Role of the Tutor in ODL

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The Role of The Tutor in Open and Distance Learning


The paper sets to explore the role of the Tutor in open and distance Learning (ODL). It first explains the concept of Open and Distance Learning. It also touches briefly on the history of ODL in Botswana since its inception. Reference is made to Botswana College of Distance and Open Learning (BOCODOL), a leading ODL institution in the country.

Tutoring can be viewed as a backbone of support in ODL. The different caps that a tutor wears in ODL are explored through indepth interviews with ODL practitioners. The main focus is on the role of a tutor in helping learners to be successful in ODL. The main finding is that a tutor helps to bridge the gap between learners and their study materials.

In the light of the available literature, the importance and positive role of a tutor in ODL forms the basis of the paper’s discussion.

Introduction to Open and Distance Learning

As is the case with many other concepts, there is no one clear cut definition to the concept of Open and Distance Learning. However, deliberate efforts have been done to come up with an inclusive and working definition to Open and Distance Learning (ODL). ODL can be used interchangeably with Distance Education.

In their paper presented at the NADEOSA 10th Anniversary Conference, Tladi & Moses (2006) defined distance education as follows;

“A method of teaching in which the students are not required to be physically present at a specific location or time during the term. Instead, teachers and students communicate by exchanging printed or electronic media or through technology that allows them to communicate in real time”.

In ODL, the learner and facilitator, who is known as a tutor, are separate in time and space. This, therefore, gives the learner freedom to be in control of her or his own studies. The learner can study at her or his own pace, time and even chooses where to study. ODL is an open and flexible mode that does not discriminate by age or any attribute for that matter. The learner is seen to be at the centre of his or her learning and this view is shared by Felicity Armstrong (1996) in her writing that the learner is regarded

“…as a self-activated maker of meaning, an active agent of his own learning process. He is not one to whom things merely happen; he is the one who, by his own volition, causes things to happen. Learning is seen as the result of his own self-initiated interaction with the world…”

The distance education provider, however, is in constant touch with the learners through letters to keep them abreast especially with administrative issues. Support study materials are also sent to learners and may include both audio and video tapes, radio programmes, CD ROMS etc.

One can argue that ODL is a “modernised” version of what used to be correspondence studies of the nineteenth and twentieth century. Back then, study was mainly done through postal mail services.

In the whole world, many institutions are beginning to use ODL as it has vast advantages. One does not necessarily have to leave her or his work place to pursue their education, and many people are enrolling with such institutions. One can obtain a certificate, diploma, a degree or any qualification for that matter through ODL. This view is shared by Perry (1981) when he wrote that;

“almost the only cheap way of doing it is to use distance learning. It does not require people to go off work and reduce the gross national product; it does not require capital buildings….”.

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This paper aims at the following;
  • Introducing ODL both in general and in Botswana
  • Looking at the different roles played by the tutor

This paper aims at the following;

  • Introducing ODL both in general and in Botswana
  • Looking at the different roles played by the tutor

ODL in Botswana

The government of Botswana has always shown great interest in Open and Distance Learning even during the pre-independence years. In the early 1960’s a lot of primary schools in the British Bechuanaland Protectorate were trained through what was known as the Bechuanaland Extension College, later to be re-named Botswana Extension College, which offered courses through correspondence. Since then Botswana never looked back in her provision of education through the distance mode. Dire need was felt across all levels of educational opportunities (i.e.) primary, secondary and even tertiary education.

In 1977 the National Commission on Education reviewed the situation on the ground and recommended that there be provisions in place to develop education both in formal and non-formal set up. This gave birth to the Department of Non Formal Education (DNFE), which was established in the Ministry of Education in 1978. DNFE then absorbed the Botswana Extension College (BEC), which then started operating as the Distance Education Division (DED) of the DNFE.

