I’ve tutored 100+ students for standardized exams and 10/12 students into NYC’s Specialized HSs. This is what I use for my online tutoring sessions:
- Explain Everything Whiteboard, for realtime collaboration
- iPad Pro (10.5-inch 2017), as my drawing tablet
- Apple Pencil (1st generation), as my stylus of choice
- Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, for crisp audio
- Minimum of 10 Mbps stable internet, for a lag-free experience
- FaceTime Audio, as my preferred voice app
- Distraction free environment, for productive sessions
Good audio, minimal background noise, and a stress-free environment. Those are the most important factors for a productive tutoring session. Everything else is secondary.
Many people dismiss online tutoring because most people use the wrong tools. They think it’s all about video calls and webcam positioning. My setup is all about online whiteboards and good quality audio.
This post is about each of the items listed above and why I use them. By the end of this post, you will be able to make more informed decisions about your setup.
Outline of a typical online tutoring session:
First, a student/client schedules an appointment. Sometime before our session, they email or text me pictures of the questions they’d like to review.
At the time of our session, I share a link or code to join me on an Explain Everything online whiteboard. I put up a question on the board and explain my thought process as I solve it. I have them observe and ask me questions when they need more clarification. Sometimes I have them retry a question while I give them feedback.
We repeat this process until we’ve gone through all the questions for the session.
I instruct my students to take screenshots after I go through each question. If requested, I also record the session for them to watch on their own time.
I recently had a session where I didn’t pick up my stylus a single time. My student was solving questions on the board while I was giving her feedback. I could have conducted that session with nothing but my iPhone and some headphones. It turned out to be one of our most productive sessions even though I wasn’t “making the most of my tools”.
Many of my sessions are like a lecture. I solve various questions while I share my thinking out loud. For the most part, students observe and ask me questions every now and then. For most sessions, they could get away with nothing but a compatible smartphone.
I’ve tried a bunch of real-time collaboration tools since I began tutoring online 3 years ago. For the past 1.5 years, I’ve been using the Explain Everything app. It is the absolute best.
It’s an interactive virtual whiteboard with real-time collaboration. It’s like Google Docs, but with drawing tools.
It has a wide variety of well-thought-out features for all sorts of tutoring scenarios. It’s great for geometry lessons, editing essays, and discussing passages.
I’ve been using it for almost 2 years and I’m still discovering new features that make my lessons more engaging. The app has a clean interface, built-in voice chat, and low-latency collaboration.
It is best to use the app with an iPad or some other touchscreen tablet. There is also a browser version if you’d rather connect a use a dedicated drawing tablet and stylus. You can also use it to follow along without interacting. It might not be ideal, but sometimes paying attention and asking questions is all my students need to do.
Pencil and paper is best, but an Apple Pencil and iPad come close.
It’s fine to use 3rd party styluses, but they aren’t great. Some of my students use them without too many problems. And most of them have better handwriting than me, despite my fancy Pencil.
I use an Apple Pencil because I use my iPad for all my writing. I enjoy using them so much that I’ve gone 100% paperless. I use them for all my notes, sketches, and journaling. I spent the past year scanning 99% of all of my documents into the cloud. Beside’s a few official documents, everything is digital.
I have terrible handwriting and it’s even worse with 3rd party styluses. For me, there is no alternative. I’ve been using it for 3 years without any complaints. And for the price of about 10 Chipotle Bowls, it has definitely been worth it.
In 2017, I decided I needed to offer online tutoring. The “obvious” solution was using video calls. But, after some meditation, I concluded that “collaborative drawing” would be more reliable. That and voice calls. You could make the argument that “collaboration and talking” is the core of all tutoring.
Good quality video calls need stable and fast internet connections on each end. The issue is that when you’re traveling you can’t have that guarantee. I needed a solution that could work with even the worst internet connections. At the very least it needed to be something that could work over slow, but stable, mobile data.
After I confirmed that online whiteboards actually existed, I looked into drawing tools. I found USB drawing tablets and styluses for my MacBook on Amazon. After some more meditation, I had to drop that idea as well. When I have online sessions, the last thing I want to do is diagnose driver issues.
