Good Online Tutoring Mimics Offline Tutoring

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There is no lack of concern about the effects that technology is having on school-age kids (see The Greatest Generation (of Networkers). Among the various problems is that students seem to have very short attention spans, and this should come as no surprise - they are tethered to data delivery devices as a way of life. 

For 10 years I earned a full time living as a private tutor, going to the homes of high school and college students to help with math and science. I'd be hard pressed to come up with a single high school student I have ever tutored who would think to open a math or science textbook to try to learn something, even with the book within arms reach. It is disturbing to realize that students now feel if it can't be found within seconds at the click of a mouse, it's not worth the effort. Online tutoring is part of the problem.

Most online tutoring services make tutors available on a stand-by basis, any hour of the day or night. Such "on-demand" services sound great on the surface, but it turns out that the very nature of instantaneous online tutoring creates ineffective and unsatisfying help sessions for students. The reason this type of service is widespread has to do with the fact that it fits so nicely into the current culture of "give-it-to-me-now-or-I'll-go-somewhere-else" that permeates the thinking of school-age kids. If technology has created the mindset, online tutoring has adapted itself to fulfill such needs.

Unfortunately, on-demand internet tutoring is effective only for students who have relatively simple questions about basic concepts and skills that can be answered quickly and easily by a large number of tutors. But then, this is not really tutoring, is it? For material that is somewhat more academically complex or subtle, or for students who need to learn an important skill or concept that may require some practice or thinking, instantaneous online tutoring normally fails to provide the necessary level of quality. If a student taking quantum physics wants to work with a tutor who has a Ph.D. in that subject, he won't find a tutor like that sitting by his computer waiting for a student to come along - the student will need to schedule that session in advance.

A highly productive tutoring session, where the student actually learns something deep and meaningful, requires this strange thing called an appointment. Effective online tutoring, like effective classroom teaching, can occur only when the student and instructor come to the session prepared. Before the session begins, students need an opportunity to upload materials that may include previous quizzes, tests, homework assignments, and review sheets. At the other end, the tutor should have the chance to review those materials and bring any additional items that might be useful. In a practical sense, this can happen only when appointments are made in advance. Ironically, then, effective and productive online sessions occur when the services that provide them support practices that mimic offline tutoring, something that disappoints students looking for a quick fix.

Students need to approach education with a little bit of forethought and seriousness, and there is no reason why online tutoring cannot play a useful role in helping to foster that kind of behavior. After all, this type of tutoring retains its great strengths - it can cost as little as one-tenth what private tutoring costs, it is as convenient as the nearest laptop, and it can be scheduled to suit the needs of even the most nocturnal students. When was the last time you tried to convince a private tutor to come to your dorm room at three o'clock in the morning?

We here at have a true desire to help students learn by breaking their superficial, impulsive educational habits.

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