With passing of time it was evident that ODL was becoming very popular with the government of Botswana. The University of Botswana started operating its distance education wing, Centre for Continuing Education (CCE). Yet another National Commission on education proposed the formation of a semi autonomous and non profit making college of distance and open learning (Revised National Policy on Education, 1993). This proposal was endorsed by the government white paper in 1994. All these series of developments gave birth to the Botswana College of Distance and Open Learning (BOCODOL), which was established by legislation in December 1998 to enable provision of quality Distance and Open Learning.

The Role of a tutor in ODL

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Case Study

Botswana College of Distance and Open Learning (BOCODOL) aims at providing opportunities to citizens who cannot enrol through the formal school system. At present, the college offers distance learners academic subjects in both Junior Certificate (JC) and Botswana General Certificate of Secondary Education (BGCSE). In addition it offers Diploma programmes and other professional courses. For learning to successfully take place in a college like BOCODOL, study materials and tutor support should be availed to learners. Keegan (1989) in Indira Gandhi National Open University Counselling and Tutoring Services Booklet 2 (2006) argues that;

“Occasional face-to-face sessions are organised for both didactic and socialisation purposes unlike the conventional system, where it is a major teaching medium”.

In ODL settings tutor support is inevitable. In trying to establish the key or critical roles of the tutor in ODL, the author had in-depth interviews with both distance learners enrolled with BOCODOL, tutors at different study centres as well as ODL practitioners employed full time by the college. The discussion that follows is mainly what those interviewed considered the key or critical roles of the tutor in ODL.

As the learning environment in distance education is intended to be highly supportive and learner-centred, regular tutor-led contact sessions are an important learner support strategy that may be an incentive for student enrolment in the programme (Daweti, 2005). This argument is in line with what both the learners and the practitioners mentioned during the interviews. They are both in agreement that the tutor has to completely impart the necessary knowledge and/or skills. The practitioners further argue that where a tutor is a Subject Matter Expert (SME), and in most cases he or she is, learners should not doubt her or his knowledge of what they are learning. The tutor should deliver the content in a convincing way that will inspire hope and confidence among learners. The reason for this, they argue, is obvious. Learners are novices seeking expert knowledge and skills, and it would be a learning disaster and scandal if learners held the view that their SME is also a novice like them.

Learners have again mentioned that it is critical for them to be tutored as tutoring in ODL helps bring an interpersonal element to the learning process. In most instances the learner interacts with her or his study materials alone and they perceive tutorial sessions as times when they should be provided with guidance on how to effectively interact with their instructional study materials. The learners did appreciate that the presence of a tutor should not mean “teaching” as understood in the conventional set ups, but should be viewed as a session that helps facilitate learning. They further agreed that a tutor does not need to be a lecturer. He or she should guide learning in such a way that learners become independent. Learners in ODL are most of the time separate from the providing institution and tutors, hence their learning cannot be tied to the presence of a teacher or lecturer, or a tutor as called in ODL. A competent ODL tutor will conduct learning in a way that increasingly makes learners, with the help of well designed course materials, totally independent. Armstrong (1996) has made an observation that;

“The role of the tutor in distance learning is substantially different from a traditional teaching role, in that it is more of a “pastoral” and guidance role, rather than a direct teaching role. A more in-depth awareness on the part of the tutor is required, concerning factors/obstacles which may affect a student’s ability to study and work at the same time, as well as knowledge and advice on dealing with these.” A tutor in ODL helps foster collaborative learning and support in small groups (Daweti, 2005). The learners too, pointed out that as they study at different paces, the tutor should ensure that he or she gives them the help they need regarding the different study units they may be working on, and they suggested use of smaller syndicates which has proved to be very effective. During tutorial sessions the tutors help the learners become aware of how they can contribute to their own learning. To achieve this, the learners pointed out that the tutor should possess a good skill of being a good listener. They again suggested that the tutor should be able to effectively communicate with the feedback he or she provides, as well as to acknowledge the learners diverse views.

