In the first half of 2014 I needed surgery but did not want to lose too much time with my students, especially with the end of the school year approaching, so I tried conducting my sessions online instead of in person. Those necessity-driven experiments worked out so well, both for the students and for me, that I now see a migration toward online work as the future of my business.
Online tuition has several advantages over in-person work. The main one for me, by far, is that it saves on travel time. That translates into more sessions per week that can fit into my calendar. In the course of any school year when I was doing 100% in-person work I would get far more requests for math and physics help than I could possibly accomodate. Every year I had to turn away the majority of potential clients who contacted me because there was simply not enough time in my schedule. The unfortunate thing was that a very substantial portion of my time allocated for tuition work was being wasted on the time spent travelling to and from students’ homes or other places where we would meet. By working online I can finish with one student at 7:59 p.m. and start with the next one at 8:00 p.m. That benefits everyone involved.
Tutoring online enables me to deliver a richer experience for my students. No matter how well I prepare for every in-person session, it is always possible for something to come up that makes me wish I had brought along some additional example, object, diagram or photograph. Since, during an online session, I am at home, on my computer and connected to the internet, I can usually show a student anything I want to in a matter of seconds, whether it be a scanned image of an example I created for a student three years ago or a short NASA video I saw earlier the same day. I also keep several props near my computer so that I can explain certain concepts by demonstrating them right in front of my webcam.
Since online lessons require no driving, they do not require me to consume fossil fuels, pollute the air, or release CO2 into the atmosphere. They also enable me to avoid contributing to the very same traffic congestion that the parents of my students may be stuck in.
In my first year as a tutor I found myself working with students in most of the 13 municipalities of the Capital Regional District. That involved a ridiculous amount of driving so the following year I drastically reduced my geographic coverage and limited myself to only working with students who were clustered in the neighbourhoods that were most convenient for me. Working online makes it easy for me to work with students regardless of where they live.
Although I am an extremely reliable tutor, every year I do have to cancel a day or two of work due to the colds I catch from my students. As I gradually increase the fraction of my work that I do over the internet, I expect to lose less time due to sick days and if I do catch a cold I know I will not spread it to the homes of any of my students. Working online also avoids cancellations due to the rare snow days that we get in Victoria.
Since working online saves me time, I charge a lower hourly rate for sessions delivered over the internet than for those delivered in person. Please see the FAQ page for my current fee structure.
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.
However, in recent years some traditional in-person mathematics and physics tutors have begun to move their work online by using whiteboard sharing websites, some specifically designed to feel like virtual classrooms. This blog post details part of my quest to find the best platform for working with my students over the internet.
Since mathematics is a skill, it is often as important for me to see how my students try to solve math and physics problems as it is for me to demonstrate the techniques to them. When working in-person I watch what a student is doing with pencil and paper, intervening when appropriate. Online, I can accomplish exactly the same thing by watching on my screen what students do with a stylus and a drawing tablet. If they live within driving distance I lend them one at no cost. The more distant students usually buy one but many are content to just use a mouse. This blog post describes some of the testing I did to find the best product for placing in the hands of my students. One thing that they like best about working this way is that correcting mistakes produces a much cleaner result than does using a pencil and eraser on paper.
So far, all of my online work for local clients has been done using a hybrid model. The routine has become that I meet with a new student and conduct an ordinary in-person tutorial. This enables us to establish a rapport and to find a common working style. I then lend them a Wacom Intuos drawing tablet and stylus and show them how to instal it and how to connect to an online classroom that I have set up for their exclusive use. After that, we conduct the remainder of our sessions online. After each one I send the client an email containing either a request for an Interac eTransfer or a PayPal link that is pre-configured with my merchant ID and the cost of the session. The email also includes my own notes about the session so that parents are kept up-to-date what their children have been working on.
For the out-of-town students everything is exactly the same except there is no initial in-person tutorial. The technology set I have chosen is simple enough that no one has ever had any difficulty setting it up on their own and being ready to start when when we meet for our first online session.
Does working online provide the same experience as working in-person, sitting at a table right next to a real human being? No, it’s better. My house is over 100 years old. It has a wood-burning fireplace that provides a nice cozy atmosphere in the living room on those few winter nights each year when it actually gets used. But for day-to-day heating a 21st century, computer-controlled, air-source heat pump warms the entire house cleanly and efficiently. That’s how I see the difference between tutoring in-person and working online.
That said, no matter how popular online tuition becomes with my students, I doubt that it will ever become my only way of working because I do like getting out of the house and meeting new people in my community.
Please contact me if you have any questions about online help with mathematics and/or physics.
Click on the following images to see screen captures that illustrates what students can do during online calculus sessions.