Virtual tutoring is an attractive idea. The student and the teacher don’t have to leave home and they can interact completely online with a computerized “whiteboard”. Given that most students are completely at home with the Internet and that just about everyone has a computer at home, and considering the high time demands on families who may not have time to drive their students back and forth for a tutoring session, virtual tutoring seems like a winner. However, there are several important problems remaining and this article will take a look at the three major stumbling blocks which prevent virtual tutoring from becoming the “go to” solution for educators.
First of all, technology does not have a 100% guaranteed availability. Barring a natural disaster or the end of the world, I can pretty much assure a student that I will be available at a given time on a given day to meet with them face to face, and that my pencils will still be able to write on the scratch paper I bring along with me. I recently had a chance to tutor a student online, using a virtual whiteboard. I guaranteed the student that I would be there, and then the day before the scheduled session, a power outage destroyed my computers hard drive as the result of a power surge. I spent the better part of two days repairing my computer, and the session was missed. As our technology gets more powerful, it also becomes more prone to failure. Fault points begin to appear. The mouse could stop working, or maybe the sound of the VoIP call doesn’t play correctly on the students computer, or maybe the Internet connection is so slow that the tutoring session stutters. None of those problems exist with face-to-face tutoring, and none of these problems can be adequately prepared for or avoided. They happen, and sometimes they happen quite a lot, and they destroy the effectiveness of the tutoring session.
Secondly, nothing will be able to replace the instant doodling / handwriting that you can achieve with a piece of chalk, or a normal pencil / piece of paper. Electronic notepads exist for transferring handwriting data to a computer program, but the input often lags behind the motion of the hands, and the resulting “writing” is sometimes childlike and jagged. It’s not exactly the most precise method of writing, and that can distract the student from learning the material. It’s also more time-consuming than normal writing, which again takes away from the effectiveness of the tutoring.
Lastly, and most importantly, there is no emotional connection between the tutor and the student. I had a student ask for virtual tutoring (due to their limited mobility / availability), and during the first session, it arose that they needed help with an area of chemistry with which I wasn’t familiar. I knew the subject, but it was far enough outside my specialty that I didn’t feel comfortable tutoring them. This came as a great disappointment to both the student and myself, as the time prepping for the tutoring session was wasted. It would have taken about five seconds during a face-to-face tutoring session for me to realize that I wouldn’t be able to help the student, and I could have saved both my time and the students time. Virtual tutoring also doesn’t transfer the subtle physical clues that a teacher can look for, such as tiny eye movements and fleeting facial expressions. Lack of this unspoken language makes a student-tutor interaction extremely difficult, as the tutor cannot connect with the student and hone in on the precise areas they are finding problematic.
Virtual tutoring was, and still is, a good idea. However, until the above three problems are somehow solved (and I think we’ll eventually get there, one day), it remains at best an undesirable, second choice niche.