I needed something more reliable. Something that I could recommend to my clients. I needed a standalone solution without too many moving pieces.
When I learned about the Apple Pencil, it all became clear.
In 2017, only the iPad Pros supported the Pencil so I had to buy a $1000+ model that I wouldn’t recommend today. I justified it as a worthwhile business expense. I told myself that legibility and reliability were critical if I wanted to pitch online tutoring.
A quick note on reliability:
My iPad is 3 years old and it’s as reliable as the day I got it. And thanks to software updates, it’s actually faster. Any “comparable” Android device from 2017 would have stopped getting updates by now.
Most app developers focus on Apple devices. That means I don’t have to worry about whether my favorite apps will continue to support the device I’m using. There’s a price for fewer headaches, and as a business expense it was a no-brainer. As an “investment” it has paid for itself many times over.
Recommending to clients:
I figured most of my students and clients already had iPads. At the very least, I was sure they’d be open to buying an iPad and a stylus to avoid gaps in our tutoring schedules.
I recommend any iPad that is compatible with the Apple Pencil. Other styluses can be fine, but Apple’s stylus is the closest to using a pencil on paper. These days, even the cheapest iPads of Apple’s current lineup support the Apple Pencil.
Alternative styluses, your finger, and funny client stories:
Yep- that’s right, you could use your finger… But please don’t. It hurts to watch.
One of my current students has been using a 3rd party stylus- I wasn’t able to convince her parents on the Apple Pencil. She actually has better handwriting with her Logitech Crayon than I do with my fancy Pencil. But one thing to note is that it isn’t as reliable. There have been a few times where her stylus stopped working in the middle of our sessions.
A couple of years ago I had a student who was using her iPhone instead of her iPad because it was more convenient for her. She was writing out her work using her fingers. Her handwriting was somehow legible. I only found out a few sessions later when I questioned her about her horrible handwriting.
I was on the call while her mom gave her a lecture about making the most of our time.
In our particular case, it was actually fine (most of the time) because I was usually lecturing. It was more productive for her to follow along and ask questions while I sped through problems. Sidenote: She got into Brooklyn Tech with only a few points under the Stuyvesant cutoff score.
Most of the time we use either FaceTime or the built-in voice chat in the Explain Everything app. If we’re using FaceTime, I recommend using it on a separate device. This allows our iPads to use fewer resources. It can also come in handy if the whiteboard app becomes unresponsive. It doesn’t happen too often- but when it does, it helps us get back on track.
Pretty much all internet-based voice calls are better than a standard phone call. But, there are a few scenarios where I may use different voice apps.
The session is being recorded:
The Explain Everything app has a premium recording feature. It can capture everything on the board and also your voice, but only if you’re speaking through the app.
A student doesn’t have FaceTime:
Luckily for me, all my students have iPhones or access to FaceTime. If they didn’t I’d use the built-in voice chat on Explain Everything or something like Facebook Messenger.
Bad internet connection:
I would move the conversation over to a normal phone call. The voice quality is a big step down, but it usually helps free up bandwidth for the Explain Everything app.
If the connection were super bad, I’d tutor the student over the phone. This is assuming the session is too important to reschedule. The difference in sound quality is noticeable, but it’s a solid backup. Depending on the purpose of the session, it could be completely fine.
I’ve had some voice only sessions. We discussed essay topics, brainstormed, and went over test-taking strategies.
I use Bose 700 headphones for many reasons. They have high-quality built-in microphones and they are wireless. Those are the top reasons why I like them for tutoring. Sometimes I record my sessions which is when a decent microphone is critical. I also like knowing that my voice always sounds clear whenever I’m on a call.
They sound better than most in-ear headphones and they have some of the best noise-canceling on the market. Noise-canceling is important to me. They’re amazing on airplanes and when I’m commuting on the Subway. I use them for everything- even the gym despite their bulkiness.
I recommend avoiding the built-in microphones in tablets and phones. They’re fine in a pinch, but they tend to pick up a bunch of background noise. Try to use what you already have until you feel like they are getting in the way. Sometimes it’s because the microphone is bad, or they aren’t loud enough. For some students, a wireless solution might make all the difference.
