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Discomfort at the coalface: Issues for sessional tutors teaching in online enhanced learning environments

Mary Rice
Teaching and Learning Support Unit, Learning Services
Deakin University
Higher education institutions are undergoing a period of rapid change during which time a number of strategic professional development efforts have been made to improve teaching in order to improve students' learning outcomes. Sessional tutors, who are consistently at the coalface and have close contact with students, have often been excluded from formal opportunities for professional development offered to more permanent staff. This anomaly is now being recognised and more efforts are being made across the sector to ensure that tutors are better equipped to teach in contemporary learning environments. This paper discusses issues of concern to tutors that arose from recent professional development workshops and suggests that some of the major issues currently confronting sessional staff relate to the need to be able to teach effectively in online enhanced learning environments.


The employment of sessional or casual tutors in higher education has been a long standing practice. Because tutors act as intermediaries between lecturers and students, they play a critical role in higher education institutions. In most cases, tutors are postgraduate students who have an excellent grasp of the discipline's content matter. More recently, they may also be experienced industry personnel employed to 'pass on' the benefit of their knowledge and practical experience to students. In most discipline areas, the assumption has been that if people know and can communicate the content, they will be suitable, effective tutors. Most staff employed in this way have little or no background in education practice and university culture, yet they are expected to implement University teaching and learning policies and understand university infrastructure and technical systems. The tradition of employing sessional tutors has assumed a face to face transmission approach to teaching in higher education which is now somewhat outdated.

With the current emphasis on student centred approaches across the sector, more strategic, systematic efforts are being made generally to improve teaching and learning. These efforts include online technology implementation, the development of certificate courses in Higher Education, more professional development initiatives for academic staff, and first year initiatives to reduce attrition and help students negotiate the transition from school to university. However, observations suggest sessional tutors, the staff who are closest to students and have most to do with them on a daily basis, have been less able to benefit from opportunities for professional development offered to more permanent staff. It is now recognised that to improve student learning, sessional tutors need to be well trained and knowledgeable about university systems, particularly in light of the trend to employ more staff in this way than ever before. (Teaching and Educational Development Institute (TEDI), The University of Queensland, 2003a)

Current trends in professional development for sessional tutors

Over the past few years, issues associated with employment of sessional tutors have been the subject of research by authors such as Basset (1998), Jacobs (1998), Leslie (1998) and Blanchard and Smith (2001). Most concerns identified by these authors related to exploitation in respect to working conditions, the vagaries of university culture, lack of training opportunities to keep up with trends in the sector and a tendency to treat tutors as an underclass in academia, something Jacobs (1998) referred to as a 'culture of separation' (p.17). Research by Sheard and Hagan (1999) went beyond work conditions. They demonstrated the value of establishing communities of learning for sessional staff to promote professional development. More recently, the Australian Universities Teaching Commission (AUTC) sponsored a project called Training, Support and Management of Sessional Teaching Staff. The project provided an extensive literature review (TEDI, 2003a) and compiled case studies of professional development for sessional tutors from seven Australian and 2 UK universities. It also highlighted the major issues in sessional teaching situations, the most pressing of which were:

The above mentioned research clearly pointed to the need for more systematic, ongoing professional development for sessional staff. This need has been recognised and a number of mechanisms to help tutors are already in place in Australian institutions, including some of the less costly, inclusive mail and print based strategies suggested by Jacobs (1998). For example, some universities now offer face to face induction programs and/or workshops. (e.g. Deakin University, Edith Cowan University, Flinders University, University of Queensland,). Some like Monash University have articulated the institutions responsibilities in respect to tutor employment. Others have developed excellent print and/or online material for professional development of sessional staff. (e.g. University of New England, Centre for the Study of Higher Education at The University of Melbourne, TEDI, UQ). Tutors do not necessarily pay for face to face induction programs and workshops, but they do pay for online materials in terms of the need to access them and in terms of the time it takes to read them.

Emergence of new issues associated with tutoring in online environments

In online enhanced environments, the nature of the 'coalface' is more complex because tutors have to be able to operate seamlessly between both face to face and online activities and mediate between lecturers teaching face to face and/or online and students learning in both situations. Previous literature relating to sessional staff has not focused on this phenomenon.

