Tutoring and the Lure of Technology - Jan '18

By Guest writer Joe Nutt, Educational Consultant and Author

Almost two decades ago I first saw someone tutoring via video conferencing technology. I watched a handful of A level electronics students sitting in front of what today we’d call a television, with a small camera perched on top of it, while a tutor taught them remotely. I’d been invited to sit in by the company the tutor worked for, a business that was doing very well delivering niche A level subjects like electronics and psychology. They were later sold to a major textbook publisher for a tidy sum.

The quality of the image and audio were fine. The kit actually worked. But I was nonetheless surprised, and a little dismayed, at what I witnessed. The tutor spent much of the time reading from the textbook they had placed next to their keyboard, and apart from when the session kicked off, never once looked directly into the camera. The students, all had paper and pen notepads and the same textbooks on small desks, attached to their seats. Every few minutes one of them tried to intervene with a question, or because they hadn’t understood something, but like them, I could see the tutor was not looking at anything other than their keyboard, and textbook. He ploughed on, literally regardless. When I asked the company who had invited me how they trained their tutors to teach using this new technology…they didn’t.

Two decades later and the technology has undoubtedly moved on. The screens are slimmer, the cameras are tiny and built in, but I wonder how much else has changed?

It’s not at the level of the tutor I have any concerns. I am sure lots of professional tutors use video regularly and effectively, constantly and professionally aware of how they are “connecting” with their tutees. Since that first experience a whole raft of additional tools have been developed and I’m equally confident lots of tutors use those to support what they are doing. Sharing images as they teach, drawing over the top of and annotating things for example. But whether or not the industry itself has changed in terms of how it thinks and behaves, I see no evidence whatsoever.

This week over 30,000 visitors will attend BETT, easily the biggest annual education event in the UK, clutching (probably plastic) carrier bags full of freebies they won’t ever need or use. They will wander, mostly aimlessly from stand to stand, around what is in essence an international orgy of educational task avoidance.

Seminars and presentations delivered by “gurus” and “thought leaders,” funded and fielded by interested businesses and trade organisations, will attempt to give what is just a trade show, all the gloss of being an educational event.

The irony is that amidst levels of hype so dense you can probably breathe it in, there will be some tools and technology that professional tutors might have no idea exist, but which in their skilled hands could be a huge benefit to them and those they teach. If you have never visited BETT and have the time, I’d urge you to go to see for yourself if you can pick up something you had no idea existed, but which could be a really useful addition to your armoury.

But what the industry has never understood, in spite of all its protestations to the contrary, is that it doesn’t listen to skilled, experienced professionals. Instead, in the rare cases where it employs anyone with credible teaching experience, it selects tech advocates and zealots because they reflect back the glowing, innovative image it has manufactured for itself. You will see them on numerous stands, stressing their professional credentials while delivering presentations that look like they’re made for teaching, but which believe me, a sales manager has made absolutely sure contain the right messages. I’d love to see this situation change: but I’m not betting on it.

Joe Nutt is an educational consultant, author and columnist for the TES. He can be contacted at www.educationthinking.co.uk and is crowdfunding his latest book, The Point of Poetry with the publisher's Unbound.

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