User Research: Who Tutors the Tutors? (part 1)

February 2022 - Jonathan Laidlow

Yes, marking and preparation are important, but the key thing that Tutors do is communicate and engage with their students.

I joined EE (Educational Enterprise) on a secondment in November for six months from the CAL Digital Marketing team. I was excited by the prospect of working here because of EE’s focus on User First Design. As we work on distance learning programmes where the student is unlikely to ever be on campus, an understanding of the user and their needs at the level of design as well as content is of paramount importance. I hope to learn EE’s secrets and take them back to my previous role working on digital marketing content.

The project I’m working on for EE is to develop a course to introduce the foundations of Tutoring to people hired to tutor on the entirely online DL programmes.

First steps - and the wrong approach

In another of my previous roles I introduced online marking to a large UoB school. Our approach then was process-led - we wanted to map our new digital submission processes onto the old paper-based procedure so that it was as seamless for the user as possible. This worked well administratively, but we didn’t even think about whether the old way of working was actually a good experience for the users - our staff and students - until we reached the first review stage. Here in Educational Enterprise we review the needs of the user before we do anything else.

My first step in thinking about this new project was to try to imagine the user and what they needed, and I’m afraid to say I was very much process-based. It’s not surprising from my background that I thought they needed to know how to do technical things like use Canvas, understand how to post on a discussion board, and how to use the Speedgrader to mark essays.

But I was ambivalent about this. The University already has some great resources provided by HEFi that cover each of these topics. I also know from working with the Canvas VLE that it’s fairly intuitive, and everyone knows how to move around a website these days. Did my users really need this kind of content?

User research

The next step was to talk to academics working in DL to try to understand the persona of the Tutors recruited. But there was no easy answer here. Some Tutors are brought in from industry, others are colleagues here and at other universities, and so nobody could give me a clear idea of what a Tutor actually needed from an induction course.


So then I did what I should have done at the very beginning: I talked to actual tutors. I arranged one-one interviews and I heard the same story in each. The tech is fine, not a problem, what they actually do is a series of things to build a relationship with the students. 

Tutoring is a relationship

Yes, marking and preparation are important, but the key thing that Tutors do is communicate and engage with the students. They do this through online discussions and regular live sessions using tools like Zoom or Big Blue Button, and they all talked about how they build those live sessions out of their daily communications with their students.

This is important because it reproduces the face-to-face experience, the personal contact that is essential to a university experience, and that’s important for off-campus students. Those users need to feel like they are valued Birmingham students, despite their geographic distance from us. This is also part of choosing a premium product like a Birmingham distance learning programme.

I also learned from these interviews that communicating with and building this relationship has no single methodology or path, and that the best way we can explain this is by getting actual tutors to talk about their experience and some of their strategies for encouraging the students to explore the teaching materials.

So that’s what we’re going to do.

Take away point

Just as I needed to build a relationship with my users to really understand their needs, our tutors need to build a relationship with their students. User research demonstrated that relationship building is the prime purpose for our Distance Learning Tutoring site.


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