In first semester, 2004, 90 sessional tutors attended paid professional development sessions at Deakin University's three main teaching campuses. These tutors were essentially employed to teach in face to face situations in units with online components. The sessions were aimed at increasing tutors' awareness about the different categories of students, providing some techniques for helping students learn more effectively in contemporary learning environments, and informing them about University resources available to assist staff and students. Opportunities were also provided during the workshops for tutors to raise issues that concerned them. They are consistent with those that emerged in the AUTC project.

In 2004, a new situation has arisen at Deakin University with the implementation of policies relating to the use of online materials and the move towards offering more wholly online units and more units that integrate online and face to face activities (blended environments). Every unit now must have a basic online presence that includes unit guides, web based resources and a general discussion space. Many units incorporate more online activities such as multimedia resources, quizzes, online group work and discussions along with their face to face classes, while some are now wholly online units with no face to face classes. Approximately 20% of Deakin academic staff are sessional tutors and the way they currently work in the University varies considerably across faculties and schools. Some assume much greater responsibility in the new environments than others. For example many have responsibility for moderating tutorial discussion spaces that are seen to be an activity equivalent to running a face to face tutorial. There are also instances where tutors have been given responsibility for developing online material. Working in this new environment has led to the emergence of a range of issues for tutors that have not been raised in previously mentioned literature. In general:

Since the issues raised above were articulated in workshops and evaluation surveys, it is not possible to say whether they are widely applicable in all disciplines. Moreover, it has to be acknowledged that some may also be pertinent to permanent academic teaching staff. However, the difference is that the latter have more opportunities for paid professional development.

Future initiatives

The evidence from recent workshops indicates that tutors are eager to improve their practice across a range of areas, but they need more assistance to enable them to feel more comfortable about teaching in the new environments. The adoption of professional development strategies that tap into this enthusiasm and respond to individual Faculty based needs is an important strategy for improving teaching and learning across the institution. One of the components of the Deputy Vice Chancellor's Strategic Teaching and Learning Fund is a commitment to the systematic provision of opportunities for professional development for sessional staff. The following initiatives are being or will be implemented at Deakin University in response to the emerging issues. Some are paid activities and some are not.

The following professional development opportunities are available for all staff including sessional tutors:


The initiatives indicate that Deakin University has recognised the need to equip sessional tutors to teach in more complex environments. Indications are that tutors have so far appreciated the opportunities for professional growth, but more focused research is needed in future. Possible questions for research are:

Further work will ensue relating to these and other questions that arise in the future.


Basset, P. (1998). Sessional academics: A marginalised workforce. Proceedings HERDSA Conference, Auckland. [viewed July 2004, verified 30 Sep 2004]

Blanchard, T. and Smith, K. (2001). Challenges and rewards of being a sessional tutor in a university setting. In A. Herrmann and M. M. Kulski (Eds), Expanding Horizons in Teaching and Learning. Proceedings of the 10th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 7-9 February 2001. Perth: Curtin University of Technology.

Jacobs, F. (1998). Using part time faculty more effectively. In Leslie, D.W. (Ed), The growing use of part time faculty: Understanding causes and effects. New Directions for Higher Education 104. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Leslie, D. W. (Ed) (1998). The growing use of part-time faculty: Understanding causes and effects. New Directions for Higher Education, 104. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Sheard, J. & Hagan, D. (1999). Developing a teaching community of introductory programming tutors. Proceedings HERDSA'99 Conference, University of Melbourne, July.

Teaching and Educational Development Institute (TEDI) (2003a). Training, support and management of sessional teaching staff: A review of the literature. The University of Queensland. [viewed July 2004]

Teaching and Educational Development Institute (TEDI) (2003b). Sessional teaching survey results. The University of Queensland. [viewed July 2004, verified 26 Oct 2004]

Please cite as: Rice, M. (2004). Discomfort at the coalface: Issues for sessional tutors teaching in onlineenhanced learning environments. In R. Atkinson, C. McBeath, D. Jonas-Dwyer & R. Phillips (Eds), Beyond the comfort zone: Proceedings of the 21st ASCILITE Conference (pp. 798-801). Perth, 5-8 December.

© 2004 Mary Rice
The author assigns to ASCILITE and educational non-profit institutions a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The author also grants a non-exclusive licence to ASCILITE to publish this document on the ASCILITE web site (including any mirror or archival sites that may be developed) and in printed form within the ASCILITE 2004 Conference Proceedings. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the author.

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