How effective is online tutoring?

Updated: Oct 8

Joe Hytner, the Founding Director of Titanium Tutors, considers the advantages of online tuition, as well as the disadvantages.


"To Skype or not to Skype?" — that is the question posed by so many of our clients, and even some of our tutors. The market for online teaching is undoubtedly growing, but why is it so popular, and does that mean it's right for you?


Whether you're a client weighing up the benefits of online lessons, or you're looking to become an online tutor, here are the key points to consider:


Arguments FOR online tutoring


1: The perfect tutor for a student might not live nearby


This is probably the number one reason (other than COVID) why more and more clients are starting to consider online tutors.


Online tutoring literally opens up the whole world when it comes to choosing a tutor. Customers like having choices when they are stumping up the money for supplementary education, and they can often have complex requirements. When very specific experience is needed (e.g. if a client wants the tutor to have teaching experience of a particular exam board, or to have studied at a particular university), it makes sense to open up the job to a wider number of candidates.


For clients looking for specialist knowledge or experience, the alternative to online tuition is hoping that someone with the relevant profile lives nearby. Even if there are one or two such people, will they meet the other basic requirements a client might have, such as having matching availability? And will it give the private tutoring agency much choice when it comes to finding someone who is the right personality fit for the student, which is after all one of the key reasons why clients come to a tuition agency?


2: Added flexibility with lesson scheduling


Because there is no travelling time involved, tutors will often have more choices of lesson times to offer clients as they are not constrained by the location of their previous or next student. Some tutors may even offer discounts for online lessons in recognition of their reduced travelling costs and time (this is, however, at the discretion of the individual tutor).


It is more likely that tutors will be amenable to scheduling lessons spontaneously or at short notice, as they may already be at home when the request comes in. In some cases tutors may also offer more favourable cancellation terms for online lessons, especially if they have other online students who may be able to take the cancelled slot at short notice — this is something which could be worth asking the tutor about before teaching commences.


3: Excellent lesson notes


A common feature of face-to-face lessons (and yes, I include my own Latin lessons here) is notes scribbled in a hurry which aren't particularly nicely laid out and might be tricky to revise from.


When I teach face-to-face, I try my best to keep notes clean and in one consistent place such as a notebook, but it's tricky! Often students lose or forget their notebook, so lesson notes end up on individual pieces of paper which can easily be misplaced or separated from each other.


I am also aware of the time ticking past, and the fact that I am principally being engaged to teach the student: if too much time and attention is devoted to making the notes look pretty, I might lose the concentration of the student or devote more lesson time/attention to the notes than I do to my student. Ultimately, presentation takes more of a hit than I'd ideally like.


This is a much smaller concern in my online lessons, because thanks to the wonders of the internet and applications such as Google Docs and online whiteboards, I can produce much more presentable notes in a fraction of the time it would take by handwriting. I therefore don't have to make the same compromises with notes which I would usually make in a face-to-face lesson.


Take, for example, the process of drawing a table (as a Latin tutor, I have to do this very often because there are all manner of declensions and conjugations!). In person, I might not feel I could justify the time to start writing the word endings in different colours to the word stems, and getting a ruler out to draw the borders, especially if I have a lot of material to get through.


But wouldn't it be much nicer for the student, especially if they're a visual learner, to be able to look back at what the tutor has produced in the lesson and for it to look really clear and presentable? Yes, they may have similar notes in their school books, but your way of presenting the information will often be different, and their memory and understanding of the topic will often be linked to the learning in your specific lesson. In that case, revising from your notes might be the student's preferred option.


4: Accessibility and portability of lesson notes


It's not just the look and speed of notes that counts: it's also the student's (and tutor's) ability to access those notes later.


If you're a tutor or a parent, you will know full well how easy it is for a child to lose their notes, or to have them in the wrong place at the wrong time. But when the notes are stored in a folder somewhere online, they can be accessed anywhere in the world at any time, and they can be backed up instantly (e.g. by emailing a copy to yourself and/or the parents). As a tutor, it's also great to be able to look back at the student's notes whenever and wherever you like, so you can quickly see what you've recently covered and plan your next lesson accordingly.


For example, in my own lessons, when students forget a piece of Latin vocab, I type that into the Google Doc (just as I would scribble it on a piece of paper in the lesson), and then it's a breeze to test them on those words the next week without having to search for that bit of paper. This way, both the student and I have 24/7 access to the vocab list(s), so we can easily keep track, and we only delete a word once it's definitely learned!


5: A medium that speaks to a modern generation


Like it or not, many students nowadays are more comfortable or get more enjoyment from doing things on a computer rather than writing things with pen and paper. So if you want the students themselves to engage with the note-taking process (which is obviously more beneficial then them sitting passively the whole time, watching you writing/typing), you might find that they are more willing to do so when they can do so on a computer. There are plenty of frustrations when it comes to learning, so if writing feels cumbersome to the student, why wouldn't you remove that additional burden and put more focus on the lesson content itself?


