Time to look on the bright side – some surprising benefits of tutoring online

In the middle of May 2020, exactly one year ago, I was having a conversation online with a friend who is also a tutor. I was finding the expectation to travel to pupils’ houses to be extremely draining and wondered if she had ever tried giving online lessons, since she wasn’t working in a school and had a lot more private tuition clients than me.

She was pretty apathetic about the idea. Get them to come to you, she said – saves you travelling and no worries about technology going wrong. I wasn’t entirely convinced, and tried to weigh up the pros and cons of sitting in endless traffic jams versus having to constantly keep the downstairs of my house tidy. 

Over time, I did get about half of my pupils to come to my house and it was great to have a consistent base to work from, with all the right resources and stationery always on hand. But there were still plenty of pupils whose busy schedules meant that they would prefer to pay extra for me to visit them.

Ten months later…

Fast forward to the middle of March, 2020. My school hadn’t quite closed yet, but I was already self-isolating because I had a dry cough (most likely brought about by hayfever). I had nine hours of tuition booked in one week, with lots of pupils trying to book in lessons before the Easter holiday. I offered them reduced rates for switching to online lessons, but they all decided they would wait it out. Meanwhile, my tutor friend and I practised using Zoom with each other. We agreed it was fairly awkward, but would hopefully keep us going until normal business resumed. I felt pretty doubtful about a transition to tutoring online. 

Closed sign
The mother of invention

Things, as they say, ‘escalated quickly’. Since the day of that first apathetic Zoom practice, I have managed to rack up approximately 100 hours of online teaching and tutoring. Although it has definitely not been without its challenges, the overall experience has been a lot more positive than I thought. As is so often the case when we find ourselves forced to step outside our comfort zones and habitual working patterns, I have come to see a lot of advantages that I’d never considered before.

The home advantage

The thing about travelling to other people’s homes – whether it is the tutor or the tutee that travels – is that they are other people’s homes. The ‘home advantage’ is well documented in sports, but I’d never really stopped to think about it in regards to tutoring. From my point of view, I really appreciate having as much tea, coffee and water on hand as I can drink (and I can drink a lot). There is no awkwardness of having to ask for a drink, take my own drink, or navigate the ultimate British taboo of needing the bathroom in an unfamiliar home. 

This mug does not lie.

I’ve already mentioned the advantage I found of having all my resources – textbooks, revision guides, old exam papers and various other teaching aids I’ve hoarded over the last decade – on hand and not having to think about which books to take to which house. Now there is the added advantage that my pupil has all of their notes and exercise books to hand as well. I can quickly check what they mean about a question they struggled with, or when they give me a topic heading that could have multiple meanings.

Variety of resources

As a classroom teacher, I’m a big embracer of technology where I think it can enhance learning. In science, the use of videos, diagrams and simulations really can be a game changer for pupils’ understanding. But when travelling to pupils’ houses, I rarely made use of these as the hassle of taking an iPad and setting up a mobile hotspot just didn’t seem worth it for an hour’s session. Even when they came to me, it was always somewhat uncomfortable both trying to hunch over the same small screen. Which brings me to another point which I would never have thought of…

molecular models
I am very glad I don’t have to carry these in my handbag any more
Ergonomic advantages

Screens are bad, we all know that. Hunching over phones and tablets is ruining our musculoskeletal health and our eyesight. As a long term sufferer of neck and shoulder pain, I was not looking forward to increased laptop use. However, I would have to say that for tutoring via my laptop rather than driving to a pupil’s house and delivering a session face to face, my incidences of pain have actually improved.

Part of this is no doubt the lack of commuting, and perhaps the fact that I’ve tried to replace the time I would have been driving with walks, runs or other exercise to make up for the vastly increased time sitting down during the day (this is something that most classroom teachers rarely do). But the other factor is that I can sit up straight and look directly at my screen (which is raised to eye level) while going through material with my pupil. We don’t need to hunch over the same piece of A4 paper or small screen. 

I no longer have to adopt an awkward 90 degree angle at the edge of a desk or dining table in order that I can see my pupil and see the same thing they see, and this means my neck doesn’t have to constantly turn one way. What’s more, I can make use of the cursor, highlighting tools or spotlights to help reinforce exactly which area of the material they should be focusing on – especially helpful if they feel overwhelmed by a difficult calculation, for example.

Interaction and continuity

In the past, this is how a typical tuition session might go – especially with a slightly more disorganised or unmotivated pupil:

  • Turn up to pupil’s house. They tell me a topic they need help with.
  • We work through some theory and questions. Much of this takes place on whiteboards, because many pupils prefer this lower stakes method of organising their thoughts – it’s easier to erase mistakes, and pupils learn best when they feel free to make mistakes.
  • At the end of the session, we arrange another date and time.

For an online session, there are small but significant changes that ensure more continuity:

  • I email a link with the time and date for our next session. Rather than being straight after the previous session, this is usually a day or two before the new session, and I ask if there is anything in particular they want to go over. The student gets a little reminder to start thinking about what they need to look at most.
  • During the session, we still write. I write on a digital whiteboard, and the student writes on their own paper. At first I was worried about the impact of not being able to see a pupil’s answer while they were writing, but this turned into an unexpected advantage – now the pupil has to speak more when tackling questions. My online sessions feel much more like we’re using dual coding, with lots of different ways to reinforce learning. 
  • At the end of the session, we agree another date and time as usual. The student then receives an email of all the work we covered, including my notes and my records of their written answers with my feedback on top. If the student doesn’t look at this material immediately, they are certainly likely to do so five days later when I send the next link – an ideal length of time to go back over what we did in that session.
Hopes for the future

Don’t get me wrong, there are many, many things that I dearly want to get back to. Eating out, socialising, random conversations with colleagues while queuing for the coffee machine. I want to be back in a classroom again – teaching large groups of pupils via video is excruciating. But when it comes to one to one teaching sessions, I hope that this enforced period of adapting our habits makes pupils and parents more receptive to the advantages that the online environment can offer.

Claire Costello-Kelly

Claire Costello-Kelly

Related Post