Sunday, September 17, 2006

An Idiot’s Guide to Online Tutoring

So, there’s been a lot of talk about Online Tutoring in these columns and elsewhere. It seems to be catching up, though, in relative terms, it still is the newborn baby in the big world of Supplementary Education Services. At last estimates, it would be around 3-4% of the total pond! A newborn needs an initiation into the real world by way of letting the world know about its arrival. Here is, then, the beginner’s guide to the exciting world of online tutoring.

First things first. We all know tutoring, where a tutor comes to the student and provides a highly customized help. Or the student goes to a tutor to get the same in various forms like one-on-one, small group, or more rarely, a large group. One-on-one is the most personalized form. Small group is a way of clubbing “like” students to use the resources more efficiently at a lesser cost. Large group is typically used more for test prep, where the feeling of competition enhances performance. Online tutoring is possible in all of these forms, plus, a form where the student learns herself.

How does this happen? A student would need any standard computer with a decent internet connection (more the bandwidth, better the experience). To speak with the tutor, she should have a standard headset with a microphone. An additional, but optional, piece of hardware is a digitizer, or a digital pen. This helps the student to write in the free form instead of typing or using the mouse. This completes the set of hardware needed to get tutored online. In most homes, all but the digitizer is available. The digitizer might cost about $100, which is, at times, provided by the tutoring companies as a part of the starter pack at a cost.

Online tutoring services range from the very basic to highly advanced. In fact, if you have a Windows XP at both ends, you can do the basic form on the freely available msn messenger! The tutor simply uses his knowledge and the student’s books to provide help on a need-to-know basis. At the other end of the spectrum, there are systems developed to keep track of the student’s progress and the tutors are provided help in the form of well-researched content. The teachers can use the system to know exactly what to teach. The more advanced systems will enable tutors to use tools like graphing calculators and java applets to explain a concept. Web Safaris to take students to fabulous internet content including videos is another way to use the exploratory mode for an effective learning. One of the benefits that some companies might also provide is the “playback” option to review a past session. Some companies might also ask the student to do some work at home.

Once the student has signed up with a tutoring company, she usually needs to install proprietary software for the first time. The instructions to enter the online class are provided at appropriate times. Even though this description might seem a little overwhelming, the actual process is not any more complex than installing a computer game.

In my view, there are a lot of advantages that online tutoring offers when compared with the conventional face-to-face tutoring. Of course, today the bandwidth availability can enable the video as well, but most tutoring companies would rather maintain that distance between the tutor and the child. That brings me to the child safety advantage. The pedagogic advantage is the use of tools like animation and java applets, which are probably not even possible in a normal tutoring situation.

The flip side is the “remoteness” of the service. Some parents and children do not feel very comfortable with a faceless person tutoring them. To overcome this, good tutors would know how to build that rapport with the student, with constant engagement and encouragement. With the right people in the front, and a system to take care of the backend, online tutoring is the best that could happen to a child. Possibilities are immense, and so are the various options available. You just need to be careful about choosing the service.

Already students from far off places are using online tutoring to get the teaching quality not otherwise available to them. Just to use an oft-quoted statement by John Chambers, CEO of CISCO, “E-learning will make e-mail look like a rounding error.” Online tutoring is a step in the right direction.

-First Published in School Improvement Industry Weekly (

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