The University of Mary Washington was well represented at the 2011 National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing, held in balmy Miami. Former Stafford Writing Center Director Dr. Cheryl Hawkinson-Melkun, Stafford Writing Center Coordinator Burke Moeller and Fredericksburg Writing Center Coordinator Denise Regeimbal led a discussion entitled: Tutoring In Real Time: The Synchronous Online Writing Conference. The three shared experiences about the challenges and advantages of providing tutoring assistance to students by using a virtual conference room.
Hawkinson-Melkun began the presentation by recalling a situation where a student had come to the Stafford Writing Center for an appointment with two children in tow. The children had not eaten dinner yet, she was told, “and at that point the mother in me took over.” She kept the appointment and the student was grateful for her help, “but after he left,” Hawkinson-Melkun told the audience, “I knew there had to be a better way.” Before long, the Stafford Writing Center began offering online appointments – which was a particular benefit for the adult students the Stafford campus caters to. Students no longer had to make an extra trip to campus in order to get the help they needed – they could now get tutoring from the convenience of their own home.
Moeller discussed the online scheduling software students use to make appointments for the online service, and also discussed the process students use to join the virtual conference room. He also talked about some of the pros and cons of the online service. “The key is to manage the student’s expectations, especially first time users,” he told the audience in Florida. If students went into the appointment knowing that technical glitches could happen, they were much more likely to work through them without getting frustrated.
Regeimbal spoke about the need to establish a rapport with the student from the beginning. She also discussed some of the benefits tutors have discovered from the online sessions, including the opportunity to work more hours. Regeimbal said, “Online tutoring enables tutoring to be done from any location, where there is access to the internet. This convenience creates an increase in the ability for tutors to engage in tutoring and students to be tutored.”
Hawksinon-Melkun, who initiated UMW’s online appointment service in 2008, began gathering statistical data from students about their impressions of web-based conferencing while preparing her doctorate dissertation. Her data showed that although 30% of online users experienced some technical difficulty during the session, almost 70% of those who experienced those problems still rated themselves as “Very Likely” to participate in an online conference again.