Online tutoring refers to tutoring that occurs through the internet, allowing students and instructors to connect remotely. This can be synchronous, meaning interactions occur in real-time, or asynchronous, where there is a time delay between communication.
The popularity of online tutoring in education is on the rise, driven by its convenience, accessibility, and the diverse tools it offers for creating interactive and engaging learning experiences.
How does Online Tutoring Work?
The concept of online tutoring is straightforward: a digital provision of tutoring conducted through the internet. The differing role of EdTech in facilitating the online tutoring process, however, requires qualification. There are three primary aspects or types:
Tutoring Marketplace: These are online tutoring platforms that connect students with tutors, handling the matchmaking, scheduling, and payment aspects of the process.
Support Tools: These are online tutoring systems that support and enhance the tutoring experience by providing communication tools, lesson resources, and information management features.
Intelligent/AI Tutoring System: These are tutoring solutions designed to simulate the role of a human tutor using integrated AI technology.
It is common for an online tutoring system to provide both of the first two functions, handling the broader networking as well as providing the technological tools and features required for the actual tutoring process.
What is an Intelligent Tutoring System
An intelligent tutoring system (ITS) is an adaptive AI-integrated solution designed to simulate the role of a human tutor. It consists of individual components, typically known as “modules”, that deliver specific tasks or functionalities designed to structure and organise the system into a purpose-built AI tutoring solution. Though its exact structure can vary, these are the four modules typically found among intelligent tutoring systems:
The Expert Module: Also known as the Domain Module, this component contains information about the subject the student is learning about. It includes the curriculum, instructional content, and the relationships between different concepts within the domain.
The Student Module: This module is responsible for understanding and representing the knowledge, skills, and learning progress of the individual student. It allows the system to adapt its instruction based on the student’s needs and performance.
The Tutoring Module: Often considered the core component, this module uses information from the Expert and Student modules to generate personalised feedback, guidance, and exercises. It tailors the learning experience to meet the specific needs and abilities of the learner.
The User Interface Module: This module provides the graphical or auditory interface through which the learner interacts with the system. It is responsible for presenting information, feedback, and exercises in a user-friendly manner.
These four modules work together to create a dynamic and adaptive learning environment. The student model and domain model inform the tutoring module, which then generates tailored instructional content, whilst the user interface module ensures that the interaction between the system and the learner is effective and user-friendly.
Common Misconceptions Surrounding Online Tutoring
Despite its seeming simplicity, online tutoring can be susceptible to misconceptions. To gather reliable first-hand perspectives, we asked expert online tutoring providers in our community to share their thoughts on the most common misconceptions they face:
1. Tutoring is just about classroom reinforcement
askOLA: “Tutoring platforms really should help reinforce classroom teaching. That is their core purpose – a means to build upon teacher-led instruction where reinforcement or acceleration is needed.
But it is not their sole purpose. The ‘anonymity’ online tutoring can deliver helps students who do not engage in traditional classroom settings to access learning online. That is a good thing, and should be better recognised.”
2. Online implies fun without real learning
GoStudent: “While some students are visual learners, others prefer to learn via gamification. Online tutoring is ideal because it can be fun, engaging, and effective without compromising on the educational content. It allows a different kind of environment to be incorporated whilst retaining the essential element of human instruction.”
3. Tutoring is a tool reserved for catch-up
Manning’s Tutors: “Tuition can be viewed by schools as only representing a ‘catch-up’ option. For example, it is often deployed after Easter in a well-meaning yet last-ditch effort to help pupils set to miss out on a GCSE grade 4 or 5 in Maths or English.
This can indeed prove instrumental, but it’s important to remember that the benefits of tuition have an accumulator style effect. By deploying tuition earlier in a pupil’s learning journey, they can return to their classroom with increased confidence, motivation and self-efficacy, rapidly accelerating their progress for months beyond the tuition intervention.“
4. Tutoring represents a punishment tool
Manning’s Tutors: “Tuition provided to pupils by schools can sometimes, bizarrely, be misunderstood by parents as a form of punishment for their child: “Why does my son have to stay after school for extra lessons.
In reality, tutoring represents an opportunity to narrow the disadvantage gap, offering pupils from all backgrounds the same access to 1-to-1 or small group targeted learning, and space to ask questions and cover gaps in learning that there may not be time for in a regular class setting.”
