MU experiments with online tutoring program

Thursday, April 24, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:59 p.m. CDT, Thursday, May 1, 2014

*CLARIFICATION: The MU Learning Center offers its own online writing support and does not use NetTutor for English and writing. An earlier version of this article was unclear about this.

COLUMBIA — Ever wish you had someone to answer your questions as you cram in the middle of the night before an exam? Through a pilot program, MU is trying to do just that.

As educational institutions continue to toy with the idea of online learning, MU's Learning Center is testing online tutoring through NetTutor.

"For some people, it's going to be effective," director Phil Deming said. "For others, they're going to have a hard time learning (online) and will want to interact with a person face to face. I think it gives students options based on what they're comfortable doing."

*NetTutor is an online tutoring program launched in 1996 with student flexibility in mind. It offers one-on-one tutoring seven days a week out of Tampa, Fla. For math and English, tutoring is available 24 hours a day, though MU isn't using NetTutor for any English classes right now.

This covers the late night and weekend hours when the Learning Center doesn't have in-person tutors available. Most of its on-campus tutoring sessions are between 5 and 8 p.m. on weekdays and between 1 and 7 p.m. on Sundays, Deming said.

If a student needs help outside of the Learning Center's operating hours, he or she can log on to NetTutor via Blackboard and work one-on-one with a tutor, submit a question or a paper for review or access NetTutor's archives of previous tutoring sessions. For one-on-one tutoring sessions, NetTutor uses WorldWideWhiteboard, a blank tablet interface that students can type questions or problems on and chat with their tutor.

Deming said NetTutor's services will also help students who can't get to the Learning Center for in-person tutoring.

"We had somebody contact us last semester who's living in North Carolina and needed to finish a course, but at that time we didn't have this online tutoring available for her," he said.

*The Learning Center has been handling its own online tutoring for writing since the mid 1990s through its Online Writery, which can be accessed through the center's website. This covers about 20 percent to 30 percent of overall tutoring support, Deming said. However, it's not viable for the Learning Center to extend online tutoring to more subjects in the way NetTutor does.

"NetTutor works for several schools, so they can have the staff available 24 hours a day," Deming said. "If we were to do that, we would be paying someone to sit there for 20 hours a day for nothing."

NetTutor is being piloted for 26 classes as of now, 19 of which are self-paced, online courses. The courses were chosen largely by faculty who showed interest in trying NetTutor after demonstrations by the Learning Center, Deming said.

Most of the courses using NetTutor right now are those with large enrollments, such as Mathematics 1100, Statistics 1200 and Spanish 1100.

The pilot was launched at the beginning of the semester, but there were some technical issues trying to set it up, Deming said.

It took awhile to make sure student information wasn't being passed insecurely upon login and to get the link set up for the online courses, which don't use Blackboard. Deming said the Learning Center is still having difficulty setting up a link through its website because of security issues.

The program is funded through instructional technology fee money paid by MU students, Jim Spain, vice provost for undergraduate studies, said.

The cost of NetTutor is based on how often students use it; MU pays $25 for each hour that students are engaged with a tutor, but the university is not charged if students just look up questions in NetTutor's archives, for example.

NetTutor has been active only long enough in MU math courses to have usage reports, Deming said. As of March 25, 13 students engaged with tutors in 46 sessions for an average of 17 minutes. Most students log on, ask a couple of questions, log off and then come back for a new session when they have another question, he said.

Students' use of NetTutor's archives isn't being tracked since MU isn't charged for that time.

Spain is confident that NetTutor usage rates will grow over the course of the year, especially in the fall.

"We can talk to incoming freshmen about it over Summer Welcome and the fall and begin to help them understand this is available," Spain said. "They're already paying for it, so they might as well use it."

Deming said the Learning Center may open the program up to more courses later on, depending on how well the program works.

"It's going to take a while to build and for people to have experiences with it and share those with their friends," Deming said. "It'll be interesting to learn how much students really want to do things online."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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