Is Online Tutoring Effective?

Today's post is written by Leo Evans, who designed and built my favourite online whiteboard BitPaper and runs one of London’s largest and most successful tutoring companies. As a leading figure in the world of online tutoring, my question to him was: "Is online tutoring effective?"

Leo Evans


As a seasoned educator and entrepreneur, my mission over the last 3 years has been to try to bring online tutoring into the mainstream. I come from the school of thought that if technology can be used so widely in society to improve things, then the same should be true of education.

I have taught and lectured at the highest levels of academia, and experienced the problems with traditional education first-hand from both sides of the lectern. I wanted to create a business that would basically give people what they go to school and university for: useful knowledge, that they retain, and enjoy assimilating from quality teachers. This premise for quality education is simple, yet somehow lacking at all levels of the education system. Whilst being fortunate enough to have frequented elite schools and universities, frankly the quality of teaching I faced was highly varied and largely unsatisfactory.

Unsatisfactory quality of teaching

Most of my issues with the education sector stem from the classroom based approach to learning. It targets the average student and often isolates both the best and the worst students. Many students suffer from critical gaps in their knowledge that are never properly addressed and/or have personal circumstances that affect their studies. If they fall behind it is almost impossible to regain their footing, and the lifetime costs of failing in education can be hundreds of thousands of pounds in income and welfare. 

In fact, the potent combination of record fees and falling teaching quality since university caps were removed is resulting in student satisfaction being at historic lows. Thousands are left disenfranchised and disenchanted with their educational experiences and that leaves the education sector ripe for disruption.

Low student satisfaction

Through my teaching and interaction with students, I am convinced that one-to-one learning leads to much better educational outcomes and greater satisfaction across the distribution of backgrounds, interests and capabilities in the student population. Thus, I decided to bring my educational insights, business acumen (7 years at a world leading business school) and drive (guilty; I used to be an investment banker) to a section of the education market that is growing but lacking in innovation: tutoring.

Three intense but rewarding years later, I now run one of London’s largest and most successful tutoring companies (The Profs), have designed and built what is rapidly becoming the go to app for online tutors, (BitPaper) and have created probably the most high-tech online tutoring platform in the market (Spires).

I felt that in order to create exciting tutoring businesses that added real value to people’s lives I needed to combine great people, great processes and great tech. In my mind, the provision of great education comes from something like: 40% emotional intelligence, 35% subject knowledge and 25% experience.

emotional intelligence
subject knowledge

Uncharismatic people tend not to make inspiring or memorable teachers. There are nuances to being a good educator that come from not only knowing your stuff, but also having to learn how to deliver information in a way that people understand and retain. But to make a tutoring business internationally scalable and with sufficient scope to justify the time and money expenditure, whilst generating high-enough returns to keep things interesting for me and my team, I needed to create not only a scalable process for matching students in-need with tutors, but also simple yet powerful tech that would allow teachers to teach no-matter where there are.

Our recipe was something like this: Find good teachers, empower them with tech, and then promote them to as wider student base as possible. Pioneers in online tutoring we became.

But all of this begs the question: “Is online tutoring effective?”. Having built dedicated software for online tutoring, trained hundreds of tutors in how to tutor online, and read the thousands of reviews our clients have left about our online tutors, I am 100% convinced that the answer is an overwhelming yes. I would even go further in that 

a trained and experienced professional tutor can deliver an even better teaching experience to students online than in-person.

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"Nonsense" you say. Here’s why:

Let's start with the tutor

Firstly, you can teach a much wider range of students, including the lucrative international student market. Working with people in Asia, say, allows you to teach in the mornings which is one of the problems with being a traditional tutor; demand is weak during school/university hours. 

Secondly, you do not have to travel to them. Teaching from the comfort of your home is not only more convenient, but you can also work at more anti-social hours and dramatically boost your effective hourly pay.

Finally, and most importantly from an educational point of view, you can also make use of cutting-edge technology to make quality and reusable teaching materials and session recording to create permanent and shareable videos for your tutees.

BitPaper for Online Tutors
Zoom for online tutoring

We recommend using BitPaper as a whiteboard and Zoom or Skype for audio and video calls. Traditional tutoring usually involves some degree of sitting around a computer to assist in studying anyway. With online tutoring, you get two computers, can screen share and record classes at the click of a button, save them to the cloud, and create beautiful PDFs by importing content in real-time from various sources (using a screen-snap-shot tool). 

However, for all of these benefits to be unlocked, the tutor must have a good stable internet connection and a good router, a computer with as much RAM as possible (MacBook Pros are good), a writing tablet (we use Wacoms or Huions), a webcam (I don’t use a webcam to teach but many do), and ideally an audio headset with a good microphone.

Macbook Pro and Wacom tablet for online tutoring

The key is that training and practise go a long way. Like anything, there is a learning curve to online tutoring and to begin with it can be quite hard, particularly learning to use a writing tablet! You have to not only teach well, but also operate a computer at high speed to deliver a convincing lesson. You need to be tech savvy and if you have poor motor coordination and/or are not very computer literate, you are probably better off doing face-to-face tuition.

I didn’t learn how to be a pro online tutor by myself in a bubble. I was part of a community and we worked out different pieces of the puzzle and helped each other out. Like any other skill, someone needs to point you in the right direction and then you can make you own stylistic adjustments to your methods as you so need to be successful. But when done properly, online tutoring is slick, convenient and an ideal way in which to transfer information quickly and efficiently at distance. 

My one caveat would be that it is less suitable perhaps for very young children. Tutoring younger children and infants is as much pastoral as educational. From my experience, the sweet spot is high school and university students. These age groups are already tech savvy and there aren’t concentration and safety concerns in the same way as with young children.

Benefits for the student

The main benefit above what I have mentioned for the tutor (the majority of which also applies to the student) is access to much more specialist tutors from further afield. This is especially pronounced at university level and beyond (try to find an astrophysics tutor in Skegness!). Also, being able to save content such as hand-made PDFs and record videos of your classes adds a lot of continuation value to your classes. The flexibility of online tuition is also valuable as its easier to reschedule and have classes outside of traditional hours. You essentially learn exactly the same way as if you sat next to your tutor (audio and visual cues), but without all the hassle and social pressure of meeting face-to-face.

Make-up free online lessons

One of my female students once remarked that it was nice not having to put make-up on to meet for classes! Meeting someone face-to-face involves a lot of subtle social pressures and these are basically removed by online tutoring. Some people find speaking over the telephone easier than chatting face-to-face for the same reason.

Tutoring tends to be associated with students who have less confidence, so removing social pressure from the lesson can result in these students feeling more comfortable. Often, they are more focused on the content because they don't have to worry about their body language or perception of it. 

Seeing is believing and once a student has had a class from a truly professional online tutor, they never go back to face-to-face tutoring.

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Matt Thompson

Matt is an online English tutor and founder of Smart Online Tutoring. He's a big fan of technology and when he's not teaching or helping others with their online tutoring businesses, you'll find him on the badminton court.

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