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Online Biology Tutor Matthew Barnes

"A colleague who teaches physics online had been urging me to get into online tutoring for over a year, now that the technology is there to do it. It made sense from every angle (greater potential client base, less petrol burned and time wasted travelling and so forth). However, to be quite honest, the idea petrified me! I can therefore associate very strongly with parents who are wary of this technology." (MB, July 2013)

  • Practicalities of Online Tuition

    Matthew Barnes has been tutoring biology successfully in Oxford for the past 24 years. Here he tells us why he has recently started online tutoring and the benefits to be gained from it.

    Can you tell us a bit about your education and what qualifications you have?
    Certainly. I took my BA/MA in zoology at Oxford University in 1982. I then got an MSc (with ‘distinction’) in applied entomology at Imperial College, London in 1987, doing my thesis out in Jamaica. I then took a diploma in tropical agricultural development at Rdad??g University in 1990. Having been one of the many people disappointed by not getting a permanent job in overseas development I have been tutoring ever since.

    How old are your students and what qualifications do you teach?
    The youngest I have taught was 13 (common entrance) and the oldest was 40 (mature entry to medical school). The vast majority of my students are 17 to 19 and doing A-levels, with the occasional IB student. I also occasionally do GCSE and IGCSE with slightly younger students. I offer tuition supplementary to school work, pre-exam. revision, help with specific queries (including coursework) and can also teach an entire specification ‘from scratch’ if required.

    How do you assess students before you start teaching them?
    That’s the most complicated question of all! As this is a ‘hand made’ product and each student has different needs it is difficult to generalise. Often my job is boosting confidence which has been damaged at school. In these cases it is more important that the student is relaxed, knows that I am ’on their side’ and trusts me than to knock their confidence further by testing what they don’t know (which is usually evident from their school results!) I first point out that there is no such thing as a ‘stupid’ question and that I won’t laugh at anything they ask - but that it really is silly not to ask questions. Gentle probing then establishes where the ignorance starts. It is great when you explain things to a student in an understandable way and they finally ‘get it’. Nothing creates success like success in breaking the vicious circle of lack-of-confidence leading to lack-of-understanding and vice-versa.

    Of course, a lot of my students come to me simply needing gaps filled in their knowledge due to sickness or poor teaching. In these cases I simply ask them to mark up a copy of their specification with what they feel they do and don’t know and I just ‘fill the gaps’ methodically and make the necessary ‘links’.

    You have been successfully tutoring biology for many years. At what point did you decide to incorporate online tutoring into your business and why?
    A colleague who teaches physics online had been urging me to get into online tutoring for over a year, now that the technology is there to do it. It made sense from every angle (greater potential client base, less petrol burned and time wasted travelling and so forth). However, to be quite honest, the idea petrified me! I can therefore associate very strongly with parents who are wary of this technology.

    Only last February a really good Norwegian student who needed coaching for medical school entry told me that she was moving away and that I therefore had no choice. I put it off for weeks until the great day dawned and within five minutes I was felt so natural and easy. Since then I’ve felt the need to spread the word. As my Norwegian student pointed-out in a recent kind testimonial on my website, online tuition means that you can get the best tutors - not just the ones available locally. And I have to say that all of the online students I have taught so far have been really lovely and have given a real boost to my enthusiasm for the job. I’d like to shift to 100% online tuition as soon as possible.

    You use the interactive whiteboard Scribblar. Can you explain in more detail what that is?
    There are actually many different types of online whiteboard available nowadays, but I have settled on Scribblar for now. Unlike most of the others, it needs no student download. I simply e-mail a link to the student which they click upon and they are instantly in my Scribblar ‘room’. The ‘room’ sits on their computer screen and is a whiteboard with various buttons around it that enable both tutor and student to write on the board in various ways with their mouse (pencils and pointers of different colours and widths, for example). What the student draws on the whiteboard I can see, and vice-versa.

    I have thousands of pages of pre-prepared biology notes for the various topics on the various British exam. boards (AQA, OCR, Edexcel, pre-U, IB etc.). I can upload these in sequence onto the whiteboard and then both of us can scroll through from page to page while I make notes and explain the subject matter and the student asks questions. Examination papers and mark schemes can also be loaded-up onto the whiteboard in the same way by either of us.

