May 24, 2017
Professional tutor and guest blogger Josh Sohn talks technology and its intersection with tutoring sessions today.
I have a friend. Let’s call him Phil. About once a month, we catch up on the phone and the conversation almost always starts like this:
ME: Hey Phil.
PHIL: Josh! Wait… Don’t tell me… Peru!
PHIL: One more guess… Wait, something’s coming to me… I’m picking up the distinct aroma of cheese… Got it! Toulouse?!
Allow me to explain.
About five years ago I called Phil. From Laos. I was there on a trip that was supposed to be recreational, but a day earlier I’d gotten an email from a parent needing support for his son. I initially suggested (via email) that we connect after my trip — about a week later — but the nice, seemingly formal, father of three, couldn’t wait. He wanted to talk “as soon as could reasonably be arranged” and “face to face, as one man to another man.”
I acquiesced (because what is more manly than Skyping with a prospective tutoring client while you’re in Laos?) and in the video chat I learned that the family was based in the Middle East and interested first and foremost in SAT prep. If all went well, they might want college application support as well. The call was bizarre (as online first encounters often are) but ultimately it went well. Afterwards, I decided to do the only logical thing: call Phil.
Phil had questions. Lots of them. Where was I calling from? Vientiane. What the hell was I doing there? Traveling. Eventually, we got to the mysterious client and the Skype call. (Full disclosure: there was a moment in which I wondered if Phil had pretended to be the Middle Eastern man as some grand prank. To my relief, that wasn’t the case.) Suffice to say, Phil did not know that such things were part of my life. Part of a tutor’s life. He was impressed, but also determined to push this pursuit of mine as far as he possibly could. Because that’s just how Phil rolls.
From that day onward, whenever we’d connect on the phone Phil would start off by asking where I was and what strange remote tutoring gigs I currently had going. The only reasonable professional aspiration I should have, he reasoned, was an entirely remote client base. That would allow me to travel freely and, more importantly, it would supply him with endless tales of international intrigue and, he hoped, danger. Apparently, online tutoring has some Jason Bourne to it.
Five years after Laos, here’s where I currently stand: of the roughly 2000 students I’ve tutored about 50 have had some Skype/Facetime component. I say “some” because I’ve increasingly started including remote tutoring as an add-on/supplement in my client pitches. And that even includes clients based in NY, where I live. There are a few reasons for this.
First and foremost, tutoring must be regular and rigorous if it’s to be of any real value. For families who travel a lot and are thus prone to cancellations, remote tutoring can spare the student at least some of those tutoring lapses. (And, yes, it means I’m less likely to miss out on paid work.) Second, not all tutoring gigs in NY are created equal. For students who live over an hour away, and are unwilling to come to my office, the remote option presents significant time savings. Finally, there is the Phil argument: if I can close enough remote tutoring clients, I can travel freely and still make a living.
There is a robust debate on the efficacy of online tutoring. On the one hand, there are tutors who charge $1000 / hr for online tutoring — a seeming indication that academic improvement can be affected remotely. On the other hand, there is extensive research into the toll that excessive screen time takes on developing brains, particularly for young kids.
For me, the efficacy of online academic support comes down to two key things: 1) student motivation, and 2) speed of internet connection. Put simply, there must be both in order for there to be a meaningful value addition to the student. And while motivated students with sub-par connectivity can still reap modest benefits from online tutoring, there’s nothing like dropped calls or audio echoes or video delays to critically disrupt the learning process.
But all of this presupposes that a parent will be willing to sign off on remote tutoring for his/her child. This too is a bit of a dance. The simplest task is to find the price point at which a parent is willing to consider the online option. But heavy discounts from one’s in-person rate generally implies a lesser product, a message I’d rather not send. Openly and honestly discussing the pros and cons of online vs. in-person with parents and students is the best (and really only) way to pursue the remote tutoring option.
If you’re a tutor looking to establish yourself in the online tutoring community, here’s my advice. Find an existing client who knows and trusts you, and who you see regularly. Ask both the student and the parent/guardian if they’d be willing to try a single online session in lieu of a regularly scheduled in-person appointment. If need be, offer them this session for free. Once they’ve agreed, spend some of your own time exploring the chat options (Skype, Facetime, Zoom, Google Hangouts) as well as online collaboration tools (idroo, Jing, etc.). But know this: the simpler (aka more like in-person tutoring) you make this first session, the better. Next, make sure you convey any necessary technology requirements (downloads/add on’s, etc.) to the client several days ahead of the session. Then, finally, log on at least 10/15 minutes early to make sure all of your technology is functioning as it should.
If you enjoy the online session and the student feels good about it, you can consider building in regular online support to your existing tutoring arrangement. If it doesn’t work well — either due to technological malfunctions or something more ineffable— you’ll likely have learned something about your relationship with the student and/or the technology you’ve employed. And while the advantages of an online tutoring practice are many, a tutor should never force that model on an unwilling student/parent.
All told, the greatest hit to tutoring efficacy is inconsistency. I’ve found that anything less than an hour or two each week is unlikely to have a material impact on student outcomes. And in this era of over-scheduling and endless extracurricular activities (not to mention illness and travel) maintaining regular weekly schedules with students can be virtually impossible. So if online tutoring helps you see a student more regularly, chances are you and the student will be able to achieve more academically — which really is the number one goal in any tutor-student relationship. If you’re determined, diligent in your practice, and a little lucky, you’ll make it to the (Phil-dubbed) “nirvana of maximum professional mobility” though, hopefully, with more of the international intrigue than danger.
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