Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Booking Tutorials Online: How to manage tutorial time effectively

Recently I have discovered what I hope will be the solution to my wish that student can book tutorials with me online, and for those tutorial bookings to be available for me to check wherever I am.

One of the problems of being an academic tutor, is that the amount of time you have for students is always infinitely less than the amount of time students would like from you.

I do not say this as a complaint.  Indeed, one of my biggest frustrations is failing to meet with students who could really benefit from some tutorial time, or from going through a draft essay with someone before submission.  The trouble is, when it gets nearer to submission time the demand for tutorials often outweighs the time I have to provide them, and this causes several problems:


1)  Students who really need to meet with a tutor don't get the chance if they are less confident, or less familiar with the tutor to make frequent approaches.

2)  Students can experience frustrations, and perhaps even a sense of unfairness if they find it harder to arrange tutorials - perhaps because they are in College less, or because they are with the tutor less.

3)  Tutors can find it difficult to manage the increasing demands on tutorial times towards the end of the semester, when demand becomes high.  Tutorials are often requested in different locations - by email, through the VLE, in classrooms or in corridors - and managing the information about who you are seeing when can become difficult.

4)  The high volume of tutorial demands can lead to increased stress levels for tutors, as they try to see all of the equally-stressed students about their equally-stressed assignments.


Isn't this how most tutors feel in the weeks ahead of submission deadlines?

It seems to me that the solutions to these problems revolve around having a consistent and reliable mechanism for booking tutorials - one which is fair and equal.  Up to now, my default way of doing this has been to set calendar appointments in my default work Microsoft Exchange account - but this in itself has caused a few problems:

1)  Microsoft technology is incredibly awkward to integrate with other software, so if your calendar is set up in Microsoft then synchronising those appointments with your laptop or your mobile phone is often difficult and unreliable. 

2)  Using a default work account assumes that whenever a student wants to book a tutorial, then they need to see their tutor, or email the request, so that the tutor can make the booking.  This is fine for most of the semester, but towards the end when demand becomes high, many tutors might start finding it increasingly difficult to meet students to arrange tutorials, or to keep up to date with email.

3)  A system which demands that you see a tutor to arrange a tutorial invariably favours those students who see the tutor more frequently.  In other words, if you have the tutor for two classes a week rather than one, you have twice as many opportunities to book tutorials.  Equally, if you have the tutor for a small class, then you have more opportunities to speak to them afterwards than you would for a large class.

In order to find a solution to this problem, like Wallace I have looked for one which uses... technology:




Wallace: My pedagogic mentor

There are two things that I need then.  Firstly, I need a calendar solution so that I can have more reliable access to it at all times.  Secondly, I need a solution to enabling students to have equal access to booking tutorials, without needing to see me to do it.

Say what you like about Google, their calendar and email functions provide one of the most reliable and infinitely compatible around.  Unlike my MS account, I can access my Google calendar from pretty much anywhere without any system time-outs, server failures or needs to re-boot Davmail.

Unfortunately, Google and Microsoft seem to be rather at loggerheads with each other at the moment, so the options which used to exist for synchronising Microsoft and Google accounts have been 'retired'.  This is a shame, as it used to be quite easy for any new calendar even in MS to be automatically synchronised with Google - and visa versa.  I could book a tutorial on my Google phone, and it would show in my MS account.  Or, I could book a tutorial in my office, and check it on my phone in a classroom.

Of course, since my Google account is my own personal one, the last thing I want to do is to make this available to students.  However, there is a way in which you can set up your Google calendar with specific time-slots which you can make publicly available while ensuing the privacy of your Gmail and Google Calendar account.

Sadly, Google retired this option recently as well - but all is not lost!




My newest discover is a service from a website called 'youcanbookme'.  It is a free service, which works effectively in your Gmail calendar to identify specific time slots which can be booked by anyone via a separate website.  The bookings are made within your Gmail calendar, but at no time is your Gmail account itself made public.

Once you have signed up, you can connect your Google Calendar with one click, and then start to build up some options:



The first thing you will be asked to do in 'edit' mode, will be to set up which calendar you are using, and to create the name for the public website where students can book tutorials:



If you want, you can upload a logo here as well - it might be your own logo, or your institutional logo - which is a good way of making it clear to students that they are in the right place.  There are plenty of other options for customizing your website - and paying a subscription fee will give you more options still, although I am not sure why they would be needed:


The next important job is to set up your time slots.  You can do this by clicking on the 'times' tab in your 'edit' menu:


From here, there are two sets of boxes.  The first is where you set up which days of the weeks, and which times, will show in your calendar.  This will, presumably, be the hours you are working.  You can even set up a lunch-break time - which is a very good idea:


The second set of boxes is where you programme your tutorial times.  Do you want your tutorial times to be in 30-minute blocks?  Do you want students to be able to vary the tutorial time? 


The key here is the option for "on duty events".  This is where you set up a category of events in your Google Calendar, which will show as available for booking in your 'youcanbookme' website.  You can see here that I have added the category 'Available for tutorials'.  What this now means is that if I set up an event in my Google Calendar titled 'Available for tutorials', then that time slot will be available for bookings online.


You can change other settings, such as the information students will be required to enter when booking a tutorial:



I have changed these settings so that students can specify what the tutorial is for, and add any notes.  It would be handy if they could upload attachments as well - but hey, can't have everything:


So there is is.  Next semester I will be trying out this system so that I can specify when I am available for tutorials, and students can book slots on their own. There are doubtless problems that will need ironing out: How to ensure the system is not abused by some students; How to re-assign tutorials to ensure even access, etc..  Hopefully I will work out just how significant these problems are, and maybe come up with solutions.

Or maybe the whole thing will prove a colossal waste of time.  We shall see...