Reskilling etutors for quality facilitation in an open distance elearning environment: a South African experience

1st June 2022

Author: Mahlaga Molepo, Scholar and etutor, Department of Information Science, University of South Africa

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, tutors at the University of South Africa facilitated learning in face-to-face environments. I was part of the cohort of face-to-face tutors between the years 2017 to 2019. Facilitation in face-to-face environments remained unhinged until the COVID-19 pandemic affected the academic calendar in institutions of higher learning. While the University of South Africa has a long-standing history in distance education, rapid advances in information and communication technology, COVID-19 challenged tutors to rethink the facilitation of learning in an Open Distance eLearning (ODeL) environment. In 2021, I attended a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) entitled Basics of eTutoring in an ODel Environment (Chetty & Wright, 2021). It is important to clarify that etutors do not teach. We facilitate learning to enhance the experience of students.

Basics of eTutoring in an ODel environment

This blog post describes my experiences about the MOOC considering changes taking place in South Africa’s higher education. According to Chetty and Wright (2021), the purpose of this MOOC is to establish a basic set of skills for e tutoring within an ODeL environment. I would like to extend gratitude to the University of South Africa and the Department of Higher Education funded Tutor Development Project for an eye-opening MOOC. In addition, I am grateful to the facilitators of the MOOC, Denzil Chetty and Richard Wright for a well-presented MOOC. More than 100 tutors (e.g cohort 1) attended the MOOC online through a dedicated portal on the UNISA website. Enrolled tutors participated in learning activities on the MOOC portal while structured classes took place online through Microsoft Teams. The MOOC consisted of six study units, presented over a period of eight to ten weeks. Based on these experiences, I would like to share my thoughts on how the MOOC empowers etutors to facilitate quality learning in blended and web-based learning environments. 

Blended & web-based learning environments

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to force national lockdown restrictions, universities across the world have adopted a blended learning approach. Blended learning is the integration of face-to-face and online instruction (Graham, 2013). Whereas the concept of blended learning has been around for both contact and distance universities (Moore, 1997), its re-emergence during the COVID-19 pandemic puts a spotlight on the facilitation approaches of etutors in institutions of higher learning. There is a growing need for etutors to be familiar with blended learning and web-based learning environments. In the past, UNISA employed the Sakai Project, customised as myUNISA for its web-based learning environment. UNISA has since migrated from the old myUNISA Sakai platform to a new Moodle myUNISA platform. During the first semester of 2022, I attended blast sessions aimed at guiding etutors on how to use the integrated Moodle platform on myUNISA. Without upskilling on technology use and adjustment of facilitation approaches, etutors in ODeL universities are at risk of becoming irrelevant to the new generation of learners.

Pedagogical approach

Etutors in institutions of higher learning should be explicit about the approach etutors use in facilitation activities. Considering the three generations of pedagogy namely: cognitive behaviourism, social constructivism, and connectivism (Anderson and Dron, 2011), this section describes my approach to the facilitation of learning. My facilitation incorporates the social constructivist and connectivism pedagogical approaches. These approaches consider the concepts of dialogue and structure (Moore, 1997) as important in educator-learner relationships. Structured instructional materials play an important role in the distance between learners and educators. Several elements that require structure in universities are presentation, support of learner’s motivation, stimulation of analysis and criticism, giving advice and counseling, the arrangement of practice, application, testing and evaluation, and encouraging students to create new knowledge (Moore, 1997). Without structure, etutors may not achieve learning outcomes. It is also noteworthy to point out that there is a relationship between dialogue, structure, and instruction. In most cases, media with no dialogue is highly structured but does not encourage analytical and critical development in learners. The absence of analytical and critical skills development leads to less application and evaluation. In contrast, media with dialogue and more structure encourages analytical and critical development as well as application and evaluation. I have developed structured etutorials that consider the need for the 200 learners I etutor to be critical, and motivated to create new knowledge.


Etutoring in an ODeL environment requires constant evaluation of knowledge and skills. The MOOC at UNISA grounds facilitation in literature and provides etutors with an opportunity to align their activities with those of educators. From my experience, knowledge of web-based learning environments and three generations of pedagogy is crucial for quality facilitation in ODeL universities. While my pedagogical approach to etutoring draws from my philosophy of care, it appears that social learning on connected platforms is the future of etutoring. Reskilling etutors is crucial to bridge the gap between educators and learners in ODeL environments. 


Anderson, T and Dron, J. 2011. ‘Three Generations of Distance Education Pedagogy’, 
Internal Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12(3): 80-97.

Chetty, D & Wright, R. 2021. BTODEL1 Basics of E-Tutoring: Applying Basic 
Pedagogical Skills in an ODeL Environment. Pretoria: University of South Africa.

Graham, C.R. 2013. Emerging practice and research in blended learning. In: Moore, 
M.G (ed.), Handbook of distance education. London: Routledge.

Moore, M.G. 1997. Theory of transactional distance. In: Keegan, D. (Ed.). Theoretical 
Principles of Distance Education. Routledge: 22-38.

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