Rebecca Zook - Math Tutoring Online

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Topic: online tutoring technology

Tutoring Technology Update: What I Use Now

Monday, October 1st, 2012

I’ve been getting a lot of questions about what technology I’m currently using to work with my students. So I’m gonna lay it all out for you!

Whiteboards: With all my students, I use groupboard designer as our online whiteboard.

I am no longer using Team Skrbl, which unfortunately is no longer functional. Talkandwrite only works with an old version of Skype (the desktop API) so now I just use groupboard.

I have tried every single whiteboard I can find out there, and these are my current favorites. If you have one you prefer, let me know, and I’ll be happy to give it a try.

Video: All students now use Skype video during our sessions so we can both see and hear each other.

Pen Tablets: Also, re: which bamboo pen tablet I recommend — every single one I’ve used has worked great with the whiteboards above. I just use the most basic model because that’s all my students need for writing math out — they just don’t need the fancier functions of a professional graphics tablet.

Thanks to all the developers who have made these awesome products a reality! I use them every day with my students, and I really want to spread the word about the good stuff.

Are you intrigued by using this kind of fun technology to work one-on-one with a caring mentor to master math, increase your confidence, and really improve your grades?

Then I invite you to apply for my very special one-on-one math tutoring programs!

Just click here to get started with your special application. Once your application is received, we’ll set up a special phone call to get clear if my approach would be a good fit for your child.

I’m excited to connect!

Sending you love,

Related posts:
How to find a trustworthy online tutor
My online tutoring technology – why I use handwriting instead of typing
Encouragement, anywhere
How handwriting helps us learn

Topic: online tutoring technology

Encouragement, anywhere

Tuesday, December 27th, 2011

Back when I was preparing to use technology to work with my students, I made a master list of everything I would normally do during an in-person session and then figured out a way to have the same experience even if we weren’t in the same place.

One of the biggest things that concerned me was whether or not students would feel as reassured or encouraged if we weren’t in the same spot. How could I plan for this in advance?

My list actually said something like:
How will I give hugs and stickers?

And my proposed solution was:
Hug the monitor and pretend we are hugging each other
Draw encouraging sticker-like shapes next to the student’s work
Send stickers in the mail!

That’s what I was prepared for. But after tutoring this way for almost two and a half years, I’ve realized my students have developed their own additional ways of connecting with me.

My students have invented:
-students drawing stars next to their own work to show they’re proud of it
-high-fiving the webcam
-webcam “fist bump” of congratulations

(And, I have even had students pretend to feed me pizza through the webcam or offer me a chicken sandwitch! Seriously, I was not expecting that to happen!)

In all of this, I have learned that in the vast majority of cases, as long as the camaraderie and trust is there, it really doesn’t matter whether we’re in person or not. AND each kid has their own way of receiving congratulations and encouragement…even with the technology.

Topic: online tutoring technology

HOW TO: find a trustworthy online tutor

Saturday, November 12th, 2011

Now that technology allows kids to work online with tutors anywhere on earth, parents and kids face a whole new set of questions. How can you find a reputable online tutor if you might never meet face-to-face? Is online tutoring safe? Will it actually help?

When you evaluate potential tutors, you’ll want to assess the tutor’s personal qualities—their trustworthiness and their capacity to mentor your kid. You’ll also want to choose someone who uses technology that puts the human connection center stage. Here’s how.

Look for an individual. Even if you choose to go through a large tutoring company, look for online tutors who provide a photo of themselves and a bio. This information about their personality, experience, and approach can give you a sense of whether they’ll work well with your kid before you actually book a session. If possible, see if they have testimonials or case studies on their website. Check for recommendations on their LinkedIn profile or other review sites.

Talk to the tutor. Look for tutors you can talk to before you hire them. Give the tutor a call to discuss your situation, ask questions, and see if they’d be a good fit before making a decision. A trustworthy online tutor will be happy to have this discussion with you free of charge. In fact, they’ll probably want to have a “get to know you” conversation to evaluate whether you’re a good client for them before they decide to work with a new student.