    The student can go into my ‘room’ at any time (even if I am not there) to check out notes and can download them from the whiteboard if they wish. I also generally e-mail the notes to the student in advance. They can then print them off and have these notes in front of them to write on while I teach, as well as consulting the online version on the screen. Scribblar does have sound, but at present it is quite poor so I run Skype audio simultaneously with Scribblar for sound. I don’t generally bother with the video part of Skype as it chews-up bandwidth and we really don’t need to see one-another!

    Many people may be wary of online tutoring. Do you offer any kind of free trial or consultation for people to try it out?
    Of course! See above about my having been wary of this technology myself. The first hour of online tuition is completely free with nothing to pay at any stage. If you like it then you pay the regular hourly rate thereafter. If you don’t, then you can walk away with no obligation on either side. I’ll be amazed if you don’t like it.

    You can also talk to me, free-of-charge, by any means (e-mail, Skype, telephone) for as long and as often as you wish while you are making the decision as to whether to go for tuition or not. The same applies both during and after the tuition if you have any queries. I only charge for the tuition after the first hour - not for any associated out-of-class discussion or help.

    What is the cost of online tutoring?
    My charge for online tuition for the academic year 2013/14 will be £45 per hour, which is currently rather less than my face-to-face rate in Oxford which is £60 per hour from next year. I’m not sure why I charge less for online tuition than for face-to-face as it is exactly the same, but that is how it stands for now. There are quite a few people in India and elsewhere offering very cheap ‘online tuition’ but this is often via Skype only, frequently employing graduate students and the like who do not have the 23 years of experience of dealing with specific examination boards and their questions that I can offer.

    What happens if there is downtime due to technical difficulties during a tutoring session?
    The client is not charged. I recently audited my 200 hours of online tuition worldwide to date and found that there was a ‘downtime’ of only 4% due to technical difficulties. This actually compares pretty favourably with the ‘downtime’ of face-to-face tuition (opening doors, letting students in and out etc.) I normally actually schedule online lessons to be one-and-a-quarter hours long (but only charge for an hour). If a lesson is going well then we may use that extra quarter-of-an-hour and hence I always have a little bit of time ‘in the bank’ in case a lesson needs to be cut short. I want the client to feel that they have had value for money.

    There are numerous online tuition agencies around. What advice can you give on how to chose the right tutor?
    Yes, I was amazed to find that there are very few individual online tutors such as myself based in the UK and that most of them seem to operate via ‘agencies’. Many parents seem to be happy to use these agencies or the latter would not be in business! My only concern is that many agencies do not seem to charge very much, which presumably means that they won’t attract the most experienced tutors as they can’t be paying very much.

    If I were trying to find an online tutor for one of my stepchildren the questions that I would ask are: 1) how many years have you been teaching?; 2) which examination boards have you taught upon, and for how long? 3) do you have some satisfied customers to whom I can talk about you? 4) are you a career tutor or are you likely to leave halfway through a course if ‘something better comes up’? I would also ask for a full CV and a reassurance that my stepchild would leave each tutorial with a written record of what has been covered to refer to later - talking ‘at’ a student with no written record is not education!

    I would not use an agency myself as it is usually difficult to communicate directly with the tutor (either before or after you start tuition) and I would really feel the need to talk to the tutor in person before entrusting any stepchild to them. You can find out a lot about a person simply by talking to them! On the other hand I deal with each parent or student personally and offer as much telephone or e-mail or Skype time as they wish - free of charge - before and after they start tuition to deal with any worries or queries. However, as I say, many people use agencies quite happily and the latter can be remarkably cheap. As with everything in life, the thing is to shop around so that you know for sure that you are happy with your decision.

    Do you have a preference for online tutoring or face-to-face tutoring?
    I think that you can guess! Online tuition is not only less bother to both parties concerned than face-to-face - and hence more relaxing - but it is also more intimate and concentrated as there are fewer distractions. Several people have commented on the lack of ‘body language’ as I do not use the video skype facility. You can have Skype video if you want -and your broadband can support it - but I’ve never missed it thus far. In fact several of my autism-spectrum students who have problems with interaction in person are actively reassured by the lack of a physical presence in the tutorial.

    What is the best way for people to contact you?
    Soon! My books get very full after September each year and I hate to turn away people or give them a really antisocial tuition slot because they have left it too late. My full contact details can be found on my websites at and (where there is a blog and other information if you wish to ‘get to know me’ better before enquiring).

    I am also part of a ‘consortium’ of highly-experienced one-to-one private tutors in different subjects in Oxford. For more information you can visit our website At present we cover Biology, Chemistry, Maths, Physics and English - with other subjects coming soon.

    July 2013