How to make online tuition work for students

(Image credit: Shutterstock / Ruslan Satsuik)

With schools closed for the foreseeable future, teachers have valiantly turned to a variety of video conferencing platforms to deliver ongoing education, but many face technical hurdles using platforms that were never designed with their needs in mind. They continue to do their best and we’re seeing them heroically persevere.

Remote teaching

We’ve all seen the images in the press and on social media of multiple children on a video conferencing call. This is heart-warming and a great way of ensuring communication between isolated students. In these difficult times, schools are utilising the online classroom with students who are at a similar level. However, it’s hard to maintain the attention of 30 children for mixed ability classes.

Other platforms, meanwhile, combat varying abilities by hugely reducing the teacher-student ratio, varying learning times and conducting thorough initial attainment assessments.

By establishing a benchmark for every student, you ensure you don’t lose them by moving too quickly or neglecting to focus on areas in which they’re not proficient. This is more important than ever now as children will be all over the place in terms of attainment with some parents home-schooling and others doing relatively little (through no fault of their own).

The scheduling factor is also important. We’ve found some of the alternative provision students we work with learn better outside of the standard school timetable, and this is reflected in the current Covid reality. With parents desperately scrabbling to work for home while looking after their children, flexibility in terms of when learning happens is key to delivering a decent level of education. Interestingly, giving excluded pupils more flexibility regarding the times they study, has increased attainment and attendance rates (from three percent to 55 percent in some instances). 

But not all tutoring platforms are created equal. Some use university students to deliver lessons, and while they may be well-intentioned, these students are not teachers. Teachers spend years training to teach and are not easily substituted, a fact which I’m sure is quickly dawning on the UK public.

Capable substitute

Online tuition is often considered inferior to its face-to-face equivalent. However, in some instances it’s better suited and we may find that the current reality permanently changes the poor perceptions of this form of education. Online tuition is commonly used for students who have been excluded from school, and it has proven a uniquely effective way of keeping students on task while they’re outside of the classroom.

Of the 123,100 fixed period exclusions across the UK in 2017-18, the most common cause was persistent disruptive behaviour – accounting for 30 percent of fixed period exclusions. A significant cause of disruptive behaviour in class is anxiety surrounding education. However, remove the student from the environment, provide them with dedicated support and you can give them a chance to get back on track. You can also pair them with the most appropriate teacher – one teacher on our books lives on an Hebridean island and works fantastically well with some of our most challenging students.

Online teaching means that the teacher is not encroaching on the student’s space and there is no peer pressure or classmates to disrupt. This makes many children feel more comfortable and focused, subsequently increasing attainment. Many students, including those with special educational needs, also find it easier to communicate online than in person, and are more prone to ask questions than if they had to raise their hand in class.

Lesson learned

The Education Endowment Foundation’s (EEF) 2018 trial showed that low-cost, personalised tutoring, can boost struggling pupils’ maths results by three months. We’ve certainly experienced this with some students making as much as four weeks progress in as little as  one hour.

Advantages inherent in online tutoring have set us up well to respond to the global coronavirus pandemic and we’ve been rushing to recruit more teachers – both ones usually involved in face to face tuition as well as supply teachers who no longer have physical lessons to cover.

A focus on current ability and teaching schedule flexibility are important to ensuring online platforms can pick up wherever schools were forced to leave off. Ultimately, we hope that this experience will allow us to prove to the world that online tutoring isn’t just a poor substitute for ‘real’ teaching, but a valuable service which caters to every child as an individual learner.

Simon Barnes is Founder and CEO of TLC Live

Simon Barnes

Simon Barnes is Founder and CEO of TLC Live. He trained as a teacher at Exeter University and, after graduating, worked in the TEFL industry. He became Director of Studies at EF Cambridge before moving to Oxford to take over the running of a school; he also set up and had responsibility for schools in central London and Dublin. Simon then ran several education projects in the UAE, Italy and the US.

In 2001 Simon was asked to set up tutoring centres in the UK by Sylvan Leaning, a multinational education company. In 2004 he left to start up his own tutoring company, The Learning Centres, which in July 2010 became TLC Education Group and now has partnerships with five schools in East Anglia and a growing online business.