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Structure, Authority, and other Noncepts

Ross Priory, Scotland (no sign of ghosts as yet).
Hamish McLeod and Jen Ross are the next presenters (full paper here). They explore metaphors for being an online tutor, and begin with a brief quote from Wikipedia on online tutoring, which presents a very matter-of-fact take on the issue that may not quite plumb the full depths of the question. The potential move of teachers from 'sage on the stage' to 'guide on the side' has been much highlighted, of course, but also doesn't quite cover this issue; traditional positions of the teacher are now much criticised, but exactly what role might come to replace them (if such replacement does take place) isn't very clear at this point.

Imbalance, destabilisation, disorientation are important aspects of what teachers need to do, Hamish suggests. (Technology from the many spaces of Web2.0 to the standard online learning environments also provides a fair share of destabilising influences, of course.) Additionally, there is also a parallel imperative for tutors not to get in the way of the learner, and not to prematurely close students' interpretative processes, too. The tutor may need to be a watchful but quiet presence helping students to pass through the dangerous liminal zones and places.

A character which might help in this context is that of the jester - an irreverent and humorous presence, attracting attention and interest to important questions in online learning spaces from wikis to Second Life by employing meaningfully provocative positions. But does courting attention also equate to danger and discomfort as it departs from the role of the teacher which many students may still expect, and could be seen to encourage dissent for the sake of dissent. The role here is them perhaps more that of the gentle clown, creating a humorous atmosphere that encourages participation, creativity, and exploration.

The related figure of the fool also signals openness, a kind of secure not-knowing - traditional teacherly positions instead could be seen to model positions of security and safety in certain knowledge which precludes exploration outside of such areas, which is a problem. The fool is grounded and embodied in spite of their lack of knowledge, and therefore provides others with an opportunity to reevaluate their own perspectives. Online tutors could create a felt presence and do their work not so much through the knowledge they bring, but the presence they offer. Silences and spaces, which such tutors can provide, can be a gift to online learners which enables them to carry out their own learning.

Further, the figure of the trickster may help - tricksters are mischievous, difficult, and challenging, and allow thinking about liminality, states of transition and change, and thresholds to new spaces. They change shapes and prefer chaos to order, perhaps symbolising the eternally unfinished nature of knowledge in most disciplines.

Overall, then, what can be done in online context to act in such ways as a tutor? Can such disruption be consciously pursued, and is this a sensible tutoring strategy? What is the appropriate level of disruption, discomfort, and disorientation for any given online tutoring context, and how can we tell?

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