• Vicky

Online or face-to-face... Discuss.

Updated: Oct 4, 2021

Parents often ask me how online tuition compares with face-to-face. There is often some reluctance in the beginning. I myself felt daunted at the thought and assumed that it would always be an inferior experience. When Covid struck, however, and the whole nation went into lockdown, I (like others) felt I had no choice but to venture into this vast unknown. It certainly did feel inferior. I continued to use the same resources and techniques, but remotely – I pointed the camera at my whiteboard, I used board markers and was stuck on the idea of giving my students paper handouts. Although I had already digitalised many of my favourite resources, for ease of printing out, it was a whole other ball game attempting to instruct a student that wasn’t actually sitting in front of me. Reading comprehensions, for example, involved a lot of scrolling backwards and forwards - whereas in real life I can turn the page very easily and direct students to the relevant section of the text, physically underline, highlight, make notes, and so on. It just seemed a whole lot more cumbersome to do the same thing in a remote way.


Fast forward 1 year – I have not only adapted but I have actually enhanced my teaching capabilities. Although there are some drawbacks, these are outweighed by the enormous benefits that online tutoring has to offer.

Firstly, there is the obvious benefit of convenience. Online tutoring cuts out travelling which is time-consuming and can be reflected in the hourly rate that the tutor charges. It’s difficult to know exactly how long the journey will take, so the tutor may arrive early or late, not to mention if they get stuck in traffic or the tube is down. Therefore, you have to allow a wider berth than the single hour slot. Then there’s the bother of feeling your house has to look reasonably presentable, time wasted in small talk and the awkwardness of whether or not to offer the tutor a cup of tea. Not so with online tuition. Lessons can be timed precisely and we can get straight down to the business of learning - with a chatty introduction of course, which usually involves how their day has been or what they’ve learnt at school. Furthermore, if you or the tutor are going to be away, you can carry on tutoring from any location without disrupting the routine. In my experience, students with a solid routine progress more quickly; it can be broken occasionally but not habitually.

But the real benefit of online teaching is the improved quality of the actual lessons. A tutor who is fully digitalised will have all the resources at their fingertips and is likely to have greater knowledge of the large number of educational apps that can enhance learning. I have created a huge bank of PowerPoint presentations and have discovered advanced features that enable me to put the point across in the most memorable way. Hyperlinks and images can be blended seamlessly into a pre-planned lesson. Online teaching platforms, such as Zoom, enable me to display these resources, while digital annotation tools allow students to contribute ideas and complete tasks in real-time. I may ask students to copy information from the digital whiteboard into their notebook, just like in school. I can also take a screenshot which students can either copy into their notebook after the lesson, print out or just store electronically for future reference.

As for homework, I use classroom management systems such as Google Classroom. Here, I can post comments and attach resources. Homework may be completed digitally and submitted. In the case of reading comprehensions and writing tasks, however, I actually prefer students to print out the test (if they have a printer) and complete their answers by hand. Testing is still very much a paper-based activity – therefore it is important that students practise in the same way that they will eventually be tested. Plus they won’t become overly-reliant on automatic spell/grammar checkers, nor will they be able to cut and paste when writing. In this way, planning becomes essential – it is resisted by most students but it ultimately leads to a better quality of writing.

Students then send me a photo of their handwritten answers. I share it on the screen during the lesson and use annotation tools to give detailed feedback. In my experience, it is more effective if the student physically copies the advice onto their original hard copy as this helps anchor the advice more firmly in the brain. I also take a screen shot of the final annotated work and save it to the student’s folder to serve as a record of learning.

As with everything, there are drawbacks. The most obvious one with online tuition is the possibility of glitches. Wonderful though technology can be, it doesn’t always behave as it should. My answer to that is that real life is full of ‘glitches’ – the classroom might get flooded and everyone has to be evacuated to the playground (for example!). With online tutoring, if time is lost due to glitching, I will always add a few minutes on the end in order to complete the learning aim that I had planned. I deliberately don’t schedule lessons back-to-back in order to allow for this possibility. On the rare occasion when we have to abandon the lesson altogether, I will reschedule for another mutually convenient time. With new students, I carry out a technology check prior to the lesson to check their internet speed and familiarity with Zoom features, or another teaching platform.

Finally, it should be pointed out that online tuition is not suited to everyone. The type of student who benefits the most has a strong sense of purpose, such as to get into a good school, and reasonable concentration skills. If a student is prone to distraction, I have a few techniques up my sleeve to work with this. I may break up the lesson with less intensive, ‘chatty’ moments that allow the student to take the lead. One of my students is very fidgety and loves to doodle. He loves the annotation tools and is obsessed with drawing boxes in all sorts of interesting designs. Wherever possible, I let him do the annotation and if he wants to carry on drawing boxes while I’m talking, that’s fine because it helps his concentration. In rare cases, a student may be doing something else (Snake? Roblox? YouTube?) – I can see the light changing in the room, their eyes dart about or there is an unnatural lag when I ask a question. It’s difficult for the online tutor to intervene in these cases. I usually mention this to the parents and suggest that they unobtrusively check in from time to time during the lesson to ensure everything is fine. But if the problem persists, it may be that they would benefit more from face-to-face tuition. I will always advise parents if I believe this to be the case.

To conclude: online tuition is superior in many ways. The plethora of information available at the touch of a button makes for a far more engaging learning experience. This supplements rather than replaces traditional methods such as note-taking and hand-written assignments. Thanks to advances in digital annotation, feedback on assignments is both clear and detailed, while a digital whiteboard accurately replicates the feeling of being in a classroom. The main drawback is the lack of teacher control over students who lack self-discipline and focus; home tuition may be preferable in these cases. For others, the advances in web-based education as a result of lockdown are such that it provides a rich and rigorous learning experience that is at least equal to, but in my experience better than, the face-to-face alternative.

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