Home » E-Learning » MA in Open & Distance Education » Development of the digital ‘Oxbridge Tutorial’

Development of the digital ‘Oxbridge Tutorial’


Prof. Gilly Salmon at a Coursera Event in The Hague, The Netherlands

Cousera has ‘more than’ 18 million learners. In her keynote at a the recent Coursera Partners Conference, Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller said that Cousera is  “so much more than a platform, it is  movement”.

It is this very quality that is already recreating the ‘Oxbridge tutorial‘ online because where hundreds of mentors come forward, or are recruited ‘pro them’ to contribute and to take part in discussion, and to view assignments and even ‘buddy up’ with newcomers, part of the joint, collective outcome is ‘tutorial like’. This is possible even where several or even many different people are playing the role of the tutor as they are, as part of a common ‘movement’ ‘speaking with the same voice’.

Understanding how ‘movements’ come about, from the informality of a nebulous Zeitgeist to common political views, lifestyle choices and behaviours and religions would all help to recognise this. Having taken a Masters degree online and completed or taken part in well over 30 MOOCs my experience is that of the insider; as a learner, a lurker and ‘wannabe’ course creator. I have studied online with The Open University, Oxford Brookes University and through many universities on the Coursera, FutureLearn, Edx and Udacity platforms. What’s more, I have being sharing and learning online since 1999 and working in the world of ‘corporate training’ – I’ve been immersed in it for long enough to feel I have some sense of where it has come from and where new developments are founded. Perhaps this experience, knowledge and studying of online learning makes me better able than many to see and imagine where it could be headed.

Mobile is missing from the term ‘Massive Open Online Course‘, yet I’d argue that this too is enabling the recreation of the ‘tutorial’ because it is at the same time ‘intimate’ – two people in an exchange and shared – there are other ears in on the discussion. In ‘micro moments’ throughout the day we carry on multiple conversations through the devices we have in our pockets and bags. I have been part of collaborative groups of four to six people or so who over weeks from our locations on different continents around the world having tackled a problem and even become friends ‘of sorts’. I’d even say we from time to time, like students on campus, ‘broke out’ did our own thing and were disruptive.

I am privileged, for sure, to have experienced the ‘Oxford Tutorial’ first hand as an undergraduate studying Geography – my first degree in the 1980s. In a model Gilly Salmon uses to imply that education has been Education 1.0 (one point zero) and struggles to become Education 2.0 let alone to achieve the goals across nine criteria of Education 3.0′ yet I can argue and provide ample evidence that the collegiate, tutorial system, that has been the Oxford model for centuries (my college, Balliol, was founded in the 13th century) delivers Education 2.0 as its standard. It does this through ‘intimacy’ you are a small cohort, niche in terms of subject, housed in a college of a few hundred that includes the academics: lecturers, senior lecturers and the tenured professors.

It makes me realise too that when it comes to harnessing the power of learning through exchange between two, or a few people the Oxford I know – a model matched at Cambridge and Durham I believe in England, provides much more than just a professor and two or through students sitting in his or her study for an hour per week per topic.

Oxford fosters and nurtures making mistakes, through forming your own opinion rather than regurgitating and quoting back those of others, and in casual and formal debate you ‘construct’ meaning of your own.

‘Collegiate’  rather than campus, staircase rather than corridor in a hall of residence, eating together and ‘doing’ together is all part of this: you don’t just study together in a ‘tutor group’ but you may row, act or be in any of many other groups or associations – it’s the whole package that makes the tutorial possible.

The MA ODE that I did, I am a ‘Master of Arts: Open and Distance Education’ was, like many Open University courses based around a ‘tutor group’. The OU, founded in the 1960s as ‘the university of the airwaves’ to exploit radio and television as platforms for offering higher education ‘to all’ is a distance learning specialist, using course books too, and DVDs, though quickly online, as early as 1992 putting an MBA module online. I personally did a Masters level module entirely online with The OU in 2001. I only returned to complete my MA though in 2010-13. A cohort of 60 in five tutor groups of 12 or so study together for a ‘module’. There might be five modules you need over three to seven years to earn a degree with in my case seven only to pick through (though I have since ensured that I have done all seven). In theory I am on my way to earning an MEd too. It isn’t scalable in the sense of ‘massive’ – some tutors struggle with a handful of students and in the time they are paid to spend with students and marking three or four formally submitted assignments only a few can and want to take on the ‘tutor role’ as mentor and lead educator too.

All of these experiences though, the good and the bad, indicate to me what is possible and what is likely to happen. The nature of MOOCs and their attractiveness to all kinds of learner, from the ‘newbie’ to the Masters student wishing to refresh their knowledge means that ‘the community’ can, like globules forming and breaking apart in a lava-lamp, support multiple tutor groups. Indeed, FutureLearn, does this as they have addressed the problem of massive forums or discussion threads. How do you tame a thread then runs to over a thousand contributions from many hundreds of people? The answer is to support people to ‘edit’ down by their choice those they converse with, enable the picking out of replies personally to you and encouraging a mindset that dips in and out selectively rather than ever trying to follow every word of ‘the crowd’.

Aren’t tutorials one of the most natural human conditions? Is that not what, in part, parenting is? The knowledgeable parent passes on their experience and behaviour to the ’empty’ mind?


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