Look for a setup where the same tutor works with your kid every time.
Working with a company that gives you 24/7 access to a randomized pool of online tutors means your kid will be able to get help around the clock, and you won’t need to book appointments in advance. These unlimited access plans are also usually less expensive than working with an individual.

However, though the tutors in this setup will probably be able to help with the issue du jour, there’s no way they’ll be able to see how today’s work fits into your kid’s bigger academic picture. It’s like going to a walk-in emergency clinic. The tutors may be qualified, but they just won’t have the perspective that comes from a long-term mentoring relationship.

A good tutor will keep track of your kid’s long-range academic goals and challenges, and keep them in mind as they manage each session. They’ll help your kid plan ahead to minimize academic emergencies, and address gaps in knowledge before they become major issues. So even if you go with a big tutoring company, seek out a situation where you can ask for the same tutor every time and book that specific tutor in advance.

Look for live voice communication.
It’s essential that your kid be able to ask their tutor questions out loud and hear their tutor’s voice. Instant messaging-style tutoring lacks the nanosecond-to-nanosecond communication that is the foundation of all great teaching.

Voice communication allows a tutor to hear if the student’s tone of voice is confident or bewildered and whether or not they’re “getting” the material. The immediacy of talking either on the phone or over VoIP allows a student and tutor to synchronize in a way that just can’t happen over IM. Plus, many students feel more comfortable talking out loud about what’s stumping them instead of having to type it out.

Look for handwriting. Seek out a tutor who uses technology where both the student and the tutor can write their work out by hand instead of typing. If a student is already confused enough to need a tutor, the interface should be as intuitive as possible. Having to worry about how to type your math problem, for example, doesn’t help you learn how to solve that problem. There are several innovative ways to integrate handwriting and online tutoring, and different tutoring companies use different methods.

In conclusion… At its best, great tutoring isn’t just about helping a kid learn a skill or pass a class—it teaches your kid to learn independently and rely on themselves to find answers. To maximize the positive impact of online tutoring, seek out an individual who you’ll work with consistently and who uses technology that puts the human connection front and center.

Related posts:
How to find a good math tutor
How to incorporate a tutor into your homeschooling or unschooling environment
How handwriting helps us learn (or why I use handwriting instead of typing)
My Tutoring Technology (4): Why I use handwriting instead of typing

Topic: online tutoring technology

How handwriting helps us learn (or, why I use handwriting instead of typing)

Monday, February 21st, 2011

When I decided to start tutoring my students online, I wanted it to be as intuitive as possible. It was really important to me that my students be able to write their math out by hand, just like they would on their homework or tests.

Now, a recent Wall Street Journal article by Gwendolyn Bounds explores a new crop of research into how handwriting helps us learn.

Among the studies Bounds writes about, the one I find most interesting is one by educational psychology professor Virginia Berninger, who found that children in second, fourth, and sixth grade “wrote more words, faster, and expressed more ideas when writing essays by hand versus with a keyboard.

Berninger also “says pictures of the brain have illustrated that sequential finger movements activated massive regions involved in thinking, language, and working memory.”

The same article discusses a study at Indiana University which found that “in children who had practiced writing by hand, … [MRI] scans showed heightened brain activity in a key area…indicating learning took place.”

And Bounds also covers a study, published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, which found that adults benefit from writing by hand when learning mathematical (or other) symbol systems: “for those writing by hand, there was stronger and longer-lasting recognition of the characters’ proper orientation, suggesting that the specific movements memorized when learning how to write aided the visual identification of the graphic shapes.”

Another article by Heather Horn in the Atlantic Wire points out that “scientists are finally beginning to explore what writers have long suspected,” and then goes on to quote a 1985 Paris Review interview with novelist Robert Stone, who, when asked if he mostly types, responds:

“Yes, until something becomes elusive. Then I write in longhand in order to be precise. On a typewriter or a word processor you can rush something that shouldn’t be rushed—you can lose nuance, richness, lucidity. The pen compels lucidity.

