Online learning has distinct advantages and disadvantages. To find them, you have to examine the practice as a whole - not merely as a participant.
One reason to consider the bigger picture before making any assertions on the subject is your experiences with learning via the internet. As a teacher, tutor or learner, if you met with success in your efforts, you would naturally emphasise the upsides.
On the other hand, if your experience was less than rewarding, you might consider virtual learning a failed initiative overall.
Your experiences are important but you need to see both sides of the equation - the good and the bad before you can decide whether your experience was a one-off or the actual state of affairs.
Superprof, from our lofty position in the online education industry, assures you that the benefits far outweigh the downsides. We're not merely asking you to believe us; we offer proof.
Throughout this series of articles, we've laid out best practices for online learning, presented research into why this method of educating students works so well and expounded on notable trends in virtual learning.
We are now at a point where online learning is practically a necessity. In these COVID times, when so much of our education takes place online, your Superprof's ongoing efforts to shed light on virtual learning points out its downsides.
The Trouble With Technology
We often say that humans are fallible. If we accept that statement as a fundamental truth, then we must, by extension, apply that truism to anything created by humans, including technology.
That assertion is best proven through the struggles of Ned Ludd, whose name became associated with the movement against technological innovation in the early 19th Century.
Today, Luddites everywhere view technological advances with mistrust and, sometimes, outright fear. Though their reactions sometimes go overboard, recent exposés of data mining and hacking, algorithm-driven media selections and bizarre job dismissals give the tech-averse position more credence.
Still, like it or not (Luddite or not?), technology is here to stay. So are its pitfalls and failings - at least until new advances are made, after which we will have new failings to contend with.
We are very fortunate that the majority of UK households have broadband access, even if more rural homes don't have that level of connectivity. Furthermore, our WIFI infrastructure is reliable - for the most part. Now, for the downsides.
The absolutely illogical idea that fifth-generation (5G) wireless networks are somehow broadcasting the coronavirus has taken root. Attempts to eliminate the threat include, of all things, attacking the cell towers. The unfortunate consequence of that damage is a loss of connectivity.
There is no timetable for when a tower will be attacked. Students may be attending classes at that time; suddenly, their connection is gone!
Tech-averse tower attackers are not the only reason for connectivity failures. Just recently, we were informed of an older model television set that disrupted an entire village's broadband capability from seven in the morning until late at night. It took technicians a year and a half to find the problem.
Beyond connectivity issues - including the equipment in your home, such as routers and your devices, lie the limitations of online applications.
There are more learning resources available online than ever before and new apps enter the market every day. Despite them, interaction remains a problem both tutors and students contend with during every session. For one, the lag between speaking and hearing sometimes causes participants to talk over one another.
Collaboration is another stumbling block. During a traditional study session with tutor and student at work in the same room, the tutor would demonstrate how to... solve an equation, diagram a sentence or write a chemical formula; the student would then copy those steps while their tutor guides them.
Tutors who use Skype, Facetime or Messenger to conduct their virtual lessons are limited to video chat and screen sharing but those who make use of more integrated video chat platforms have an entire suite of teaching and collaborative tools at their disposal.
Unfortunately, Skype seems to still be the preferred platform for tutors to connect with their students. That means student learning may be limited to what can be said rather than a combination of speaking, seeing and doing.
Life and learning are not all about the cons; you should also read about the pros of online learning.
Paying Your Tutor via the Web
In the not-so-distant past, tutors would go to clients' homes, have lessons or provide academic support and, after their hour was up, Mum or Dad waited by the door to slip them their pay and see them out.
These days, nobody goes to anyone's house.
Paying for tutoring is now done online and there are several options to make things easier, Paypal, Stripe and Worldpay among them.
What happens if you don't use such a service? What happens if your tutor doesn't want to be paid online? What if your tutor lives in a country that doesn't support Worldpay or Stripe? What happens if the technology fails, the transaction is declined or, worse, your account is hacked?
Who pays the fees (if any): payer or payee?
Many appreciate the convenience of their virtual wallet but there are enough concerns over such systems that they are seen more like a con than a pro of online tutoring.
Also, discover why online is trending in the UK.
Problems With Tutoring Online
Schools all over the world learned the hard way that teachers cannot expect primary school students to sit in front of their computer for the same length of time a lesson in school would last, especially if they're not supervised.
When virtual school became a fact of life, we found that nobody was prepared for virtual teaching; not the teachers, not the students and, perhaps more tellingly, not the parents. To understand this point, we have to look at the standard education model.
At a certain age, children are expected to go to school. That leaves parents with a block of time formerly filled with caring for their child. When children had to stay home and schooling moved into the cyber-world, many caregivers carried on as normal: their child was 'in school' so they left the room and let the learning happen.
