Distance Education with a Tutor

Is that finite math, calculus, physics, or chemistry that she is studying?

As a tutor of math, physics, and sometimes chemistry, most of my students have been enrolled in traditional classroom-based courses. A few, however, have been taking courses through the distance education programs of such institutions as SIDES and Thompson Rivers University (TRU).

Distance education has been around for decades. The internet has gradually made it much more convenient but the biggest change in recent years has been the surging popularity of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs). This Wikipedia article is a good starting point for those readers who don’t know what a MOOC is but this CNN story goes into the need for a human element.

Some subjects are easier to study online than others. The text-based ones like English, history, and psychology work best. With a bit more technological effort, some courses with a lot of visual content can also be delivered effectively. Mathematically oriented courses like calculus and physics pose more of a challenge.

Technologies do exist for people to remotely collaborate on mathematical questions but they can take so long to set up and be so clunky to use that more time goes into wrestling with the software than into learning the course material. In my experience, there is currently no reasonable substitute for a human tutor sitting next to a student. Software might enable a distant tutor to watch the exact steps a student takes when attempting to solve a problem but it cannot communicate much of the information that really matters. Skype may be able to convey some verbal and facial clues to how a student feels as they think about a problem but it is still not adequate. Often a student will say that they understand something when what they really feel is that it’s taking them too long to understand it so they want to move on to something new so that they can avoid feeling stupid and to convince themselves that they are making progress — an absolutely classic mistake. A physically present tutor is much more likely to detect the attempted self-deception, try something different, and encourage the student to persevere.

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