It may be sad to some, but today's students are not going to have to write lots of handwritten letters in their later-life careers, but they will have to use technology extensively, so why not embrace that? With Google Docs, both you and the student can get stuck in and work on the same document simultaneously, so you are both actively involved in the process: imagine both trying to write on the same piece of paper simultaneously!


6: Screen sharing


With more and more educational resources being available on the internet, it makes sense that you might sometimes want to dip in and out of the occasional website, online quiz, YouTube video, etc., to make things more interactive and varied. You can do that in person on a computer, but if you're not expecting to be using that resource ahead of time, you either have to waste time firing up the computer or scrap the idea and plough on without the computer. But in an online lesson, you already have everything at your finger tips and ready to go, allowing for more spontaneity in your teaching. Simply share your screen with the student (or vice versa), and you can both see the same resource simultaneously.


7: Safety and comfort


All good tutoring agencies DBS check their tutors and carry out various other teaching checks. However, some parents may appreciate the added peace of mind of knowing that the tutor isn't physically present.


Moreover, certain students can get shy or nervous in a one-to-one learning environment, and may feel more at ease with someone who is remote. Some families may find that it is also physically more comfortable for the student to sit at a well-designed ergonomic workstation than the space in their home that would be used for face-to-face lessons.


And of course, in the current coronavirus pandemic, online tutoring is the only risk-free option.



Arguments AGAINST online tutoring


1: How do I know the student won't get distracted?


It's true that an online lesson requires the student to be trusted to engage the whole time in the lesson and not to be distracted by emails popping in, other onscreen notifications or even social media. If the student is a rebellious child who is likely to mess about, then maybe online teaching isn't the best option for them and they would be better off with someone face-to-face who can keep a closer eye on them!


It's usually pretty obvious if a student isn't concentrating in any type of teaching, and all good tutors should be constantly asking students questions to confirm their understanding and engagement with the material. It is therefore unlikely that a student would be able to keep up an ongoing pretence of engaging in the lesson whilst really doing something else — but if you think your child would be inclined to do this, in-person lessons may better suit your needs.


Don't forget that on-screen notifications can be turned off. It is good practice for both the student and the tutor to do this before each lesson begins.


2: Can you really get the same rapport with a person online as you would face-to-face?


My own feeling is "not exactly the same", but you'd nonetheless be surprised how good a rapport you can establish with a person via Skype, Zoom or Teams! Of course it's not identical to interacting with someone face-to-face, but just like with a phone call you still get a really good sense of someone's personality.


A good teacher's personality will naturally shine through, and as long as they're looking out for the same signs of engagement in the student that they would in a face-to-face lesson, they'll be able to judge the student's mood and concentration and adapt their lesson accordingly.


3: Is my internet connection good enough for it?


This is definitely a deal-breaker. Online teaching is NOT a good idea if one or both parties has a slow or unreliable internet connection.


Nowadays the majority of homes have high-speed connections, which are more than capable of supporting a video call with minimal interruption — but this is not always the case, so check your connection before you commit (either as the student or the tutor) to online lessons.


With a good connection on both sides, the worst case scenario is the occasional dropped call, and it's easy enough to call each other straight back.


4: What if I'm not great with computers?


If the tutor or student is uncomfortable with using computers or doesn't possess the relevant tech skills, then caution is recommended and face-to-face tuition will probably be a better option. However, these days it's fairly uncommon for students or tutors not to have the technical knowledge required to engage in a productive virtual lesson.


An online lesson only involves relatively simple tech tasks such as installing a webcam / microphone (if you don't have one already), creating accounts with Skype and Google Docs (or whichever providers you prefer), and knowing which menu to go to when you wish to share screens. It's not rocket science, and as long as one of the two parties is confident with tech they can always guide the other person.


In conclusion


I think online tutoring is very effective, and I can see why it's gaining in popularity. It's not right for everybody, and obviously it works better when the tutor and student are comfortable using technology and have some basic tech skills — but it does have some incredible advantages which face-to-face tuition will never be able to offer.


Overall, I would be sad if all of my lessons moved online because I enjoy the variety of tutoring both kinds of lessons, but I do think in most cases my teaching is more efficient and effective online!


If you are interested in finding out more about online tuition via Skype, Zoom, Teams or other platforms, then feel free to get in touch.


Blog Post Crafted by Joe


Subjects Taught: Latin, Ancient Greek


Background: Joe Hytner owns and runs Titanium Tutors, managing our assessors and staff. Joe graduated from King’s College, Cambridge in 2009 with a degree in Classics and then trained as a teacher at Queens’ College, Cambridge, graduating in 2010. Whilst setting up Titanium Tutors he taught Latin on a part-time basis in three schools — Parkside Federation, Impington Village College and South Lee School (where he started up the Latin department from scratch). Joe has also taught Latin and Ancient Greek to numerous Cambridge University undergraduates.


Fun Fact: Joe has read Harry Potter in Latin from cover to cover.

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