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Sunday 9th June 2013

I suppose that I should be used to being ahead-of-my-time – it seems to be a family curse: my father was the man who foxed the UK planning authorities in the 70s by trying to build Elizabethan timber-framed cottages ‘from scratch’. However, the reactions of a large number (but by no means all) of my potential clients to the idea of online – rather than face-to-face - tuition have frankly astonished me. I sometimes feel like asking them if they would prefer me to roll-up to tutorials on my horse-and-cart clutching my trusty slate.

The ironic thing is that I am a major-league neophobe – the 21st century passion for ‘newest, latest, fastest, best’ (usually in the context of ever more powerful computers to waste time playing ever-more-pointless cyber-games) drives me frankly potty. However, in the context of education this games-driven cyber-boom has given rise to technology that has a major capacity to improve students’ and parents’ lives - and yet a solid 50% of them seem to be totally resistant to the idea.

This blind refusal even to try this new-fangled technology reaches farcical levels at times. A recent telephone enquiry went (in paraphrase) like this:

Client: “Good morning, I’d like you to teach my son IB-level biology over the half term vacation please”.
Me: “Well, you’ve certainly come to the right man – I have nearly a quarter-of-a-century of experience at this and I’m the best-of-the-best”.
Client: “Oh, good – when can we see you in Oxford?”
Me: “Well, you’ll appreciate that as it’s the half term vacation I am planning on going down to Cornwall for that week – but it’s no problem: I am still teaching my regular students in the mornings that week, but online instead of face-to-face.”
Client: “Oh, no – our son wouldn’t want that”.
Me: (laughing) “How do you know – you’ve never tried it!”
Client: “Er…you’ve got me there”.
Me: (pressing the point) “I offer the first online tutorial completely for free – if you don’t like it you are under no obligation to continue…but everybody who’s tried it so far has loved it.”
Client: “I see – well, we’ll get back to you” (I am stil waiting...).

I also had a face-to-face client who was holding-out for continuing face-to-face tutorials during the week that I was in Cornwall despite my offering totally free online tuition while I was away. I assumed that they had no broadband, but when I went to their home to make up the lost lessons before I went away it turned-out that they had broadband and indeed the father did a lot of business online. However, online tuition was a complete no-no. It just seems to be a neo-luddite mind-set with many that one-to-one tuition has to be done in person, no matter how many petrol-miles and how much parental sitting unproductively in cars is involved.

Indeed the whole business of online one-to-one tuition seems to be a bit of an alien concept all 'round. Given that private tuition is a massive boom industry in the UK (the subject of an earlier blog) and that we are all short of cash for petrol and trying to improve our ‘green’ credentials you would expect the web to be cluttered with individual private tutors offering their services online. In fact, after very extensive market research online, I have managed to find easily on Google only one other UK-based private biology tutor who offers online tuition, plus one other found by personal contact rather than search engine. Admittedly there are vast numbers of tutors based in India (particularly for Maths) who offer very cheap tuition and a large number of agencies online who offer online tutors in various subjects – but when it comes to individual private tutors doing what I’ve done in Oxford this past 24 years (but online) there is a noticeable blank. Apart from myself and my excellent Physics colleague Paul Cartwright (http://www.physicstutor.co.uk ) I don’t yet know of any other Oxford-based tutors who have shifted onto online tuition as a matter of routine yet. So it may be that the resistance to change in the UK is not all on the side of the student!

Of course, a lot of people prefer to go to agencies rather than individual tutors (of this also more anon) and so my impression may be distorted. And quite a lot of my online students, clients and indeed friends, when pressed, say that they have experience of using online tutors – so it may be somewhat of a fragmented and ‘hidden’ revolution. But the concept of an overt, freelance tutor freely traceable on Google and working online on the UK examination system seems to be a very rare beast indeed. Hello!

So, having established that I am probably a bit of an anomaly let’s examine the advantages of online tuition over face-to-face tuition.

It’s going to be subject of another blog, but although there are many people who sell themselves as ‘tutors’ nowadays, remarkably few of them regard it as a career path and remarkably few of them have any great experience of their subject and the examination boards. On the other hand I’ve been doing this for nearly a quarter-of-a-century and know my way around the various examination boards pretty well by now. I am expensive, but in terms of bangs-for-bucks I can’t be beaten when it comes to A-level Biology. Also I’m not likely to pack it in when ‘something better comes up’ as so many tutors are prone to doing. So if you live in an out-of-the-way part of the UK (plucking a few out of a hat at random how about west Wales; northern Scotland or the Channel Isles?) the chances of your finding a decent tutor locally are slim. So why not engage the services of a top man in Oxford at the touch of a button rather than scratching around and wasting your money locally?