Conversely, GoStudent adopt a more positive outlook on parents’ view of online tutoring, perhaps indicative of a growing trend in education:
GoStudent: “Parents seemingly recognise the benefits of online tutoring. In our Future of Education Report 2023, 77% of parents expressed positive intent. Our aim is to bridge the gap between the more ‘traditional’ and modern educational approaches, providing a reliable solution for parents seeking effective tutoring for their children.”
5. Virtual tutoring is a supplemental provision
Whizz Education: “Many perceive virtual tutoring systems as a supplemental provision, when really they are best deployed and embedded within a whole school teaching, learning and data provision culture. There is insufficient awareness and know-how within schools on how to embed virtual tuition in alignment with the school’s development plan and context.
Virtual tutors deliver continuous formative assessment data, enabling agile responsiveness as well as the potential to break the paradigm of separate point in time assessments that are currently commonplace. This means schools, and particularly school groups and MATs, have the potential to mine live learning datasets to support targeted interventions in a timely and highly effective way.”
6. Online tutoring is less effective than face-to-face instruction
GoStudent: “Traditional in-person tutoring has its merits, but online tutoring provides a unique advantage of personalised attention without geographical constraints. Students receive dedicated support in the comfort of their own homes, leading to a more relaxed and focused learning environment.”
Typical Features and Benefits of Online Tutoring Platforms
Online Tutoring Support Tools
Online platforms that support the tutoring process leverage digital communication and collaboration tools to enhance the learning experience for both students and tutors. Here are their main features:
Real-Time Interaction: Synchronous communication tools, including video conferencing and live chat, enable tutors and students to engage in real-time, fostering dynamic and immediate interactions.
Flexible Timing: Asynchronous communication, such as emails and discussion forums, accommodates varying schedules, allowing for effective communication with a time delay.
Enhanced Collaboration: Interactive tools like digital whiteboards support real-time collaboration between tutor and learner, while screen sharing facilitates visual walkthroughs of concepts. File sharing further streamlines the distribution of learning materials and assignments.
Instant Feedback: Online assessments and quizzes can be administered in real-time, testing student understanding, while automated grading systems provide immediate feedback, promoting continuous learning.
Efficient Information Management: Learning management features organise learning materials and assignments, ensuring easy access for both students and tutors.
Progress Tracking: Tracking capabilities and generated reports offer insights into student progress, allowing tutors to analyse performance and tailor future sessions accordingly.
An online tutoring system grants students and instructors increased autonomy in determining the where, when, and how of learning, resulting in a more accessible, flexible, and ultimately inclusive avenue for academic support. Additionally, their collaborative tools enable instructors to deliver efficient and engaging sessions, supplemented by timely feedback, while their tracking and management capabilities empower instructors to construct personalised guidance and actionable plans, fostering improved learning outcomes.
Online Tutoring Marketplace
Online tutoring ‘marketplaces’ function beyond academic assistance by streamlining the act of finding a tutor itself. Here are their defining characteristics:
Efficient Matching: A preliminary assessment, questionnaire, or consultation process ensures that students are matched with tutors who suit their academic needs, preferences, and learning styles.
Flexible Scheduling: Students enjoy the flexibility of scheduling tutoring sessions at times that are mutually convenient for both parties, promoting effective learning without time constraints.
Secure Payment Transactions: The handling of payment transactions by the platform serves as a secure intermediary, ensuring smooth and transparent financial interactions between students and tutors.
An online tutoring marketplace, by pairing learners with suitable instructors based on an in-depth consultation process, can alleviate the anxieties associated with choosing a tutor. Furthermore, by handling payments and providing schedule flexibility, it streamlines the administrative aspects of the tutoring process, making it a less burdensome, laborious task.
Intelligent/AI Tutoring Systems
Intelligent tutoring systems aim to provide effective tutoring through interactive and tailored guidance, feedback, and assessment. Here are their typical features:
Adaptive Instruction: AI algorithms collect information on individual learner preferences, goals, and learning styles, and adjust the pace and format of their instruction accordingly.
Content Administering: Adaptive learning technology allows intelligent tutoring systems to analyse the learner’s skills, knowledge, and progress, and subsequently adjust content, materials, and assessments accordingly. Some AI tutoring platforms can generate their own educational content, whilst others will rapidly source and administer existing educational materials, textbooks, or curriculum standards.