Most headphones with built-in microphones are fine. It is far more critical that you are in a quiet environment during tutoring sessions.
When I first started tutoring online, I already had a pair of first-generation AirPods. The built-in microphones were fine and I used them until the speakers wore out.
I also used the earbuds that come with Apple devices. The wire always got in the way of writing so I only used them as a backup. Anything that gets in the way is a distraction. That includes a wire dangling from your head. The only time I use a wired solution is when I’ve forgotten to charge my headphones.
I use the Bose 700s because the built-in microphones are some of the best on the market. They can cancel out all sorts of background noise such as fans, ACs, and even some chatter. Most of my business happens over voice/phone calls so I like to make sure my voice is as clear as possible.
I always try to have a backup pair of headphones nearby. In a pinch, I’ve used the built-in microphones on my iPad or iPhone. One of my students uses their standard Apple EarPods. They are usually in a quiet room so it’s more than good enough.
Most of my sessions are like a lecture where I do most of the talking. And so, it doesn’t matter too much if a student’s voice isn’t as clear as mine.
Because I don’t rely on video calls, my sessions don’t need the fastest internet connections. The Explain Everything app, for the most part, only transmits line strokes and images. It’s not a video feed and voice calls (VOIP) don’t use too much bandwidth either.
You should note that there are diminishing returns with internet speeds. Try a session with what you currently have. The Explain Everything and FaceTime apps don’t use much bandwidth so you shouldn’t worry too much.
10 Mbs up/down is most likely good enough. For reference, that’s the speed of a DSL connection. Nowadays people have much faster internet on their phones. You can check your online speeds by googling “speed test”.
I’m sure something slower could also work. It would take a bit longer for questions to upload onto the board, but it could definitely work. What matters most is that the connection is stable.
If your WiFi is slow, you can try to connect to the router with an ethernet cable. You can buy an adapter to connect an ethernet cable to tablets and computers.
Some worst-case solutions:
I’ve used my phone as a hotspot a few times when my WiFi was unreliable. The sessions went well, even though it wasn’t optimal. I’ve even used a 3G connection in the middle of nowhere in Iceland without any major issues. The call dropped once, which led to a few minutes of downtime.
Download speeds are often faster than upload speeds. When one person has a slow connection, the other person should upload the questions. This lets the slower connection download the whiteboard data faster than they could upload it.
In a worst-case scenario, I would conduct the session over a normal phone call.
Good tutoring is a conversation about specific problems and how to solve them. Thus, a good tutoring session can only be had in an environment free of distractions. And there are a couple types of distractions that concern me the most.
Bad microphones, bad audio, and background noise:
Hearing static in the background is one of the biggest potential distractions. I try to do my part with good quality headphones because I usually do most of the speaking. I recommend students use anything but the built-in microphones on their tablets or phones. Every once in awhile one of us has to use a backup solution which is fine as long as it doesn’t happen too often.
I also recommend closing the door during sessions.
Yep, that’s right. Parents can be a big distraction. I don’t like parents looking over a student’s shoulder.
Most students are shy about making mistakes and asking questions. They are especially shy when it’s in front of their parents. They don’t want to seem dumb! And that defeats the whole purpose of tutoring. I want students to ask the “dumb” question that they would otherwise keep to themselves.
I like my students to be comfortable making mistakes during our sessions. By discussing them, students can avoid similar mistakes in the future.
I understand that parents must be curious about what’s going on during our tutoring sessions. They’re the ones paying after all! And so, I recommend that they request recorded sessions. That’s a big perk of online sessions, so they might as well use it.
Better equipment will always result in a better experience. But, the difference may be negligible. So use some judgment and try to use what you already have first. You don’t need the best headphones, or the fastest internet, or any of the latest devices. My iPad is 3 years old and I’m not in any rush to upgrade.
When I first started tutoring online I was using a different whiteboard app. It was slow, buggy, and all-around terrible compared to what I’m using now. But it was still fine.
In the end, tutoring is all about discussing problems and examining what a student has tried so far. Add in a few hints about what the question is asking for and a student can often solve the rest on their own.
I like to joke that as long as I know which problems a student wants to review, I could tutor them from a (quiet) phone booth.