Both practitioners and learners are in agreement that nothing can stand in for the contact-based tutorials. This is when the learners meet with their tutor(s) or when learners meet by themselves. During contact hours the tutor can play the roles of being both a counsellor and a friend. An ODL tutor should be able to empathise with the learners’ personal issues that may affect learning. He or she should counsel and be a friend to the learners providing them with the necessary information and giving them moral support. As a counsellor, the tutor should be flexible, trustworthy, approachable and well organised. As a counsellor the tutor should also help learners with social challenges. It is a fact that in ODL the clientele is quite diverse, and as such would bring with them unique social challenges. These diverse learners will in turn look up to the tutor for help. The tutor will have to come in to assure learners that all will be fine and this has to be done in a manner that will be acceptable to the learners. The learners further pointed out that in addition to tutorials offering counselling opportunities it helps them in that it creates opportunities for contact and dialogue, which goes a long way in overcoming the isolation and loneliness of distance learning. Armstrong (1996) further observed that the tutor “…is concerned about the work and how to facilitate the learning in a direct way. The personal tutor’s role is more “personal”. They need to be there for the student when the student id struggling because of their personal life. They need to be perceived by the student as caring and approachable…..”

In his Commonwealth Tutoring in Open Distance Learning Knowledge series (2005), Daweti has put across an argument that according to distance educator and theorist Otto Peters, when students participate in learner-teacher and learner-learner dialogue they learn a number of things that include to;

  • argue purposefully and in the language of their discipline
  • take up, give reasons for, maintain, modify or abandon their own theoretical points of view in the course of a discussion
  • enquire into and critically evaluate knowledge presented by others
  • reflect critically and self-confidently, together with other students on the knowledge they have created, and on the methods used
  • experience collective advances in knowledge
  • present their ideas both rationally and systematically.

The tutor in distance learning has yet another very crucial role to play – that of being an assessor. As an assessor the tutor has to mark the learners’ assessment and provide meaningful and helpful guidance and feedback. The tutor in ODL should help the learner understand why he or she has not attained the maximum marks possible. This has to be provided through a positive feedback that will also help motivate the learner. In some cases, the tutor should even provide the correct answers where the learner has failed. This can be done by giving a summary comment next to the interim mark. The feedback provided in assignments should provide constructive dialogue that can help the learner learn from the assessment. By so doing the tutor would be promoting both learning and learner success. Learners’ efforts should be praised at all times as this can be a great motivating factor.

The learners are in agreement with the practitioners in that tutors are the learners’ liaison partners or link with the institution. In his Knowledge Series, Daweti (2005) points out that since there is limited face-to-face contact between distance learners and their tutors, where such contact does occur it has to be of the highest quality, and to ensure this quality a tutor must carry out certain tasks that, according to Daweti, should include the following;

  • represent the institution well, by knowing all procedures related to the course and attendance of tutorials
  • understand the scope of responsibilities and activities they are contracted to perform, whether a marker, tutor-coordinator or any other
  • prepare well for each contact session by being familiar with the student list, study material, assignment and related documents
  • plan activities you will use to enhance the learning experiences at the tutorial, and to manage their thinking and sequence
  • show professional commitment by modelling the standards set for learners. The tutors appearance and communication style should reflect respect for community and cultural expectations
  • give feedback to the institution, preferably through written report, highlighting any problems that both the tutor and the learners encountered, and walking an extra mile for the college, as well as for the learners by suggesting possible solutions or interventions
  • tutor must keep records of attendance, enquiries, assignment marking, contact details of fellow tutors, and all correspondence with learners as well as with the institution.

During the interviews a good number of learners expressed that it would be helpful if the roles of the tutors could include assisting learners with maintaining the right learning pace as in most cases slow ones are left behind - ultimately leading them to drop out or terminate their studies before completion of the programme. The feeling here is that tutors just seem to concentrate on subject matter and not other factors per se. They also felt course concepts and assignments requirements should be carefully and clearly spelled out by the tutor to ensure comprehension by all learners. Face-to-face or contact-based tutorials have been emphasised in this paper as it is the one commonly used at BOCODOL, a leading ODL institution that was used as a point of reference. However, it is important to take note of the fact that more advanced ODL institutions world over use different sophisticated forms to offer their learners tutorial support. These include media based tutorials where forms of information technology can be used. Radio, telephone, television, cell phone and other gadgets can all be used to facilitate media-based tutorials. Electronic mail, commonly known as Email is yet another powerful tool that can be used. This is an electronic correspondence which can be quickly received and revisited. However, it can only be suitable for places with internet connectivity.