Even assuming that you are fortunate enough to live on my ‘doorstep’ (and I’ve had students with ‘doorsteps’ as far west as Cheltenham and as far east as Beaconsfield) how much time and effort is going to be devoted to the process of getting to my tutorial? At the very least you have to pack up what you are doing; get dressed for the outside; cycle furiously through the cold and wet to my teaching premises and then reverse the process an hour later. At the very worst your parent will have to take time off work to drive you to the tutorial, burn up a load of expensive petrochemicals (damaging both their fragile bank balance and our fragile atmosphere) and then sit in a car in the freezing cold for an unproductive hour while you have your tutorial before driving you back home - and then do the whole thing all over again every week. This strikes me as a minor form of insanity when you could simply pitch off your bed (where you have, of course, been revising hard) log onto your computer for an hour’s tutorial in the warmth and comfort of your own home and then get back to what you were doing before the tutorial.

Content-wise, what do I do in a face-to-face tutorial? I sit next to you with a piece of paper making notes (which you take away with you) while I talk you through them and you ask questions – or we look at past paper questions in a similar fashion. On the other hand what do I do in an online tutorial? I sit a long way away from you (no risk of catching colds etc. you will note!) with a piece of paper online in front of us making notes (which you can print off) while I talk you through them – or we look at past paper questions in a similar fashion. Can you spot the difference (apart from £10 an hour , no time and money spent on travel and less exposure to pathogens)? I sure as heck can’t!

But what of body language, I hear some cry? How can you pick up on the student’s body language if you can’t see them (I don’t usually bother with the webcam as it chews up bandwidth and I figure I don’t need to see the student or vice-versa if they can hear me and see the notes). Well, I have to say that in nearly a quarter of a century of doing one-to-one tuition I have never even noticed a student’s ‘body language’, let alone allowed it to influence the way I teach. I’d be a pretty poor tutor if I couldn’t pick up on any problems and detect if they aren’t ‘getting it’ by careful and gentle verbal interrogation. If ‘body language’ is needed in this business then this is probably blatant discrimination against the visually impaired, apart from all else!

In fact the lack of ‘body language’ cuts both ways. I have had a number of online students recently with whom I have got on fine who have had terrible problems with face-to-face tutors as they find their physical presence intimidating. Truth be told I have probably felt the same way on several occasions. You’ve heard of a ‘good telephone manner’? Well, I guess I must have hidden talents in that direction or something, because not one of my online students to date has complained that they can’t see me. But if they are that desperate they can always turn the cam on and hope that I remembered to wear a clean shirt that day!

I actually prefer online tuition to face-to-face tuition. It gives a degree of concentration and surprising intimacy that I have found focuses the process more accurately onto the task in hand. That’s not to say that I teach biology solidly for an hour at a time online (or indeed face to face). Nobody can concentrate for that long without a break and I need to establish a basic rapport with the student by chatting briefly about more relaxing things from time to time. But the time seems to fly more rapidly with online tuition and we seem to get through material with far greater ease than with face-to-face lessons. I suspect it’s because the process of ‘settling-in’ is a lot more rapid with online tuition – the student is already in a familiar and relaxing environment and has not had their day broken up by travel.

So those are all of the considerable advantages to online tuition. In essence it is exactly the same as face-to-face tuition but without the hassle of travel.

What about the disadvantages, however?

It’s pretty obvious that you’ll need a computer and a broadband connection and (preferably) a set of headphones and a microphone – although a lot of my students do without the latter and just use the computer’s microphone and speaker. This is the 21st century so finding a house without those items is a bit like finding a house without a telephone, television and/or motor car (though, having said that, my own home has neither television nor broadband connection as I live in the depths of rural Oxfordshire and have to go into my teaching premises in Oxford to use the broadband at present - a situation that I hope will change very soon).

At present, under the existing fairly shonky British internet, I am finding that I get interruptions to my online tutorials (mostly loss of sound via Skype) about one hour in every 30 and the lesson has had to be cancelled altogether on about one occasion in 80. This represents a serviceability of about 96%, which I do not regard as at all bad – certainly as compared to the alternatives, which would involve hiring an inexperienced local tutor and/or bombing up and down the motorway.

But apart from that the only possible objection to online tuition is simply that you aren’t used to it and you are resistant to new technology. In which case I refer you to my earlier comment about horses and carts and slates. Progress, whether we like it or not, is a fact of life and we can either embrace it or get left behind. I would imagine that within 20 years the idea of students coming to a central place to be taught (all that Carbon Dioxide!) will go the way of the cathode ray tube. In the meantime, as an added incentive to those who are unhappy about the idea of the new technology I am still offering the first hour of online tuition completely free with no obligation on either side – plus a rate of only £45 per hour for online tuition (for 2013/14) as opposed to my new premium rate of £60 per hour for face-to-face tuition in 2013/14 to reflect the fact that it is basically a total pain for all concerned.

The plan, from my point of view, is to relocate completely from Oxford in the near future to somewhere considerably warmer, cheaper and less congested – in which case I can make a good living delivering the same premium product to UK and international students that I have been for nearly a quarter of a century, but at far lower personal expense and bother. Thanks to the web I can keep totally abreast of educational developments in the UK without actually being there. The sinking Pound Sterling permitting I am hoping that this move will enable me to hold my rates at their current level for a great deal longer than would be the case in the inflation-plagued, expensive, highly-taxed area that the UK has become - which is yet another ‘plus’ in favour of online tuition for all concerned!

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