Does Online Tutoring Really Work?

posted on 05th May 2021

I thought Online tuition could never work properly. In fact, I thought it was a sort of tutoring scam. I've never been so wrong about anything in all my life.


If you had asked me 18 months ago if I would entertain the idea of online tuition within Westcountry SEN. I would categorically have said no and not given it another moments thought. That’s because I thought of it as tutors and children holding up pieces of paper to a camera, or worse, a tutor writing on a wobbly flipchart with a badly angled camera pointed at them while the poor student becomes bored and restless on the other side. I had absolutely no idea how wrong I was.

When Covid -19 struck, we were forced to move online and with very little time I needed to become an expert in online tutoring technology. We had to find the right kind of software for us that would work for all learners and specifically children with dyslexia and low attention abilities. A mission I thought was impossible. Yet, to date, Westcountry SEN has a strong Online tutoring service, and we tutor globally around the world. I have never been so wrong about something in all my life. Here is my advice to parents and students as to what you need for online tuition to work well.

The need for two-way interaction between tutor and student (that is far beyond talking).
The need for two-way interaction between the tutor and student is the single most important aspect to the success of the tuition. If your tutor is using any platform that resembles PowerPoints, I would worry about the tuition. With PowerPoints, unless your child is already motivated to learn, they will not concentrate or engage to their full potential. Worst still, if your tutor is stood in front of a whiteboard or flip chart easel with a camera pointed at them, it’s a very old way of tutoring that will not work well for dyslexic students. Any child who has difficulty with spelling, writing and maths will not cope with this method of online tutoring. If your child is struggling with Online tuition and you have a tutor that is using any of the above methods, I would talk to your tutor about it or find a new one.

Students who are not initially motivated and hate the idea of extra sessions will need the online tuition to be highly interactive to become engaged. These students will need to be involved in the tutoring session just as much as the tutor is.

I spent weeks researching and developing online tutoring software. In the end, I chose a software company called Bitpaper for Westcountry SEN. It was the only platform that ticked all the boxes for us. Once a student is in an online session with us, by using their mouse, control pad or graphics pen (see below), they can write, draw, use objects and be creative just as they could if they were sat next to the tutor.

Think of it as a virtual piece of paper (which we call a virtual whiteboard), just as you can place physical objects on a piece of paper and move them around, you can do this on the virtual whiteboard too. You can also write on the Virtual Whiteboard with different pens and pencils just as if it was a piece of paper. The best thing about the Whiteboard is it is shared, when the student makes a mark, the tutor sees it. When the tutor makes a mark, the student can also see it and add to it. It works just like a piece of paper can. Instead of the paper being on the table between the tutor and student, it is on their computer screens.

Westcountry SEN’s tutors are very skilled with dyslexic learners so they know how to manipulate the whiteboard and make it completely multi-sensory. From coloured animations through to complex diagrams for maths and science, an interactive two-way whiteboard is a must for all successful online tuition.

Video and sound
All students need to be able to see and hear the tutor. However, the student needs to be able to choose whether they can see themselves or not. Most platforms have two-way live video and streaming abilities. It is important that you or your child can choose to see the tutor. Some students can get distracted by the video and self-conscious.

I chose a dynamic video system for Westcountry SEN. This means when the tutor and student first connect, they both have visible live video on the left-hand side of the screen. However, when the student and tutor are busy working on the learning activity, the video automatically slides out the way so as not to distract from academic work. Whilst the sound remains audible at all times, the video only slides back in when the task is finished, and they stop writing. At any point, the student or tutor can pull the video back into the frame, this is especially useful if the student gets stuck and the tutor wants to see them to explain, or if the student wants to ask a question. A dynamic video will always outrank a static one.

For best results, both student and tutor should be using a graphics tablet/pen

Whilst many students can work well using a simple mouse, you will always get the most benefit from using a graphics tablet, which is a sort of electric pen that allows students to write on the virtual piece of paper just as if they were writing on paper using a pencil.
I’ve had some experimentation with different types of graphics tablets. I found the best ones were always the pens that were wireless as the ones needing batteries were quite heavy.

I also experimented with various prices. I bought graphics tablets that were around £35 for the tutors and a lot of them complained that they were too hard to use, a bit like writing on ice. I then looked at ones that were £100-£120. These were very easy to write with, but far too complicated for what we needed.

In the end, it was the tablets that were £70 that proved the best investment. The Wacom Intuos 5, or the Huion Graphics tablets proved to be the best solution. If you are having online tuition and your tutor is not using a graphics tablet, then I would ask them why. Enabling both tutor and student to write, draw, underline and highlight together is just as good as physically sitting next to each other.

Headphones help students with auditory processing difficulties.
Students who have general or auditory processing difficulties can become very distracted or unable to process information when they hear sounds as they are trying to learn. Often these students will need to sit at the front of the class when they are at school so their teachers’ voice is the loudest sound they hear, some students who have severe processing disorder need to have a device that amplifies their teacher’s voice directly to their ears.

Using headphones that also have a microphone (the type used for gaming), is one of the best ways to isolate the tutor’s voice and help students with auditory processing. This is an excellent bonus of online tuition, the ability to wear headphones.

The need to be able to change the background colour from white.
Many children and adults get tired when they are looking at a white screen. The glare of it can make it difficult for some students to read and write. For other students, the white background can tire them so quickly they cannot concentrate. Even on our smartphones, Dark mode is now the most popular choice.

At Westcountry SEN we actively chose our online technology for the ability to change the background to a colour that will aid the learner. Some students read better with a blue or yellow background. Some students, who find learning almost impossible, can learn with ease when the background is switched to the colour black and the text is white.

The need to be able to upload PDFs and Images.
The ability to upload onto the virtual paper makes tutoring possibilities endless. Therefore, I chose Bitpaper for Westcountry SEN for its ease and options for uploading any document onto the virtual paper. Whilst other platforms had the interactive whiteboard we could adapt for our needs, it was Bitpaper that had the capacity to allow tutors to upload questions, images and bespoke virtual objects on to the whiteboard.
From mini dinosaurs that can represent the quantity of specific numbers to pictures for creative writing tasks and Maths questions, if you can see it on a piece of paper we can get it up on the computer screen for both the tutor and student to work on.

I chose the technology that makes uploading so simple, you can take a picture of whatever schoolwork you want with your phone, send it through to your tutor and they will have it on your screen in less than a minute. You will both be able to write, highlight and edit it as soon as it’s on your screen.

In summary, the use of online technology has opened tutoring beyond geography and enabled all students the ability to access specialist support that is both interactive and multi-sensory. Online tuition is certainly a popular option that here is here to stay at Westcountry SEN.


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