Back in 2017, I was trying to come up with the best setup for online tutoring. This post is about my thought process and solution.
My first instinct was to look at the traditional methods of using video calls and screen sharing. I quickly realized that it wasn’t reliable enough. If either person had a bad internet connection the entire session could be ruined. So my first conclusion was to stop listening to conventional wisdom. I had to figure something out from scratch.
It sounds a little silly but I started “meditating” on the definition of tutoring and the actual problem that I was trying to solve. That’s what the rest of this post is going to be about: my meditations.
The following is based on notes from my journal.
What is tutoring?
The challenge was to figure out how to replace in-person tutoring with a remote solution. So my first task was to define what tutoring was and what it wasn’t. This would help me focus on the actual problem.
Tutoring is different from teaching, and it’s more than just prepping students for an exam.
At its core, all tutoring, for all subjects, is a conversation about a new way to look at a particular type of problem.
How I came up with this definition:
I first googled for a definition and when I couldn’t find something suitable, I tried to form my own definition of tutoring. I started thinking about all the times I was tutored and my approach to tutoring students. In particular, I tried to examine how I tutored students to deal with difficult math problems.
I tell my students that the trick is to remember that most questions can be solved in more than one way. And that difficult questions are only difficult until you’re able to look at them in a more intuitive way.
As an example, a topic I frequently discuss with new students is “operations with positive and negative numbers”. I like to introduce a bunch of different analogies until we find one that makes the most sense for them. Sometimes we look at it in terms of positive and negative electrical charges. Or savings and debt. Or perhaps even changes in elevation above and below sea level.
After we find an analogy that works, I have them work through a bunch of exercises. By the time they’re done, they have an intuitive grasp of the topic, and the analogy becomes unnecessary.
Why this definition was important:
Whenever we try to solve a problem with technology its important to first define what the problem is. In our case, it’s figuring out how to best replace in-person tutoring with online tutoring- so we need to define what tutoring ist.
Identifying the problem and using solid definitions can prevent our solutions from being over-engineered or over-kill. If the solutions are over-kill then they in turn become a new problem.
The right technology can support us and make us more engaged. And likewise, the wrong tools can get in the way and instead become a distraction.
So, back to the definition (simplified):
“tutoring is a conversation about a new way to look at a topic”
I started with the conversation bit.
Tutoring is a conversation. So good tutoring must be based on good conversation. Therefore, I needed to determine the qualities of a good conversation.
I figured the first requirement for having a good conversation is to be in an environment with minimal distractions.
I then thought about simpler requirements and figured that it’s important to be able to hear each other. It’s hard to have a good conversation when a train is passing by. So the 2nd atribute was good audio.
I then reflected on some of my best tutoring sessions and I determined that a good conversation should resemble a discussion rather than a lecture or debate. Everyone in the conversation should feel comfortable to interrupt and ask questions when they need more clarity. And they also need to be able to reach a consensus every time a new point is brought up.
I believed that these 3 attributes were crucial for a good conversation and good tutoring. Therefore, a solution for online tutoring would also need to incorporate these 3 attributes.
I now want to talk about how video calls can get in the way of a good conversation in terms of the first requirement. We’ll come back to the 2nd and 3rd requirments later when I dicuss my solution.
“environment with minimal distractions”
One of the most important requirements for a good conversation is a distraction-free environment. The problem with video calls is that they can draw our attention to video feeds and away from the conversation.
Most video calling apps display two video feeds. The biggest is the video of who you’re talking to- the window. And the second is a video of yourself- the mirror. Both of them are distracting in their own ways.
The window relies on fast internet
Video calls can be awesome. It’s amazing to talk to a person’s face from another side of the world, but it’s only true if everyone’s internet connection is solid.
If either person’s internet is slow the video feed is going to be choppy and pixelated. If it’s bad enough, it’s going to be a distraction no matter how much you try to ignore it. You won’t even want to look at the video and then you’re hoping that the other person doesn’t think you’re rude for not making eye-contact!