Marking and Feedback: Tutoring systems provide automated marking, allowing learners to immediately pinpoint gaps in their knowledge, as well as targeted feedback that guide them towards the correct solutions.
Data Collection: Intelligent tutoring systems will collect and analyse an individual learner’s interactions, performance, and academic progress. This information allows patterns and areas of improvement to be identified, and can be leveraged by the system to improve how it delivers instruction and feedback.
In essence, AI tutoring platforms offer an efficient, tailored, and data-driven learning experience. This can help create an engaging learning journey for students, fostering both academic success and a positive attitude towards learning.
Human Tutor vs AI: Unravelling the Dichotomy
In recent years, AI has made significant inroads into education, and its potential role in online tutoring naturally raises complex questions and concerns for us to consider. But is it helpful to approach the discussion of humans and AI in online tutoring as a competition involving a single winner? We don’t think so.
From October to December 2017, twelve undergraduate students at X University in Japan participated in an experiment on tutoring formats. The learners were assigned two out of three tutoring options: face-to-face, Skype, and OriHime – a telepresence robot controlled by an agent.
Following the experiment, feedback on the OriHime option revealed differing preferences on the social communication aspect of speaking to a robot
Student 1: “I wanted to see the facial expression of the other person, but I only heard their voice.” Student 2: “Orihime is easier to talk to [than a human] (…) because there is no tension in a conversation with OriHime.”
Consequently, as education increasingly emphasises the individuality of each learner, it’s vital that online tutoring is afforded the same consideration. While some students may favour a human instructor, others may feel more comfortable or engaged with an AI tutor.
Instead, we consider it more pertinent to focus on the unique strengths and weaknesses of each tutoring form. Our community experts have valuable insights to share on this matter:
Manning’s Tutors offers human-led online tutoring, with technology’s role strictly limited to the use of their distance learning software, Lessonspace. In their eyes, human tutors are better equipped than AI to:
1. Build Strong Relationships
“Effective learning is not just about transferring knowledge; it’s also about building strong relationships. Tutors act as mentors and role models for students, fostering a positive and encouraging environment that promotes growth. They engage with their likes and dislikes, hobbies and life visions, and are able to empathise with students, understanding their challenges and offering emotional support.
This connection can boost students’ confidence, motivation, and overall well-being, leading to improved academic performance. A real-life relationship cannot be mimicked, and is a nuanced and powerful form of connection that can help learners to thrive.”
2. Provide Feedback Better Attuned to Learner Needs
“While AI technology can, in theory, offer a degree of automated feedback, it can lack the emotional empathy provided by a real human being.
Where an AI tutor will assess a pupil’s mastery of a topic, and subsequently repeat many more practice questions before moving on, a human tutor may pick up feelings of frustration and demotivation, and therefore suggest a beneficial break to enhance the learning journey. They are able to acknowledge the imperfect nature of human learning.”
3. Deliver Adaptive Instruction
“Tutors possess the ability to adapt their tutoring strategies to suit a student’s learning pace and preferences. They can slow down or speed up lessons, modify explanations, and gently yet tenaciously introduce alternative approaches until the student grasps the material.”
4. Offer Support Beyond the Classroom
Learning Strategies: “Beyond subject-specific knowledge, tutors provide essential mentorship and guidance to students. They can help students set realistic goals, develop effective study habits, manage their time efficiently, and navigate academic challenges.
Professional Support: Tutors can also offer insights into higher education options, career paths, and provide advice on personal and professional growth. This holistic support fosters self-confidence, resilience, and very often equips students with essential life skills beyond the classroom.
Maths-Whizz is an entirely AI-driven virtual Maths tutor. They consider AI better placed than human instructors to provide personalised and real-time assistance to learners:
“AI/Intelligent tutoring systems engage with students in real-time, tailoring instruction based on ability, rather than age group, and providing feedback that enables students to immediately identify and fill gaps that have arisen. This efficient personalised approach ensures students make meaningful progress during their education journey, allowing for accelerated learning.”
askOLA provides students with on-demand access to human tutors via live chat, and has recently integrated a Human-in-the-Loop AI model into their service. They believe AI will make tutoring more accessible to learners:
“When the vast majority of students cannot afford tutoring, then maybe AI is about democratisation. An automated learning experience right now is likely better than no learning at all.”
