Active participation in synchronous online tutorials

Kear, Karen; Rosewell, Jonathan and Donelan, Helen (2022). Active participation in synchronous online tutorials. In: Innovating Higher Education Conference 2022, 19-21 Oct 2022, Athens.



Live online tutorials using Adobe Connect are an important part of the UK Open University’s tuition strategy and have recently been vital in replacing face-to-face tutorials during the pandemic. However, there are challenges which need to be addressed (Rogers et al., 2019). The most significant of these is a lack of active participation by students. Even at the UK Open University (UKOU), where tutors are experienced in running online tutorials, previous research has shown that tutorials tend to be didactic in nature, and interactive elements are often not used (Butler et al., 2018). Students’ unwillingness to use audio or video channels is one factor, which denies tutors the non-verbal cues intrinsic to face-to-face teaching (Wang et al., 2018).

There is a need to address two related challenges: designing tutorials which have active learning built in; and overcoming students’ inhibitions regarding active participation. Our UKOU project, Synchronous Online Learning: Addressing the Challenges of Student Engagement, is therefore investigating these issues across all our faculties.

A considerable amount of relevant work has already been done within the Open University through scholarship projects, e.g. Crisp et al. (2019); Mackie et al. (2020); Jones and Gallen (2016). These studies, and others, highlight that achieving active student engagement in online tutorials is an ongoing issue.

Our project addresses the following research questions:

• To what extent do the challenges of student engagement vary across faculties?
• What are the factors affecting student engagement in online tutorials?
• How can these challenges be addressed?

We have collected quantitative and qualitative data via large-scale online surveys of students and of tutors across the university, to gain an understanding of students’ and tutors’ experiences and views. For example, what value do they place on active participation? What kinds of activities are considered to be engaging? What kinds of activities appear to be off-putting? Which tools and features of Adobe Connect are used, and are useful? How do these aspects relate to students’ conceptions of learning?

Initial analysis of this data has highlighted the important role of social anxiety in this context: some students are very concerned about how they may be perceived by other students and, to a lesser extent, by tutors. This makes them unwilling to speak during tutorials, although they do use the Adobe Connect Chat facility to a certain extent, to interact during tutorials. Our data has also shown that some do not feel the need to take an active part in tutorials; they feel that they gain value from simply listening and watching.

The quantitative and qualitative data from the surveys is supplemented by in-depth data from focus groups with students and, separately, with tutors. These focus groups are carried out online, using Adobe Connect, by experienced tutors who have taken on the role of project consultants.

In this conference session we will introduce these ideas, and present data from the project. We will invite discussion of the issues and findings with participants. We particularly welcome participation from colleagues, in order to discuss our findings and conclusions.


Butler, D.; Cook, L.; Haley-Mirnar, V.; Halliwell, C. and Macbrayne, L.  (2018)  Achieving Student Centred Facilitation in Online Synchronous Tutorials.  In:  Towards Personalized Guidance and Support for Learning, 76–82.

Crisp, L., with Bailey, M., Lavery H., Robson, J., Smith, D., and Smith, K. (2019) ‘Understanding the influence of demographics on attendance and access of synchronous and asynchronous online tuition'

Jones, M.H. & Gallen, A-M. (2016) Peer observation, feedback and reflection for development of practice in synchronous online teaching, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 53:6, 616-626,

Mackie, R., Hynd, M., Padley, S., Sheperd, J., Sharman, M. and Voigt, A. (2020) ‘Investigating tutorial attendance on synchronous face-to-face and online classroom events on Arts modules’.

Rogers, K., Thomas, C. & and Holmes, H. (2019) ‘Active learning in synchronous online tuition: increasing student interaction’

Wang, Q., Huang, C., and Quek, C. L. (2018) Students’ Perspectives on the Design and Implementation of a Blended Synchronous Learning  Environment.  Australasian Journal of Educational Technology 34(1).

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