Can the internet solve the location crisis?

Any teacher will tell you that teaching in Asia is rewarding; motivated students, a society that reveres education and private funding that grants access to the best resources. (Not to mention the climate and beaches!)

But what happens when a motivated student wants more? Does an isolated location restrict learning to 8am to 4pm? It is no secret that all the expectations and motivated students leave teachers longing to relax in the evening, so why not get help from somewhere where it isn’t evening?

As a chemist I have always had people needing extra help and I have always had an open door policy that extends to far beyond school hours. This is not an act of educational martyrdom, but a belief that my students who want to strengthen their learning independently get the support they need.

Roll forward nine months after leaving Asia and I receive an email from a Head teacher asking whether I would tutor a student. Nothing new except I would be in Liverpool and they would be in Bratislava! Online? Will that work? Would that personal connection be lost? I had to know, so I said yes.

The results are in, the analysis completed and the verdict made. The answer is simple: it depends. Any mathematician will tell you the sample of one is a little short of being statistically watertight, but from my experience so far, key observations can be reviewed. From this trial the result was a great success. A grade jump from 2 (failing conditions) to 4 (passing conditions) in four and a half months. For those uninitiated to the IB, grades range from 1 to 7 with 7 being the best.

For comparison I assisted two of my students outside of the classroom face to face and saw leaps in performance by 3 points for both higher and standard level Chemistry. Notably this was over a period of a year. I only take partial credit for these successes as I can only facilitate and support. I have learnt that tutoring is only beneficial to those who are hungry to improve as it is them who have to put in the extra work on top of all their current studies. Assisting them effectively comes from a strong tutor – tutee relationship. Any student can make the right noises, “oh I see” or “yes, that is much better”, but if they are doing this during tutoring, it is a real shame. Unfortunately this stems from the systematic fear of failure and disappointment. Such emotions are instilled into us from such a young age that it takes real courage to face challenges head on and accept that something is not yet understood. That is where the supportive open partnership comes into effect. The ultimate aim of tutoring is to enable exam success. As a result, the only grade that matters is the final one. By peeling back these insecurities of failure, the student can then embrace the learning process and make exceptional progress. This trust takes longer for a lower performing student due to the cumulative academic setbacks. This creates a deeper entrenched denial of future potential ability.

If we break down the online tutoring into comparable figures, the student received 20 hours of online help with a +1hr time difference for him. These were delivered in slots ranging from 45 to 90 minutes. The flexibility, I feel, was vital. One advantage of both parties being at home was that issues could easily be adapted to, like an unexpected child crying my end or fatigue his end. It also saved significant time for both of as he could just “log on” to the action and there was no traveling for me as the tutor. His language skills were good even though English was a second language. This meant there was meaningful discussion about content; an essential feature of distance learning. He was keen to improve, however there were clear periods where this dropped down the priority list. These times were met with support as opposed to lectures or disappointment. After all, tutoring is not school and the obsession with linear progression is not a feature.

As a first foray into tutoring online I was impressed. Using even the simplest of technologies allowed for cohesive support and academic success. Yes the relationship was different, but not necessarily for the worse. The benefit for both parties was enough to make the partnership work.

I see a significant opportunity to tap into the needs of students and the availability of teachers worldwide. With the right training and policies in place students could access endless help as they desired from one site. The situation of UK teachers is such that a little extra cash would help significantly, making for a larger pool of potential tutors. The location limitations for physical tutoring abroad are clear to anyone who has tried to find any help. Rumours of tutors holding desperate students to financial ransom are rife and with the pressures of academic success being so high, a viable alternative looks set to appear.

The best formula for structure and applications to use are under review and should be ready imminently, so watch this space.

By Michael Howell, Teacher of Chemistry