Tutors have been working online for years. For subjects like English and history, Skype normally provides everything a tutor needs to work as effectively over the internet as in-person. Online mathematics tuition has not become as popular for one obvious reason. Math, and those courses that rely heavily upon it, are highly visual subjects. Students mostly learn them by watching someone solve some problems and then solving many similar ones on their own. These problems make use of symbols that are not easy to generate and spatially organize with computer keyboards. Skype alone is not enough.
In recent years, some traditional in-person mathematics and physics tutors have begun to migrate their work online by using whiteboard sharing websites, some specifically designed to feel like virtual classrooms.
Last week I connected online with Michael Steele, a colleague in the UK, to systematically compare the popular Scribblar, RealtimeBoard, and WizIQ services for their suitability for mathematics. Based on that, and on my own experience with students, the key features relevant to my tuition practice are summarized below.
- Only one of the three with a LaTeX equation editor.
- Easiest one for new students to connect to because they do not have to create an account on the system. Since it never sees their email addresses it cannot spam them either.
- Ability to set a background colour for individual pages. This may sound like a gimmick but it can be quite convenient to colour-code pages to designate different ones for different purposes.
- Choice of grid backgrounds for easily setting up graphs.
- Loyal users because of prompt and competent technical support.
- The tutor and the student need not be looking at the same part of the infinite whiteboard at the same time. For non-mathematical subjects this could be a disadvantage but for me it’s a valuable feature because it enables me to work out a long problem in parallel with a student and then compare our work.
- The cheapest paid plan is the same price as the cheapest paid Scribblar plan but allows an unlimited number of boards which I administer as private rooms for individual students.
- Very intuitive panning and zooming.
- Ability to easily draw transparent (no fill colour) rectangles. This is very handy for marking off a block of work for future reference.
- Designed to be more of a group collaboration tool than a virtual classroom but what matters is how well it aligns the the specific tutor-student working style.
- Best of the three for integrated voice and video. No need to use Skype at the same time.
- Best of the three for ease of working with uploaded content.
- Worst of the three for the pen tool keeping up with my hand movements.
- Student access seems to be based on the model of a class that is only in session during a specific time period. I want my students to have exclusive access to their own rooms at any time so that they can review our past sessions and add questions of their own in advance of our next meeting.
- Be prepared for a very pushy sales pitch if you request a free demo session.
And the winner is…
Michael liked WizIQ best because of #1 and #2. I could ignore #5, as other tutors have done, but still do not see WizIQ as a good fit for my style because of #3 and #4.
For now, I plan to keep demonstrating both Scribblar and RealtimeBoard to every new student and letting them choose which one to continue with. Where they have no preference, I will probably recommend Scribblar for Grade 11 pre-calculus and physics, and for post-secondary finite math. Because of the more complex problems that need to be solved in Grade 12 and in post-secondary physics and calculus, RealtimeBoard will remain my choice for those courses.