Except it didn't happen. Kids soon got distracted, fidgety and unfocused. For them, too, this version of school was not real. They would get up and play, leave the room and generally not take part in the learning. It soon became obvious that parents needed to function as teachers' aides, in effect in school alongside their children.
For older learners, things went a bit better but even the older child gets distracted in the classroom and will often feel they are there under duress. Teaching people who feel like they’re being force-fed knowledge is always likely to be more difficult.
All of these factors combine to make online tutoring a more difficult proposition than it should be but there is light at the end of the path.
Consider students who enrol in distance learning courses or log on for some extra tuition. They do so under their own steam because it is something they have chosen to do. You could say that their desire to learn is heightened by their motivation to go the extra mile and instigate their learning sessions.
We're not asking you to imagine a toddler, on his own initiative logging on for supplemental learning before nap time.
Older learners, college and university students - and those rare treasures who feel invested in their education while still in secondary school have an easier time submitting to online tutoring sessions than those who feel they will be hammered by educators for the rest of their lives.
For some, the jury is still out regarding lessons via the web. Can you help them discover why they should try online learning?
Pitfalls of Learning Online
The first step toward effective teaching is forming a bond with students. It's much harder to bond with anyone from miles away, though, isn't it? Tutors have to work much harder to earn their students' buy-in when placing an empathetic hand on a shoulder is no longer possible.
And then, there’s temptation.
Plonking a kid in front of a computer, sticking them in an online session and leaving them to it is all well and good, but kids aren't stupid. In fact, they're quite tech-savvy, even at a young age. They know how open a new tab in their web browser, open gaming applications and otherwise sail off into the World Wide Wonder. They also know how to disconnect from a video chat session.
It all comes down to the effectiveness of teaching in the established learning environment.
In the earliest years of our lives, visual and verbal clues form the cornerstone of our learning processes and, thus, our evolution - from toddler to child to adolescent and so on. This process does not change in the academic environment.
Kids in classrooms play off of every expression, every inflexion, every impassioned speech their teacher offers. This quality is unmatched in an online tutoring session, no matter how adept the tutor is in delivering lessons online.
Kids need structure in their lives. Going to school is an essential pillar of normal life routine and a natural rebellion against institutionalised learning will always have some impact on education.
Students who choose online tutoring are often already instilled with the willingness to learn but online connections throw up barriers to establishing a true connection with their tutor. They make the learning feel less real, somehow.
Let's step out from the cloud all of these cons have created to discover some benefits of online tutoring. Here is what researchers say about the pros of online learning.
How to Ensure the Best Possible Online Learning Experience
Despite all of these cons, there is plenty of benefit to being tutored online with a qualified and experienced tutor.
Before any work begins, parents and students should be confident that their tutor is who they say they are.
Checking tutors' credentials can be difficult, particularly when they sit at a computer anywhere in the world. The web's power to transcend the boundaries of distance is certainly a point in its favour, but the inevitable price of virtual transactions - shopping, tutoring or schooling, is reliability.
What do you do when your online tutoring session terminates through some gremlin in the wires? What happens if the session gets hacked and, suddenly, less-than-educational content is on display (as happened during a Zoom class in the US)?
What if the session is rendered unproductive because the student can't focus or the tutor doesn't use the right tools to make learning engaging and fun?
If ever there was a surefire way to see a learning experience go south, it’s through a build-up of little frustrations like these.
Follow these steps to make sure your online tutoring sessions are worth every bit that you pay for them.
- Make sure you have up-to-date technology - your routers and devices all have the latest software updates.
- Vet your tutor: engage with tutors with profiles on legitimate tutoring sites such as Superprof
- Verify that your tutor uses only the most advanced educational software and applications
- Communicate expectations with your tutor and your child
- State what your child needs: homework help, academic coaching or guidance in a specific subject
- Do your part to ensure every session's success; stay in the room if your child needs supervision to stay on task
- Periodically evaluate the tutoring sessions
- Request and provide feedback as needed
Most online tutoring websites were designed to supplement students' direct learning experiences - classroom learning has long-established that lessons in school are far superior to virtual ones.
Tutoring is meant to help you understand what you learned in class and fill knowledge gaps left by classroom education. A tutor's function is to give you a leg up in the competitive academic environment – not duplicate classroom materials or the learning experience you might reasonably expect to have in school.
Online tutoring was never meant to challenge classroom learning, more so to pick up the pieces when things don’t go to plan.
Now that you know the cons of online tutoring and how to counter some of them, you can adjust your expectations and enjoy the work your private tutor will put in to give you as complete an education as possible.
However, if you're still wondering whether online learning is effective, you may want to see positive proof that online learning works.