While most of these studies examine the process of writing words as opposed to mathematical symbols, they seem to reinforce another study which found that solving algebra problems by hand as opposed to typing them out allowed students to solve problems twice as quickly and seemed to be a more efficient learning modality.

While I wasn’t aware of this research when I decided to use technology that lets students write their math by hand, it’s gratifying to learn more about how writing by hand can make learning faster, deeper, and more effective.

Thanks to Laura Grace Weldon of Free Range Learning for bringing this research to my attention!

Related Links:
My online tutoring technology (4): why I use handwriting instead of typing
Is multi-sensory learning hardwired into our humanity?
Mind meld is real!
Why sleep is awesome #3

Topic: online tutoring technology

My online tutoring technology (4): Why I use handwriting instead of typing

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

When I created my online tutoring service, I was determined to make it as natural as possible. That’s why my students write their math out by hand using a digital pen tablet instead of typing.

So I was intrigued to come across a study by Carnegie Mellon University’s Lisa Anthony, Jie Yang, and Kenneth Koedinger about “How Handwritten Input Helps Students Learning Algebra Equation Solving.” I had just extrapolated from my own experience that it’s no fun to type math, and writing it out with a digital pen is way better. But here are actual scientists conducting an NSF-funded experiment about it!!! Now I’ve got some data!!!

The study compares three learning interfaces: handwriting, handwriting-while-speaking, and typing. And it poses the question, “Do students experience differences in learning due to the modality in which they generate their answers?”

Researchers found four key differences:

Handwriting frees up brain space. Using the handwriting interface decreased “extraneous cognitive load.” Having to worry about how to type the math into a computer doesn’t help you learn. When you don’t have to use part of your brain to figure out how to type the math, you have more space in your brain to solve the math.

It’s easier to write math out by hand than to type it. It’s easier to write exponents and fractions by hand than to figure out how to type them, and the more advanced the math gets, the more fractions, exponents, and other visually complex symbols are involved. “Handwriting is a much more flexible and robust modality for representing and manipulating such spatial relationships.”

It’s easier to transition back to paper. Unlike typing, handwriting on a computer and then switching back to paper does not involve a “modality switch.”

The real stunner: When writing by hand as opposed to typing, students solved problems twice as quickly. Whether they were just copying problems or solving them, students who were typing took about twice as long to enter equations than students writing them by hand, or writing them by hand while speaking. Even though the students who used handwriting moved so much faster, they learned just as much as the students who typed.

The researchers pointed out that “students who can get through more problems more quickly by virtue of a more natural interface can therefore advance farther in the curriculum than if they had been typing.” The extreme difference in learning times led them to wonder if handwriting was actually a more efficient learning modality than typing.

They also speculated that, since so many students preferred writing math by hand to typing it, perhaps they engaged in the tutoring more when they were using their preferred modality.

Aside from learning differences, the vast majority of students preferred handwriting. Over 78% of the 38 students who participated (half male, half female, ranging from sixth to twelfth grade) said they preferred either handwriting or handwriting plus speaking.

While students commented that typing “took too long and it was hard to get everything where I wanted,” they observed that handwriting “is how I’m used to doing problems in math class, by writing them out.” Not only was handwriting “easier” and “better” than typing, but students also finished problems faster.

These findings completely confirm my own experience, even though these researchers embarked on this study in the context of students interacting with computer program “tutors,” as opposed to students using computers to interact with a human tutor (like myself). I look forward to hearing more from these researchers!

Related Posts:
My Online Tutoring Technology (1): Why I Chose the Wacom Bamboo Pen Tablet
My Online Tutoring Technology (2): Why I Chose Team Skrbl
My Online Tutoring Technology (3): Why I Use Phones Instead of Video
How handwriting helps us learn (or why I use handwriting instead of typing–Virginia Berninger research)

Topic: online tutoring technology

My online tutoring technology (3): Why I use phones instead of video

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

Update: At this point, I now tutor all my students using Skype video. I have found that as technology has improved and become more and more a part of young people’s daily lives, the issues I used to have with video have disappeared.

