your
program, options are available.
1. If you confine online tutoring to only one subject,
the chair of that department (or her designee) may
oversee online tutoring.
2. If your school has a tutoring manager, this can be
added to his job description.
3. If you choose to provide online tutoring in several
disciplines, a new position should be created to
oversee the entire program to ensure consistency.
Responsibility - more
Decisions must be made about whether
overall responsibility will reside on the
faculty or student services side of the
We chose to keep it within the faculty
domain because tutoring is teaching.
I have been managing our program on
release times, but we have discovered
that that is not the ideal situation. In the
new budget, we have asked for the
creation of an online tutoring manager
position dedicated solely to overseeing
and growing our program.
Responsibility – even more
Someone needs to oversee
Hiring and training of tutors
Scheduling of tutors
Supervision of the work product
How Should We Structure the
Administration of a Program?
Who is ultimately responsible for the
development and management of an
online tutoring program depends on your
institution’s overall structure.
Do you have someone who oversees all
tutoring or does each department or division
take care of its own?
Where will funding come from?
How involved are student services personnel
in the tutoring process?
How many students do you expect to
If you expect to reach fewer than 3,000
students a year, or if you plan to offer
tutoring in only one discipline, a release-time
manager may be the best answer. Larger
programs need more supervision.
If you in-source the technology, is there
sufficient IT support, or does the online
manager need to be a techie?
If you in-source the content, is there
clerical support for hiring paperwork and
To whom will the online manager report?
Marketing Online Tutoring
No matter how wonderful your online
tutoring program is, it won’t work if
teachers don’t recommend it, students
don’t use it, and administrators don’t
Marketing Online Tutoring to
1. Tutors can save time for teachers.
Non-English classes often require papers, so
teachers in those disciplines spend an
enormous amount of time slogging through
bad grammar, spelling, and organization
instead of looking at the content. An online
English Center can cut the non-content work
down to practically nothing.
2. Tutors are a back-up voice for teachers.
Students often need to hear something
several times and from several people before
it sinks in. Tutors have non-judgmental voices
that back up what teachers say.
Good tutors never second-guess teachers, but
they point out areas of concern.
3. Students may need the anonymity that
online tutoring offers.
Students often do not want to “bother” their
teachers, so unasked questions stay
unanswered. Online tutors can provide a
“safe” refuge for asking questions.
Marketing Online Tutoring to
1. Students can get help at their
convenience, not only when a tutoring
center is open.
2. Students can ask questions without fear
of offending or antagonizing teachers.
(Yes, this is a student fear!)
3. Students avoid the perceived stigma of
needing tutoring, which many believe is
only for “dummies.”
Marketing Online Tutoring to
It saves MONEY!
Tutors are paid for active work time, not
passive waiting time.
Space can be freed up.
Parking spaces can be freed up.
Tutoring can be offered in more areas than
may be available in person.
This is the hardest part.
It is difficult to know how effective tutoring is
in general. What percentage of a student’s
grades are attributable to tutors and what
part comes from the teacher?
Students who seek tutoring assistance are a
self-selected sub-set of all students. Often,
those who need tutoring the least are those
who use it the most.
Qualitative Analysis from Students
Student feedback is an important
component of any tutoring program, but
especially for an online program since
there is no other way to know how the
program is perceived.
A “How are we doing?” online survey
provides data about student satisfaction.
We have found that students often send
thank-you notes. These need to be saved.
Qualitative Analysis from Teachers
Communication with faculty is crucial.
Online tutoring managers need to attend
department meetings to discuss questions,
concerns, and faculty recommendations.
Teachers who require / strongly
recommend online tutoring can be
surveyed via e-mail.
This is the hardest type of information to
gather in a non-research institution.
I don’t have any great ideas about
gathering and interpreting such data, so
this is one of the areas that I will be
asking for help with in St. Louis.
We have found that the number of repeat
visits by students correlates with high
Wrapping It Up
Schools need online tutoring to effectively reach
those who cannot get to on-campus tutoring
centers when it is open or who hesitate seeing
face-to-face tutors because of embarrassment.
Online tutoring is cost-effective for schools.
Tutors love working from home, without the
pressure of lines of students waiting for them.
Students appreciate the flexibility of online
However, designing an effective online
tutoring program requires cooperation
among faculty, tutors, administrators, and
Forming advisory committee of the
different groups of stakeholders is a good
Looking realistically at what your
institution can and will support is crucial.
Assessing your technological and human
strengths is part of the foundation for
Finally, thinking outside the box and
looking for creative solutions to complex
problems is a thrilling challenge!