Posted by: Gillian | December 31, 2007

Overseas courses, overseas tutors

If you find a great online course in another country and can afford to sign up, you will do so, won’t you? People do it all the time. Sometimes the stakes are quite low (e.g. introduction to Java programming) and other times they are quite high, involving several years of part time study and several thousand dollars (an MBA or PhD, for example). People see the course outline, see the cost and make a few checks such as whether or not it is appropriately registered with the national authorities, what the pass rate is, or what the cancellation and refund policies might be. Some people will look up the tutors for the course and check their teaching approach but, especially at undergraduate level, this is quite rare: students assume that the tutor will be ‘university level’ and leave it at that. Which is perhaps as well, since, in many universities, tutors are assigned after enrolments close. Also, in some universities there is a reluctance to publish student-focused details about teaching staff either because this might contravene some data protection rule (real or assumed) or because student numbers are so large that staff cannot be expected to interact with all prospective students as well as those already enrolled.

Cross-border tutors

So, if the students are prepared to cross borders and assume courses are of a reasonable, quality-controlled standard, why should anyone assume the tutors are resident at the chosen educational institution or even in that country? Does a high quality course require on-campus tutors for off-campus students? Why? If the university or college can deliver results as shown by employability of graduates or quality of research, where the tutor resides should be irrelevant.

Tutor-student relationship

In my view, there are two key requirements in the tutor-student relationship:

  1. That the tutor and the student can understand each other in the language in which the course is officially delivered
  2. That the tutor is sufficiently knowledgeable and able to engage with the student in such a way that the student makes sufficient progress in the subject in which they are being tutored.

Language requirement

No learning should have to take place in a linguistic fog. If the course is meant to be in English, then both tutor and student should speak English and, if this is not their first language, then both should have been tested by some institutionally-approved means to ensure that their command of the language is sufficient for them to be able to discuss the course content and related matters in depth. Note that the emphasis here is on the language of the two participants, not on their nationality.

Knowledge and engagement requirement

Reputable educational institutions will have written requirements for the qualifications of its teaching staff and, as the world of education becomes more international, these will frequently include the words ‘or equivalent’ because, as the very existence of the Bologna Process shows, one person’s bachelors degree is not the same as another’s. This can lead to academics themselves claiming that foreign or out-of-state qualifications are ‘no good’. Perish the thought that a bit of blatant protectionism might be involved! What happened to interview panels involving other subject experts? Or background checks including telephone calls to see if people really did write and present the papers they claim? If the prospective tutor has the knowledge – whatever their paperwork – then the key issue is: can they engage and develop students? For the educators and their institutions, this is the subject of continual evaluation and review both internally and externally through peer review and staff development.

Should the learner worry?

In my view, the learner should not need to be concerned about nationality or residence affecting tutor quality. If the educational institution has a good reputation and acceptable pass/employability/research rates then it will be working to preserve and enhance those. Sometimes, that will mean that institutions actively seek people qualified outside their normal geographic recruitment area – perhaps because there is a shortage of staff from normal sources, perhaps because those from elsewhere are very good at what they do and the institution can learn from them. If you do, however, meet the course language requirements yourself and you can not understand your tutor, then you may have real grounds for complaint. Just be aware: you may both come from the same town!

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