This week the University’s Distance Learning Forum launched the 2015 peer observation programme for distance learning tutors and programme leaders. This represents the fourth time that the programme has run since the inaugural trial in 2011. The programme has grown from the ten participants drawn from three distinct programme teams in 2011 to the 18 participants from over seven different teams who will be exchanging practice this year. In a further development for this year the programme has also been opened up to external participants. York tutors will be joined by seven tutors and programme leaders from the University of Waikato in New Zealand, with which the University has a long-standing agreement of co-operation and staff exchange programme.
The peer observation programme aims to support the professional development of online tutors and their skills development and may count as an alternative form of activity in fulfilment of the University of York’s Peer Support for Teaching scheme. It facilitates the sharing of impartial and objective feedback based upon actual observations of online tutoring practice, enabling the person being observed to better understand their behaviours and actions whilst tutoring and so make informed decisions about how to behave and act differently in order to become a better tutor. As one participant from last year’s programme noted, peer observation offers:
“An opportunity to reflect on your own behaviour as a tutor, but it has become more than that; it is insightful in course design and it is a valuable social discussion – how hard it can be to tutor online”
Over the years participants have been drawn from study programmes with contrasting tutoring approaches (ranging from asynchronous group discussion to one-to-one tutoring) and uses of technology and learning platforms (Blackboard and Moodle virtual learning environments), as well as disciplines (from Haematopathology to Public Policy and Management). The diverse range of backgrounds has offered great opportunities for the sharing of practice. When identifying objectives for a fellow tutor to observe and report back on, most commonly participants make a request for feedback on how they approach discussion management responsibilities – how they open and close online discussions and whether they get the balance right between supporting and challenging students. Tutors have also focused on activity design – exploring whether online tasks are authentic and meaningful. New areas that were highlighted in last year’s programme focused on evidence collection to demonstrate a tutor’s mastery of key competencies, as well as more detailed inquiry into the range of technologies and tools available for them to use (e.g. personal journals, webinars and conferencing tools, different VLE platforms).
Our research into previous York programmes has indeed shown that the mutual observation of online course sites can provide a platform for participants to engage in wide-ranging discussion of pedagogic practices, addressing differences in tutoring techniques and technology. It is anticipated that this year’s programme may also offer opportunities for rich cultural exchange between York and Waikato tutors in the sharing of tutoring and the different ways in which they approach the supervision of students and facilitation of their online learning.
This year’s programme will run over the summer term and summer vacation, with learning outcomes reported back to the University’s Distance Learning Forum at its autumn term meeting of the next academic year (2015-16).
For further details on this year’s programme, please see the continuing professional development web page for distance learning tutors. A short video introduction to the peer observation programme has also been developed, offering an overview of the programme, addressing the aims of the programme and potential benefits to participants.