Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Well apparently yes. According to a report in the Telegraph last month, 'e-tutoring' has grown vastly in recent years, into an industry now estimated to be worth £8bn globally. Thousands of British parents now opt for this form of supplementary learning, over more traditional methods such as one-to-one home teaching, or study centres. But with the pull of comparatively cheaper prices, advances in technology and a tech-savy generation of children, it's not difficult to understand why online teaching has caught on so quickly. Indeed an interesting article from the same newspaper back in only March 2010, titled: “Coming to a screen near you: an online tutor”, demonstrates how far the medium has come in such a short period:
It's a normal Thursday morning in South Kensington, but 24-year-old English tutor Will Orr-Ewing is giving a most unusual lesson. For while he is in London, his pupil is in Geneva. Welcome to the brave new world of online tutoring...

Private tuition is nothing new. The parental desire for children to succeed at everything from the 11+ to University finals is as evident as ever, with a reported 25% of all parents having used a traditional home tutor at some point. The sea change has come in recent years, with the demand for extra coaching being met not by the local teacher popping round on a Friday evening, but by a glut of new online firms willing and able to provide digital learning 24/7, from anywhere in the world.

[Image Credit: freedigitalphotos.net]

Advantages of online learning are clear, logistics perhaps being the most obvious. A tutor can sit at his PC in New Delhi and teach maths to a GCSE student in Northampton with the minimum of fuss. So this clearly increases the pool of tutors a parent can select from, creating healthy competition which in theory should drive prices down. However, removing geographical barriers also reduces tutor travel costs (which are invariably passed on to students) and increases tutor availability as travel time is removed from the tutor's working day. According to research, online tutors: “charge between £15 and £27 an hour - significantly cheaper than many traditional private tutors.

Advances in computer and internet performance, coupled with a raft of smarty-pants new (mostly free of charge) applications in the last five years, (internet white boards, video-conferencing, internet chat, blogs, internet phone, and even apps which let tutors control your computer!) have made e-learning significantly easier for tutor and student alike. But obvious advantages aside, is online tuition actually good enough? (This is a genuine question to our readers, rather than a loaded precursor to a fancy conclusion!) Is e-tutoring a compromise made for the sake of logistics and finances in austere times, or a bona fide alternative to traditional private tuition? I would hazard a guess that as with most things in life, it depends on a number of variables, rather than than the simple fact that your tutor happens to be sitting at a workstation in Texas! Tuition subject, standard of tutor, quality of technology at your disposal, personal preferences, one's aptitude for all things technological, must surely all factor in determining an answer to the above.
[Image Credit: freedigitalphotos.net]

However, bar the technology issues, surely all of these factors can be applied to traditional private tutoring too? At present the e-learning industry is largely unregulated, resulting in ubiquitous criticism of poor standards of provision (English tutors who don't actually speak good English, etc.) In fact lack of regulation is true of the whole private tuition sector and poor standards of teaching can be equally applied to internet teaching and real tuition alike. The one glaring difference being that it is much easier to do a poor job from a thousand miles away, than it is sitting next to your client in their living room, under the expectant glare of mum and dad! With something as personal as tuition, does the question “Is it good enough”? then only depend on whether the individual is happy with the outcome, (which I would imagine is in turn closely linked to that individual's grades going up or down based on the tuition they receive, not matter if it's real or virtual)?

Clearly online learning will not be for everybody, no matter how much cheaper or easier it is to obtain and the lack of standards policing will inevitably lead to some customers being caught out by “cowboy” firms/tutors. However, the other side of the spectrum is that some will swear it's the best thing since...oh I don't know...private tuition, (presumably those whose grades have risen). So perhaps the more prudent question here should be “Can digital learning ever be as effective as good old fashioned one-to-one human tuition”? In other words, grades may go up with online tuition, but are they rising as steeply as they would under the guidance of a human being, right there next to you? – perish the thought(!) I am sure someone is researching this as we speak and that all will become clear in the fullness of time. In the meantime, does anyone have an insight or opinion on human vs online tuition? – we'd love to hear it.

  • The Telegraph (online)
  • London University’s Institute of Education 


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