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How Online Tutoring Works

In a previous article, we scanned the distance learning landscape and explained how online tutoring can help parents and students navigate it.

Given the ease with which “Generation Z” kids know their way around the digital universe, it's probably no surprise that for many of them, having a tutor work with them remotely is as second nature as working together at the same table at home or at the library.  Moreover, geographical proximity is of no concern in the world of distance learning, and tutoring programs regularly link students with tutors halfway around the globe just as easily as in the next town over.

In this article, we’ll focus on the actual process of planning for and conducting an online tutoring session.

Let’s address some common questions students have about online tutoring.

It’s been possible to effectively work remotely with a virtual tutor for more than a decade, but I’ve been surprised by how much skepticism remains. We’ll see how COVID-19 impacts this perception moving forward.

So first, let’s address some common questions people have about online tutoring in general, as not everyone is equally comfortable with distance-learning approaches.  Indeed, some of the most skeptical folks when it comes to online learning are the parents. And when it comes to students applying to graduate schools or other programs, familiarity with these kinds of tools varies.

Q. Can online tutoring really supplement in-person tutoring? I'm worried this approach might be too impersonal.

A. While you and your tutor may not be in the same physical location, the online environment really does open up an array of tools that might not be available otherwise. In addition to the same audiovisual engagement that you may be familiar with from applications like Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts, or any other internet chat/meeting applications, it's easy to share assignments and other resources on the fly, so that tutor and student can work through them together. And with both you and your tutor working together from the same whiteboard and other internet resources, you can collaborate just as easily as if you were in the same room.

Q. I'm not particularly tech-savvy. Won't this get in the way of an effective tutoring session?

A. Not at all. Virtual instruction these days is often both easy and enjoyable; applications are designed specifically with the non-technical person in mind. Given the Covid-19 situation, entire schools and universities have had to shift quickly to these environments, and teachers as well as students have taken it in stride.  Tutoring sessions don't need to be tech-intensive at all—all that's needed is a video chat application and a whiteboard, and you're all set.

Q. I (or my student) prefer working through questions/problems together with the tutor—how would this work with online tutoring?

A. This is where a whiteboard can be useful, and why you’ll see below that we believe the quality of the virtual whiteboard is probably more important than most people realize when it comes to effective online tutoring. Whether you're using it to work through math problems, paste in a passage from a text, or write out this week's assignment, the whiteboard functions just as it would in any actual classroom—except that it's interactive. That allows both you and the tutor to work collaboratively, and at a comfortable pace. And when you're done, you can simply save the whiteboard, and voilà, there's this week's class notes.

Q. My child already has to manage a number of different websites, online resources, and apps recommended by the teacher as part of this whole distance learning experience...I'm concerned about overload. Wouldn’t online tutoring just add complexity to the whole situation?

A. Paradoxically, adding another “distance learning” tool in the form of an online tutor can significantly ease the transition to distance learning more generally. A good online tutor is an educator who can help a parent or student navigate the variety of distance learning requirements being thrown at them, as well as explain academic concepts in their area of expertise. You may be receiving online ACT tutoring to make use of the down time during a recent “shelter in place” order in your town, but that tutor should also be able to help you navigate your overall digital learning experience, particularly around subject matter with which the tutor is familiar, if you ask him or her to help in this way.

Q. What is the best online tutoring platform to use?

A. There are many options out there for online tutoring. Google Hangouts, Zoom,, Skype, and many more companies offer reasonable options. While some are more tailored to videoconferencing, and others are a bit more social in nature, they can all be extremely effective online learning environments. Instead of reviewing each in detail, let’s focus on the factors that make a good online tutoring experience in general.

What matters when choosing an online tutoring technology?

What is the best online tutoring or virtual meeting technology? It’s a common question. But instead of reviewing specific options in detail, let’s just explore what matters most when choosing a remote tutoring technology.

There are a few things to consider:

First, and most important, is a quality whiteboard. Most people underestimate the importance of this. Whether working through a hard math problem, or laying out next week's assignment, the whiteboard is what allows you to transform the distance learning experience from a simple videochat into true collaborative classroom. At MyGuru, we use Miro, because we think it’s the best available online whiteboard.

Next, make sure you're comfortable with the application environment—the layout, navigability, etc.  It's your education, so you want to make sure you know your way around. 

Third, look for something with smooth video and audio. While all these applications are excellent, you might find that some work a bit better with your system/internet connection, etc. 

Fourth, you'll want something that's easy to log into.  You don't want to end up setting up all sorts of accounts, manage passwords, etc—best to have something where you can log right into the virtual tutoring session or classroom with no further ado.

And last but not least, cost.  A number of these applications are free to use at the one-to-one level (costs sometimes go up for larger meetings, more functionality, etc, but for a normal tutoring session, you'll be able to find free or low-cost solutions that have everything you'll need).

Increasingly I’ve found that the best overall communication experience for audio and video feedback, logging in easily, etc., is Zoom. But we think Miro is the best online whiteboard out there.

What is a typical online tutoring process?

MyGuru’s approach to online tutoring, from the tools we use to how we engage with students willing to give it a try, is meant to be simple and straight forward.

Here’s how we approach online tutoring.

If you decide that you're interested in online tutoring, we’ll ask what you're looking for in a tutor/tutoring program and for some context on your academic goals.  One of our tutors will get back to you ASAP to discuss your situation in detail, so that we can work together to design a program that best suits your educational needs.  We're happy to have a chat about the tutoring process, and we'll explain in detail how the online system works.

Next, we'll typically set up a trial session.  These tend to range from 1 to 2 hours, depending on your situation.  Once you've set up the payment for the initial session, we're good to go!  We'll send you an email notification a few days in advance, with a link to a Google Hangout meeting (we're of course happy to use other applications if you have a preference, but we've found that Google Hangouts works well and use it for most students). When the date and time for your tutoring session arrives, all you'll need to do is click the link, make sure your webcam and microphone are in working order, and we're all set.  No login required at all—all that you need to do is show up!

Once we say hello, chat a bit, and make sure everything's in working order, we'll go ahead and move to the whiteboard.  The whiteboard application we use at MyGuru is called Miro, and it's easy to set up—all we'll do is send you a link, and you're in.  Typically, we'll have the whiteboard set up as if you were in a classroom—so the tutor will be the one writing/drawing on the board, while you're able to view it in real time.  In addition to standard writing and drawing tools, it's easy to bring into the whiteboard any outside material you might want to take a look at—perhaps your teacher sent along a study guide that you'd like to take a look at.  It's easy to post it right on the whiteboard, and have a look at it together.

Towards the close of the session, we'll use the whiteboard to layout schedules, assignments, and plans for your continued tutoring program.  And once the session is over, you'll receive an emailed pdf of the whiteboard notes—your “class notes” for the day. 

We hope we've answered some of your questions, and given you an initial sense of the benefits of online tutoring