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A Guide to Distance Learning (and How Online Tutoring Helps)

2028986 copyAs a result of Covid-19, we're all living in a strange and unsettling new reality, and none of us knows exactly how long things are going to continue like this. While all of us are experiencing and dealing with the situation in our own ways, students across the country and around the globe have a particularly new set of circumstances with which to contend, and they, as well as schools, teachers, parents, administrators, tutors—every single one of us involved in education—need to learn ways to adapt. 

Whether your school system or university has closed and you've switched to online learning, you are studying in a hybrid setting and taking some online exams, or your college or grad school entrance exams have been postponed and you're looking for ways to keep up a rigorous SAT prep or GRE prep program, you're likely looking for effective ways to supplement your education and keep things fresh and engaging.

This article is fundamentally an exploration of what is meant by “distance learning” and how online tutoring fits in.

What is distance learning? What websites and tools does the term refer to? 

Distance learning means a lot of different things. Reading an online book with a 1st grader and preparing for the SAT on Kahn Academy are both examples of distance learning in action.

This list of distance learning options from Unesco is one of the most comprehensive we’ve found on this topic. You’ll see they have 8 “categories” of distance learning solutions: digital learning management systems, systems build for mobile phones, systems with strong offline functionality,  Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platforms (Coursera being a great example), self-directed learning content, mobile reading applications, “collaborative platforms that support live video communication” and “tools to create digital learning content.”

If you break this all down a bit, there are really 4-5 types of distance learning solutions in the above list of eight.

First, you have digital learning management systems where a student logs in to understand what they are supposed to be doing, keeps track of assignments, communicates with the instructor, and is provided with content to download and links to various assignments and other web-sites. These systems are how teachers engage with their classes when they can’t meet in person.

When you or your son or daughter switched over to “distance” learning at their elementary, middle, high school, or college, you were probably introduced to a digital learning management system. Blackboard is common example of a platform used by colleges and test prep companies, while Google Classroom and ClassDojo and Edmodo and Schoology are more geared towards elementary and middle schools.

When logged into one of the above learning management platforms, you or your child is likely to be directed to what we would describe as the next major category, self-directed learning content. For example, you may log in to Google Classroom, and the teacher will have suggested that your 4th grader visit Kahn Academy, Discovery Education, or Mindspark to practice math online. I might put the mobile reading applications like Global Digital library in this category.

Then, you have the tools a student and tutor might use to conduct online tutoring. These are tools that provide a way to communicate via audio and/or video while working on a virtual whiteboard.  Zoom, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, and Skype are the well-known examples here. These are the common tools used for online tutoring or 1-1 or small group live interaction with classmates or instructors. Innovative new tools for teaching online, such as Mastera or Gleantap are creating new ways for individuals to communicate and engage with students online.

Finally, I would put MOOCs like Coursera and EdX in their own category. These are fascinating and fast-growing education options for college students and young adults to earn certificates in an ever-increasing number of subjects form very well respected institutions, instead of opting for more expensive but generally better regarded full degree programs.

Online tutoring can improve distance learning outcomes.

Particularly over the past decade, the development and proliferation of distance learning tools, social media platforms, interactive whiteboards, and other applications have propelled the online learning experience to a level at which it really has become the go-to approach for a variety of situations.  You can think about online tutoring as a sub-set of distance learning. The term distance learning would include both taking an online course and working with an online physics tutor 1-1. And if you are struggling to keep up in your online college course, working with an online tutor can give you the boost you need to perform better in your class.

While it's true that teachers as well as students are in the process of a rapid and unexpected transition, and one that can be intimidating, online tutoring can help your student to make sense of many of these new tools while providing the structure and content fundamental to any good tutoring relationship.

It's an opportunity for someone other than yourself to help your student work through the whole process of navigating distance learning requirements and, most importantly, helping with more difficult material. An expert tutor can also help with time management across subjects, troubleshoot specific assignments, and ultimately make the whole distance learning process easier.

So, even if your child’s school has already directed him to six difference web-sites to work through the rest of 10th grade in a distance learning format, adding a 7th “distance learning” option the form of online tutoring can actually make the whole process less, not more, complex. And that can lead to better academic results.