If you want a clear video feed you need fast internet. If you’re traveling, you can’t always predict what kind of internet you will have at your destination. Online tutoring is usually reserved for when someone is traveling. And when we’re traveling it’s often hard to predict what kind of internet we’ll have at our destinations.
Conclusion 1: Fast internet can’t always be guaranteed, therefore online tutoring cannot rely on video calls.
The mirror can make us self-conscious
I’m sure this is a pretty non-controversial thought.
When we’re on video chat we can become preoccupied with all sorts of superficial thoughts. We may start worrying about the impressions we’re making with our appearances. We might even get worried about the state of our rooms if it isn’t neat and clean. If our selfie cameras are blurry we might even be accused of being technologically impaired.
We don’t think about these things when we’re on a phone call, but over a video call, these issues can literally become the topic of conversation. Not likely for a tutoring session per se, but it’s definitely a potential source of some anxiety.
What I use instead
Now that I’ve laid out my grievances with (distracting) video calls I’d like to explain what I use and why it works.
My solution to online tutoring is based on the last 2 attributes of a good conversation: good audio, and a discussion like experience.
Instead of video calls and/or screen sharing, I like to use voice calling, a whiteboard app, and an iPad with an Apple Pencil. My online sessions are consistently fluid and they don’t feel like a discounted version of my in-person sessions.
I prefer internet-based Audio calls. I use phone calls as a back up because the former always sounds better with a minimally decent internet connection.
Good audio can be immersive. Bad audio, like bad video, make people want to get off the call as soon as possible.
When you’re having an interesting conversation over the phone it can go on for hours. I don’t think most people can say the same about video calls. Especially since you may have to stay in one place or look in a particular direction for an extended period of time. It can actually get physically tiring.
Audio calls require significantly less bandwidth than video calls. That alone makes them a much more efficient and reliable solution when you can’t guarantee high-speed internet. This is especially important when you consider the fact that we usually have online sessions when at least one of us is traveling.
“resemble a discussion”
The 3rd requirement of a good conversation is that it should feel like a discussion.
With tutoring, you’re discussing problems. And the best way to discuss a problem is to look at it together. When a teacher is explaining a new topic at school students look at what the teacher is writing on the board. Not necessarily the teacher.
The same applies for tutoring, and especially more so because very little of tutoring is actually teaching. It’s more about problem-solving. I spend about 20 percent of all my time with a student teaching them new material. The rest is spent on going over the homework problems I assign.
That is why I like to use an online whiteboard app on an iPad with an Apple Pencil. An online whiteboard, much like audio vs video, uses significantly less bandwidth than video calls or screen sharing. I’ve tried a bunch over the past few years, and I’m currently using the Explain Everything Whiteboard.
Online tutoring should feel like in-person tutoring in terms of working with pencil and paper. I’ve found that the best way to emulate that experience is to use an iPad and stylus. An iPad based solution lets us collaborate as if we have the same paper in front of us.
Why this works so much better:
Most of my in-person tutoring is demonstrating how I’d solve the problems they had trouble with. I encourage my students to interrupt me and ask questions at any time. And so the only thing I really care about is the legibility of my handwriting and whether they are paying attention to what I’m saying. Luckily, I don’t really have to worry about the latter.
When I look at their work I sometimes mark it up and point out where they could have been more efficient.
Sometimes I give them instructions and pointers while they solve a problem in front of me. In such cases, they’re the ones writing and I’m the one watching.
All I really need to see is their work and all they need to see is how I work. We also need to hear each other.
When I first looked into online tutoring solutions, I found that the conventional wisdom was to use webcams and/or screen sharing programs. The issue was that they were highly dependent upon fast internet connections.
I needed a solution that could work pretty much anywhere- especially when students and I were on vacation and didn’t have much control over the quality of our internet connections.
One of the biggest benefits of working remotely should be that you don’t have to get dressed for work. I don’t want to sacrifice my freedom to leave my hair unbrushed and work in a tank top. Especially not for the sake of pixelated eye contact. Next thing you know I’d have to charge an additional fee for a makeup stylist and faster internet just so you can see my pretty face.