Adults and online learning: lessons from the private tuition sector

30 June 2015

With at least a fifth of Britain’s population lacking the skills required to use the internet, NIACE has quite rightly been banging the drum for online learning, and as Chief Executive David Hughes has explained, NIACE is ‘supporting the education world to develop better integration of digital skills in learning at all ages’.


Online private tuition


One source of insight into adult online learning comes from the UK’s private tuition industry. Until recently, the industry had no formal definition of online tuition. However, a working group of The Tutors’ Association (TTA) has approved the following definition of online tuition as:


‘synchronous (live) tuition provided by a human tutor over the internet to one or more students’


Anything from maths and English to foreign languages, business skills, elocution, geneology and even a musical instrument can be studied with a tutor online. There has been little research into online tuition in the UK to date, but a recent report into online tuition published by The Tutor Pages has begun to shed some light. Analysing a survey of around 400 tutors,  it has insights particularly relevant to adult learners.


Adult participation in online tuition


First of all, the survey revealed that demand for online tuition was high among adult learners. In fact, those tutors who only tutored face-to-face were turning away requests for online tuition more frequently from adults than from families looking for a tutor for their child.  It may be that adult learners are more willing to accept the medium of online instruction, while parents are more sceptical of the benefits of online tuition for children.


The most obvious benefits of online tuition are having a large choice of tutors beyond one’s locality, and the convenience of not having to travel. A number of other less obvious benefits also impact on adult participation in learning. For example, adults working night shifts can employ a tutor in a different time-zone, and those with disabilities or who look after children may find online learning more suitable for their needs. The fact that online tutors are often more willing to schedule shorter sessions is also attractive for adults with busy or complicated work or family commitments.


Learning potential for adults online


Tutors who taught adult students were more confident in the appropriateness of online tuition, compared to those who only tutored children.  Popular subjects for adults to learn – such as foreign languages – were also seen as particularly appropriate for the online medium.


The survey also revealed just how easy online learning can be. Over 80% of tutors surveyed were using the familiar online software Skype, and by far the most popular forms of payment were either bank transfer or Paypal. It is therefore clear that expensive, complicated or bespoke software or learning platforms are not necessary to study online with a tutor.


It is true that there can be a number of barriers to success in this medium, such as being able to see what the tutor or student is doing, picking up on mood, body language and expression, and establishing rapport. However, it is interesting that those tutoring adults were the least likely of all to see establishing rapport with the student as a significant barrier.


Finally, most controversially, some tutors claim that online tuition can result in improved learning compared to face-to-face learning. Again, those tutoring adults were more likely to hold this view compared to other subgroups.


In conclusion, as technology improves, there appears to be greater willingness on the part of tutors and students to give online learning a go. The Tutor Pages survey dispels some confusion over online tuition as a medium, and also demonstrates how easy it is for adults to learn from a tutor online.