GoStudent places human tutors at the forefront whilst heavily utilising tech infrastructure to empower educators to create more engaging and effective learning environments. They believe that supporting human tutors with technology can:
1. Bolster Student-Tutor Engagement
“Having researched the ways students best learn, it’s clear that there is a tremendous appetite for the increased use of tech in education, and this is reflected by what we’ve built. GoClass, our custom-made virtual classroom, makes lessons more interactive whilst ensuring that the student-tutor interaction is the ultimate focus. GoStudent VR, our most recent innovation, is an immersive language learning platform for tutors to teach our custom curriculum in a virtual environment.
It’s about providing students with the best of both worlds. We understand not only the need, but also the importance of human connections, and we believe that technology can be used to enhance this experience. ”
2. Save Tutors Time
“AI’s integration in teaching will free up capacity for tutors who remain instrumental in creating a learning environment that is more personalised for their students. At GoStudent, we’re developing an AI lesson plan generator trained on the local curriculum, saving each tutor an average of 15 minutes per lesson.”
3. Improve Learning Outside the Classroom
“AI-driven content-based learning will allow students to study in between lessons and engage with content tailored to their specific needs.”
What impact have users observed when using an online tutoring system?
It’s one thing stating the benefits of your product; it’s another thing proving that the outcome actually occurs. On EdTech Impact, we ask our providers to describe the features of their product, as well as specify the specific outcomes they’re intended to deliver. Our users then rate each outcome individually when leaving a review.
There are 26 online tutoring systems on the EdTech Impact marketplace with listed outcomes, and these outcomes have been rated 67 times by our users. Here are the most common outcomes, along with their impact ratings:
Developing a Procurement Strategy
Before embarking on a search for a solution, it’s crucial to establish a clear procurement strategy that explicitly defines the problem you’re aiming to solve. This helps bring into focus the various elements essential for successfully achieving your desired outcome.
In the context of online tutoring systems, these key elements include:
Across the world, education is still scrambling to recover from the profoundly negative impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on pupils’ learning, socio-emotional development, and mental health. We can safely assume, therefore, that online tutoring is set to remain an important sector within EdTech.
So what’s the next step? Here’s what our experts had to say:
1. Technology is evolving; so must tutors
GoStudent: “It is clear that technology is set to play a central role in the continued advancement of the structure of education: the continued implementation of hybrid learning, the introduction of AI-enhanced education, and increased engagement with virtual reality. These new formats, whilst allowing students and teachers to benefit from more personalised learning programmes, will have a natural impact on how the tutoring system operates.
Tutors must therefore embrace what lies ahead, adapting to changes in how information is consumed, and developing new skills in line with society’s demands.”
Manning’s Tutors: “While AI and chatbot technologies serve to remove burdensome and repetitive tasks from teachers, they also introduce great challenges to how pupils are assessed. The old “don’t just copy Wikipedia” might evolve to “don’t just get AI to write your essay” – an evolution in instruction.
Among stronger educational settings, and by extension tutors, rising to these challenges will involve critically incorporating AI into assessment tasks to better prepare learners for the work world that they’ll be entering: “Use AI to generate an essay on this topic, and then fact check and criticise your AI’s response”, or “Ask AI to prepare two opposing arguments on a controversial topic, and then compare and contrast their responses”.
2. AI will make tutoring more accessible
askOLA: “Modern education is all about accessibility, yet the vast majority of students cannot afford tutoring. That is why, over the past 18 months, we have pioneered Human-in-the-Loop technology and processes that enable us to deliver high quality, low cost coaching, wellbeing and learning support for a few £’s per pupil per year.
In the next 5 years, we’re hopeful that AI and tutoring are increasingly ‘blended’ to not only ensure relevant, safe and personalised learning at scale, but to make tutoring accessible to all.”
Whizz Education: “As technology evolves, and resources and budgets in mainstream education continue to be squeezed, greater awareness and evidence of the cost/benefit ratios of AI tutoring systems will unfold. This will likely result in their mainstream adoption and deployment as a new normal, serving to democratise tuition as a benefit available to all.”