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Results presented here represent an analysis of the interviews held with the BOCODOL learners for JC and BGCSE programmes at the different BOCODOL study centres. The questions captured below are just a few of the questions asked which had the same response from most learners. A total of 163 learners were interviewed.

All the learners were asked the same questions which included the following; 1. Do you understand what tutoring in ODL means? 70% said they understood what tutoring meant – at least that it was different from teaching. This, they said, was explained to them during orientation workshops conducted by BOCODOL staff. 2. Would you prefer to be tutored or taught during your-face-to-face contact sessions? More than 90% preferred to be taught – they said tutoring was not enough to prepare them for the examinations. 3. Give three (3) critical roles of an ODL tutor. Common tutor roles given were;

  • Teaching
  • Marking
  • Counselling
  • Advising

4. Give any three (3) characteristics of a good tutor. Characteristics that were popular were as follows;

  • Friendly and welcoming (as learner will not be intimidated by her or him and can always look forward to coming to class, and can seek advise from him or her even on social matters)
  • Good listener (learner will be free to talk to her or him)
  • Qualified for the programme he or she tutors
  • Gives elaborate feedback on assignment feedback
  • Patient

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Over and above the quality of study materials and the learner support system availed to distance learners, it is the relationship between the learners and tutors which can be crucial in determining the learners successful completion or failure of the programme of study. The distance learners, tutors themselves and other ODL practitioners have all agreed that a tutor in ODL is critical as he or she helps to bridge the gap between learners and their study materials. The tutors do this by playing various roles such as teacher, counsellor, manager, assessor, facilitator, demonstrator, role model to mention just a few. Research has, however, proved that not all distance learners benefit from tutorial sessions as some are naturally shy and introverts while others are outspoken and free to express themselves, as such dominating the tutorial session at the expense of the introverts. Tutor roles in ODL, therefore, need to be discussed and agreed upon by the institution and tutors so as to be efficient enough to contribute to successful learning.

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Armstrong. F., & Hedge. N. (1996), Teaching and learning at a distance, University of Sheffield, United Kingdom.

Daweti, A. M., Tutoring in Open and Distance Learning – A topical Start-up guide to Distance Education Practice and Delivery (2005), UNISA, Pretoria.
Dennison, W. F, & Shenton, K. (1982), Challenges in Educational Management, Croom Helm, London.
Dr. Manzurul Islam King, Sand University, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia – Spending Quality Education For the Deprived in our Millennium: A proposal for a Regional Open University for South Asia.
Holmberg, B. Theory and Practice of Distance Education (1995), Routledge, London.
Revised National Policy on Education (1993), Government Printers, Gaborone, Botswana.
Perry. W. (1981) The Growth of Distance Learning, in Neil, M.W. (Ed), Education of Adults at a Distance, Kogan Page, London.
Romiszowski. A.J., Designing Instructional Systems, 1981, Kogan Page, London.
Tladi. L., & Moses B., Exploring the Role of ICTs in Addressing Educational Needs: Identifying the myths and Miracles, 2006, Gaborone, Botswana.
Yerbury. C.J., Dingalo. M. & Mphinyane. O., 1991, Evaluation Report of Distance Education Unit – Department of Non-Formal Education, Ministry of Education, Gaborone.


Special thanks to the following people who tirelessly helped me with the interviews;
Augustine Nzabona Ntuma
Jane Dikinya
BOCODOL learners and tutors at the following study centres;
Bonnington Junior Secondary School
Gaborone Senior Secondary School
Letsopa Junior Secondary School
Marang Junior Secondary School
Therisanyo Junior Secondary School
Tshegetsang Junior Secondary School