Tutoring is at the heart of every university teaching and learning process designed to improve students’ success rates and to enable students to achieve their learning goals. As academics are rushed into moving their courses online and to adjust to different forms of teaching, majority of them may have not thought about the role of online tutoring to actively engage students in meaningful learning to promote academic success. The majority of tutors may expect online tutoring to be akin to the face-to-face environment, when actually the two modalities are quite different. The online space is virtual, often facilitated via the institutional Learning Management System (LMS), emails and other media platforms whereas face-to-face tutoring offers a more tangible physical social environment.

In an online learning environment, students need more time and support from tutors than when they were engaging in face-to-face interactions. This is especially important for first year students as engaging in an online environment entails adjusting to new forms of learning which require self-directed learning capabilities and familiarity with the use of different technological tools.  However, it is important to note that although the tutoring is facilitated in different mode of delivery both modalities still have to achieve the same intended learning outcomes as set out by a particular course. The question is, what kind of support do students need in the virtual space when compared to the face to face environment?  The kind of support that tutors could provide to students is threefold namely: academic related support, technological related support and psycho-social related support.

Academic related support is the most important and necessary support that tutors should provide to students and entails engagement with course content, concepts and skills. This may entail clarifying concepts, referring students to relevant resources, clarifying assessments, engaging students in weekly formative assessment tasks to facilitate understanding and providing feedback. This may also include conducting weekly synchronous tutor sessions through various online conferencing platforms although these should be considered as last resort and voluntary for students who need support beyond asynchronous interactions. Technological related support may entail assisting students with tool navigation in the institutional LMS or any being able to work with the relevant online learning tools. This can include clarifying how to submit assignments, how to participate in discussion forums, how to download resources, how to setup student email or even how to join a webinar. These digital skills cannot be underestimated considering the socio-economic status for majority of students in South Africa that renders most of these technological tools as foreign.

The Psycho-social aspect is concerned with students’ wellbeing during this period. The fear of COVID-19 may be stressful and coupled with a new way of learning may certainly increase students’ anxiety.  Students will need to know that there is someone they can rely on if they are stressed and anxious as this is new territory for them and the lecturer may not be able to offer that kind of support to all students. A designated tutor will be able to offer that support as they work with a small group of students.  Social media platforms, such as WhatsApp can be valuable to support students socially and emotionally and can also assist in pacing students, reminding them about due dates and what will be covered in a particular week. In conclusion, tutors have a crucial role to play during this difficult time as students will need all the necessary support and it will be difficult for the lecturers to reach all the students considering the varied low tech modes of delivery and as well as being part of a large class. Academic development practitioners and Counselling practitioners can offer various online engagement on pedagogies, educational technology and student well-being to ensure that tutors are adequately prepared as partners in teaching to support students.