Here is a more up-to-date article on the technology I’m currently using, if you’d like to learn more about what I’m doing now: Tutoring Technology Update: What I Use Now

When I started developing my online tutoring service, I thought that using a webcam would be an integral part. But I found tutoring via webcam strangely draining and brain-fragmenting. Turns out I prefer to tutor via phone! Here’s why:

Familiarity and ease of use. Most people are already used to talking on the phone.

We’re in sync. There’s no delay in transmitting voice over the phone, so it’s easy to stay in sync. However, at this point in the development of webcam technology, there is a slight microsecond delay between transmitting and receiving video data. This delay feels disconnecting and tiring.

It’s not distracting. It is easy to handle visual input from the computer screen while getting verbal input over the phone. But having the webcam in the same screen as the online whiteboard is weirdly visually distracting.

You know where to direct your attention. It’s easy to pick up on verbal cues over the phone and visual cues from the whiteboard. But when you’re using a webcam, you look in the same direction to see both the person in the webcam and the math in the whiteboard. There’s no visual way to tell which one you’re paying attention to. This is socially confusing.

Your attention is not fragmented. Toggling between multiple windows—for example, the online whiteboard window and the webcam video window—is a classic recipe for decreased focus and degraded executive function. Talking over the phone eliminates this problem, since you are only looking at one window: the whiteboard.

It is nice to put a face with a name, so I do offer new students the chance to start our very first meeting with an introduction via webcam. But then we turn the webcam off and just use the whiteboard and the phone for the actual working-on-math part.

Related posts:
My Online Tutoring Technology (1): Why I chose the Wacom Bamboo Pen Tablet
My Online Tutoring Technology (2): Why I chose Team Srkbl

Topic: online tutoring technology

My online tutoring technology (2): Why I chose Team Skrbl

Sunday, November 29th, 2009

I am no longer using Team Skrbl, which unfortunately is no longer functional. For a full update of what I’m currently using instead, check out the latest post on my online tutoring technology.

Out of the twelve interactive online whiteboards that I tested with a digital pen tablet, Team Skrbl works the best of all. Hands down.

Here’s why:
• It’s extremely pleasureable to draw with when you use a pen tablet.
• It’s intuitive to use.
• The huge and scrollable screen size gives you room to finish even complex problems in a single screen. No toggling back and forth between multiple screens.
• The buttons are easy to understand and use.
• I can use it immediately without waiting. There is no need to schedule a session or wait for anything to load.
• It has an eraser function. (This is key when learning math 😉 )
• Whiteboards are automatically saved so students can review them whenever they want.
• Skrbl’s developer was interested in my feedback & suggestions.

Do you have another online whiteboard you love to use with a digital pen tablet? Are you an online whiteboard developer interested in adding tablet support to your product, or creating a new product that includes tablet support? I want to hear from you!

Related Posts:
My Online Tutoring Technology (1): Why I Chose the Wacom Bamboo Digital Pen Tablet

Topic: online tutoring technology

My online tutoring technology (1): Why I chose the Wacom Bamboo Pen Tablet

Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

Out of all the technologies out there, why did I choose the Wacom Bamboo digital pen tablet for my online tutoring students?

Here’s why:
• It’s extremely easy to use.
• It’s intuitive. Just like drawing or writing with a pen.
• It’s ergonomic. (Unlike drawing with a mouse, which is physically agonizing after a few minutes.)
• It’s small and portable. (Unlike an actual physical whiteboard.)
• It’s affordable. (Unlike more elaborate pen tablets with fancy professional-designer-quality features that are unnecessary for tutoring purposes.)
• It’s high quality.
• The digital pen is a pencil-shaped object. So during online tutoring we write the same way you write in math class, for homework assignments, or when taking a test.
• There’s nothing extra to learn. You don’t have to learn any fancy software or codes to write out the math on the computer screen.

I want my students to experience online tutoring as something that makes math easier for them, not more frustrating. So I saught out the most frustration-free technology possible. Bamboo is part of my time-tested ideal combination.

Thank you, Wacom, for developing and manufacturing this awesome product!!!

Related Posts:
My online tutoring technology (1): Why I chose the Team Skrbl