Hey all -

I'm a former HS math teacher, now in the software world. I'm doing some tutoring on the side, and hope to make it back to teaching - especially in the kind of web 2.0 environment discussed here, and with which I'm involved in my day job.

I'm currently working to set up some local teachers with the ability to deliver online tutoring. The demand is definitely high for this kind of approach, and the technology is certainly ready - Acrobat Connect, Elluminate, even WiZiQ all have useful functionality for real-time interactions.

There's one thing that we're still working on, and I'm wondering whether there are folks out there who have solved the problem. For online teaching and tutoring, it would be useful, even imperative, to be able to see the students' written work. We currently have two options:

- Using a tablet and stylus, along with good writing/drawing software that can be screen shared using Connect or Elluminate. This could be a little expensive for the student, perhaps adding more than $100 to the cost.
- Using a camera focused on the student's written work. This seems to work better than you'd think, and there are good cameras available for less than $30.

Has anyone else come up with other creative ways to solve this problem?

Thanks for any input you might have.

Tags: Online Tutoring

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From experience, I would avoid anything involving a tablet. Pen and ink gives feedback to the writer in a completely different way from a tablet, so you wind up still not teaching real handwriting skills, even after spending the money.

And you don't need to spend a bean, anyway. Nearly every student already carries a camera that is fully network-enabled. They call it a cell phone. The resolution on most cell phone cameras is quite adequate for teaching purposes. Images can be sent to you either via MMS, or via Bluetooth to the computer and then uploaded to your site.
Thanks Ian for the useful advise. I've been playing with a tablet, and understand your point - it's just not the same as regular writing, and it would be another barrier in the student-teacher exchange.

We've played with the cellphone photo approach, and that certainly seems pragmatic. The challenge with it is that the process isn't immediate, and would slow down the exchange. I'm leaning toward the webcam approach - we've been playing with a Hue HD web cam (http://www.huehd.com/); it has worked pretty well, focused on the writing surface, and we found it for less than US$30.
I was mulling on this overnight, and realize I am missing crucial information. Is your aim to teach handwriting, to have access to work that students hand-wrote whilst in school, or something else?
Thanks for staying with me on this!

In the tutoring I've done, and I've heard this from others, it's important to see how a student goes about solving a problem (this has been primarily tutoring in mathematics). Obviously, simply producing an answer - right or wrong - provides little insight into his or her thought process and level of understanding.

So we want to be able to provide the teachers access to that thought process as revealed in the student's writing. The alternative, I suppose, is to have the student talk through the problem as they work it out; maybe I'm old-fashioned in this, but seeing the written work - especially for math - seems important.
This changes my initial reply quite a lot. I now understand that you are not interested in the calligraphic aspects, but you do need a flexible medium (more flexible than typing) in which students can present their thought process as they work towards the solution to a problem.

  • I agree that a webcam or document cam would be a good idea, though it does put up a barrier. The student has to buy it, install it, get it working, etc. Lots of trip-up points there.
  • You might look at Dabbleboard. It's whiteboard that is stable, elegant and free, and by far my favorite of the genre. We are planning to integrate it into Yacapaca, specifically for tutors like you.
  • Does the connection have to be synchronous? What about students recording their working and then sharing it? Advantages are that you see the process of thought, but have time to think and respond. As a tutor, you can also charge for non-contact time which helps build your business. Try Jing for this; a product I use and love.
Fantastic - great ideas here that I will follow up on, and will report back. Thanks, Ian.
I noticed that you mentioned 'writing/drawing software' with the pen tablet method. Have you tried OneNote instead of a graphics program? Many kids already have OneNote on their systems as a part of the Microsoft Office Home and Student Edition.

I am a graphical artists and teacher so I have whiz band graphics programs as well as OneNote. One NOte wins hands down when it comes to course related work.

Handwriting and OneNote are a natural combination since OneNote is fundamentally designed for pen input and is at its very essential focus a student tool to start with. What you write is examined by OneNote and as it recognizes words it sets them up in a searchable index so it is easy to type in a keyword later and go right to where the student wrote that note. Of course, you can also tell OneNote to convert it to typed text if you wish. Output can be done live to Elluminate via app share or copy/pasted using the lasso tool to a slide (all to one slide or individual slides in roam mode). Assynchrounously, OneNote can allow assynchronous output by exporting in Word (.doc), pdf, web (single file), or OneNote (.one) file formats.An added advantage is that since it is an electronic notebook, the student can easily keep everything they do organized. If you end up going with tablet input, I would definitely encourage your tutors to look at OneNote use every time a student has access to it.
Tammy, Thanks very much for the info on OneNote. I hadn't realized it was so focused on tablet handwriting. One of the limitations with the OneNote approach is that it seems to be Windows-only, which counts me out for starters, and I suspect a large swath of students and tutors. Another problem is that it's neither free nor inexpensive. Nonetheless, I'll look to try out OneNote when I get access to a Windows machine with Office installed. Thanks again for the pointer.
Thanks for all the input on this thread. Here's where I ended up, at least for the moment. The webcam approach seems really quite usable - true, it's not free, and requires some hardware setup, but the resolution seems acceptable, and as Ian pointed out it's so much more natural to just use pen and paper.

Here are some of the specific things I learned:

- The Hue HD (or Clique) is a fun camera with an adjustable goose neck.
- It has precious little support and documentation, however.
- It is advertised for $99, but we got them at K-Mart (in US) for a little over $20.
- The connection between the base and the gooseneck is imperfect - had to press down firmly to make the connection.
- It has the ability to rotate the image 180 degrees - useful when the camera is positioned at the top of the writing page.
- Use white paper and a thick pen, like a Sharpie, to make sure the writing is legible.

Now we're going to try it out with students and teachers.
That's a handy tip about the neck and base, thanks. I bought a couple of these cameras so my parents could video chat with their granddaughter; so far neither has got their to work.

Flipping the image over is a cool trick. You might win me over to the cam approach yet!
Just bought a Hue HD for myself, and I am playing with the flipped image. Found I have to decide in advance if I want to use it as a document camera in Skype. Set the flip settings in the bundled software first, exit, then open Skype. Bit of a faff, but worth it. Thanks for the tip!
Yes, I agree that it would be nice to be able to flip the orientation on the fly, as needed. It's only a matter of time before we'll cameras that do that though, right? Glad it worked - we're just going into the piloting of the solution - it will be interesting to see how it holds up in real learning environments.

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