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Online tutoring, does it really work?

tutorhubI must admit I was skeptical; being called in to help with the launch of Tutorhub I had my doubts about whether anyone would really want help from someone on the other side of an internet connection without even seeing their face or hearing their voice. Would we really be able to answer in depth questions or do any real teaching? Indeed, when we started with Tutorhub it seemed to be a lot of one line answers such as ‘name five great rivers in the world’ or ‘how many prime numbers are there between 1 and 100?’ It seemed that realistically I wasn’t going to be getting any real tutoring work above and beyond answering student’s basic homework questions which really they could be working out for themselves.

Then, one day, someone came online asking for History help. They explained that they were about to sit a re-take in A-level History and needed some essay writing advice. Bingo. Exam technique for History A-level is something I specialise in and so I thought’d I’d give it a go.

In fact it turned out to be much easier than I thought. The website for Tutorhub works exactly like an instant chat that you would find on any messenger service or facebook. Now, I’ve had many a late night long and meaningful on facebook chat (yes, hands up I’m one of that generation) so why not a long and meaningful instant chat about the successes and failures of Roosevelt’s New Deal or 1920s prohibition? I am a very fast typer and my student didn’t seem to be doing too badly herself so we were off to a flying start.

We got into a weekly habit of her sending me her practice essays in advance of our lesson and then we’d go through it paragraph by paragraph online. It worked out quite nicely as I could quickly copy and paste bits of her essay into the browser and then make my comments after it. Her essays improved week on week and she ended up getting the grade she wanted in her exam (two marks off a A, which she was very pleased with).

Online tutoring has also provided me with a solution other logistical problems. Last academic year I found myself working in three cities: Bristol, Bath and Chippenham in order to get enough work to pay my bills. Not having a car, this meant I relied on public transport and I could probably recite to you the train timetable to and from Chippenham along with all of the safety announcements and security warnings off by heart. By the end of the year I felt like I’d spent more time travelling than I had teaching, I was very tired, and decided that the new academic year had to be different.

Skype was my saving grace. All of my students who are not within a cycle ride of me, I now teach over skype (a software package anyone can download from the internet which, providing both parties have a computer, an internet connection, a microphone and a webcam, means you can talk face to face for free). I arrange an initial meeting face to face (as long as they do not live too far away) and then we continue online if they feel that my teaching style is what they are looking for. It’s worked a treat for what I do which is mainly essay subjects as the teaching is conversational and doesn’t involve drawing diagrams or manipulating formulae. It’s pretty much the same as sitting in a room with your student, and as long as my students are happy to send me essays electronically rather than handwriting them (which tends to me the norm for most A level students anyway) it works perfectly.

For the tutor there are obvious advantages with this method of teaching. You don’t have to spend precious time and money travelling from student to student, you can work from home, and you can cast your net over a larger range of students (I even have one who is over 100 miles away from me). For parents there also advantages: you don’t have to take your child to and from the tutor’s house, or let a stranger into your house to teach your child. You can still sit in on the sessions to check if the quality of the teaching is what you would expect and you may find that they charge a lower rate as they do not have to cover any travel expenses. Also, you can have access to a larger range of tutors than those who are just in your local area which is particularly valuable if you do not live in or near a city.

I’m not sure it would work quite as well for teaching maths or anything that required detailed diagrams (although I have taught Economics over Skype, holding up hand drawn diagrams to the camera) and it might perhaps be a little daunting for younger students but overall I have found it a very convenient way to work.

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