Choosing and Using Virtual Tutoring Platforms

What is a Virtual Tutoring Platform? 

A virtual tutoring platform is an online conferencing system that facilitates virtual tutoring. This can include commonly known video conferencing software such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams as well as video conferencing software specifically designed for online learning such as BigBlueButton and GoBoard. Additionally, some tutoring programs specifically designed for online tutoring, such as AirTutors, have custom-built virtual tutoring platforms. This document should help you when selecting and using a tutoring platform. 

Why use a Virtual Tutoring Platform?

Virtual tutoring allows tutors to help students regardless of physical location. When meeting in the same physical location is not feasible, virtual tutoring can provide some of the same educational benefits in a safe and potentially cost-effective way. Even when in-person tutoring is feasible, virtual tutoring offers some advantages. Largely unconstrained by the limitations of physical infrastructure, virtual tutoring can scale up more easily than in-person tutoring, access a wider pool of qualified tutors, and deliver services to students across a wider geographic range. Sessions can be observed in real-time and recorded for reference, giving supervisors and parents greater insight into tutor and student behavior during sessions than they would otherwise have. Virtual tutoring can democratize access to individualized learning, providing private and personalized instruction to students who cannot get it elsewhere.

What common problems should I consider?

While virtual tutoring is sometimes the best or only option available, programs must be aware of some common problems. In particular, students may not attend or otherwise engage in virtual tutoring as well as they would in in-person tutoring.

  • Accountability. Students’ families may need to play a bigger role in ensuring attendance and resolving tech issues.
  • Connection. While students may already be accustomed to building deep and meaningful relationships mediated by technology, it can still be harder for tutors to cultivate a rapport with students online than in-person.
  • Time Crunch. Virtual conversations take longer due to accumulated lag. Plan short sessions with few transitions!

How do I choose a virtual tutoring platform for my program?

Platform Capabilities: What core capabilities does your platform need to have? How will students access sessions?

  • Live video conferencing. Can the platform connect students and tutors over live video chat with camera and mic?
  • Live text chat with direct messaging. Can students without camera or mic access still participate in sessions?
  • Collaborative digital whiteboard. Can students and tutors work in the same shared space to visualize content?
  • Two-way screen-sharing. Can tutors broadcast their screens to students? Can students do the same if allowed to?
  • Real-time document collaboration. Can students share documents with tutors and get feedback as they work?
  • Recording. Can the platform record live sessions and store backup recordings for supervisors and parents?
  • Asynchronous delivery. Can students access session recordings or transcripts afterwards for review?
  • Accessibility. Can session recordings include closed captions? Can students dial in to sessions from a phone?
  • Role-Based Access Controls. Can the platform restrict who has access to what? Can it keep sessions secure and private? Can it prevent students from accessing tutors’ backend data? Can it provide tutors with moderation tools so that they control how students are able engage in the session? 

Additional features may seem like pure upside, but they're quite the opposite if they make your software so processor- or bandwidth-intensive that students' devices can no longer run it fluidly. Perfect software is not software to which nothing more can be added, but software from which nothing more can be taken away.

Platform Considerations: How can I choose the best platform from among the fully-functional options? 

  • How much specialized training will tutors and students need to use all the platform’s useful features?
  • Is the software’s interface intuitive for both students and tutors to navigate?
    • Is the software accessible for all students, according to UDL and web accessibility guidelines?
    • Is the interface minimalistic, not overwhelming, for students and tutors? 
  • Will infrastructure limitations (such as slow internet connections or old devices) prevent students from using the software at school or at home?
    • Don’t test your software in ideal conditions on new desktop computers connected to gigabit ethernet. Test it on the devices and internet connections that your least well-equipped students will use.
      • What devices will your least well-equipped students be using?
      • How slow will their internet be? How reliable will it be?
      • Consider all use cases, both at your students’ schools and in your students’ homes, before committing to specific software.
      • Can a five-year-old Chromebook connecting to the internet over a phone’s data hotspot run your software fluidly? If not, where will all your students get faster computers and connections?

How do I facilitate effective virtual sessions as a tutor?

Tutor Preparation

  • Use your best tech. Ethernet, not wifi, if possible. Bright, diffuse lighting. A separate microphone and webcam, if possible.
  • Know your platform. Spend time testing out its features and foibles, and be prepared to assist students with it.
  • Be engaging. Look directly at the camera. Set up a background environment that is interesting, not distracting.
  • Get there early and stay on-task. Load up all your materials ahead of time, and close all unrelated programs.
  • Keep the time. Set up a visible timer for yourself to check the time remaining and stay on pace during sessions.

Student Preparation

  • Get to square one. Provide students extremely detailed instructions for how to set up an account, log in, and start.
  • Stick to a schedule. Communicate with students and families ahead of time exactly when sessions will take place.
  • Set norms early. Make it clear to students how they should engage during sessions, with you and with their peers.
  • Keep interfaces consistent. Make it easy for students to find everything they need in the same place every time.
  • Show, don’t tell. Share your screen to demonstrate various features, such as how to access asynchronous content.
  • Step by step. Explicitly model each step in a new process for students, whether using new software or new skills.

Presenting Content 

  • Practice makes perfect. Rehearse sessions beforehand. Watch your recordings to find what to change next time.
  • Create structure. Create and display an agenda for the session so students know where they are in the process.
  • Outline your gameplan. Don’t just read from a script, but do write up clear and coherently structured key points.
  • Make your thinking visible. Show your own work visually, whether it’s calculations or margin notes on a text.
  • Mix up the medium. Include multimedia like images and video in your sessions to make them more memorable. Make sure to include multiple means of representation and accessibility supports (e.g. subtitles for videos).
  • Present multimedia yourself. Broadcast multimedia via screen-sharing, rather than redirecting students to other sites. This is more taxing on your own device, but less so on your students’, and it reduces friction and distraction.
  • Provide additional resources. At the end of a session, share links to websites or videos that illustrate, explain, or elaborate on concepts and help the student become more familiar with the material and understand it more clearly. 

Interactive Learning

  • Wait for it. There is a delay between speaking and being heard. Give students extra time to hear you and respond.
  • Student voices first. Prioritize students’ voices in your sessions. Ask clear and concise questions; let students take their time giving thoughtful answers. Ask follow-up questions rather than restating their ideas in your own words.
  • Multiple methods. Give students several different ways to interact with you and with the session content. Let them share aloud with camera and mic, type in the chat, write or draw on the digital whiteboard, share screen, etc.
  • Check for understanding. After modeling a new concept, ask quick questions designed to catch misconceptions.
  • Don’t just talk. Students should always be able to apply the ideas from discussions right away to practice tasks. This helps cement new knowledge in students’ minds while making sessions more stimulating and engaging.
  • Watch them work. Via screen-sharing or a shared document, monitor independent work to keep students on-task.
  • Give specific feedback. Instead of vague exhortations (“Pay closer attention!”) or banal praise (“Good effort!”), give students feedback they can use to improve immediately and measurably. (“Make sure to carry the 1 there.”)
  • Make progress visible. Give quick closing assessments and record results to show students their own progress.
  • Purposeful pairing. If you are tutoring small groups, give students opportunities to work in pairs — and use data to pick purposeful pairs (e.g. students with similar skill levels) depending on the particular group-work task.

Additional Resources

For more detailed information on facilitating online learning, check out these resources from Instruction Partners, originally designed for teachers working with entire online classrooms of students all at once:

Guidelines for Effective Distance Learning
Student Engagement