Saturday, September 15, 2012

Free Online Tutoring Platforms / Open Source Whiteboards - Webinar Platforms

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Supplemental, personalized online tutoring is critical to student success in e-learning, and many institutions offer synchronous tutoring support, with programs such as Smarthinking. However, it’s not necessary to invest in an expensive package. Instead, individual instructors and tutors can easily set up online tutoring and work directly with their students.  In addition, online whiteboards are sometimes open source, and they can be used in conjunction with open source solutions for open source webinars. 

Most online tutoring platforms have a few key elements:
  • whiteboard
  • webcam capabilities
  • chat
  • file sharing
  • pointers, etc.
If you are an instructor and you would like to be able to offer online tutoring services, there are probably a few questions that come to mind:

Why can’t I just use Skype,, or other webcam / chat / telephony options?
You can, but they usually do not have whiteboards, and there may be significant lag / delay if you use the video cam options.

Why not use a webinar solution? 
Omnovia, AdobeConnect, Elluminate and others have whiteboard capabilities, as well as the opportunity to fileshare, chat, and give a presentation with audio. However, they tend to be price-prohibitive for the average user. 

Why not use virtual worlds? 
This is a great option for language coaching.  The downside for virtual worlds such as Second Life ( and There (, is that there is a fairly steep learning curve, and that the bandwidth does not always suffice, meaning that there can be a pretty annoying lag time, especially when using audio with your avatars to practice conversational Mandarin or another language. 

Here are a few very easy-to-use free online tutoring platforms: 

This product is described in French, with a simple, easy-to-use interface, that includes whiteboard, equation editor (solves the problem of fonts for symbols in math), function grapher, file sharing, screenshots, video cam, and more. I’m not sure how many individuals can be in a session at the same time. It’s very easy to set up and to invite participants.

Groupboard is a free whiteboard solution that requires little or no set-up. You don’t even have to register to use it, but if you want to invite users, you need to fill out a registration form. It is free.  Groupboard’s whiteboard solution has quite a few draw functions, but not as many built-in graphics as Edoboard. Groupboard is, to my mind, perhaps the easiest solution for tablets and smartphones.  With a stylus, Groupboard is ideal for the iPad, and would be perfect for any course requiring sketching or symbols. Math comes to mind first, of course, but engineering and design courses would be good as well. Science courses that require sketching would also be good – geology, botany, biology, and others lend themselves to tablet-based communication.

Scribblar is free and easy to use; it does not seem to have built-in equation editing, which is something you will need for math tutoring.

Open Sankore
It is open-source and works equally well with Mac / Windows / Linux. The advantage is that it’s open-source and is tablet-friendly for all kinds of mobile devices, and ostensibly for all tablets (now and in the future).  The flexibility of the opensource approach allows it to be used for open-source webinars as well. 

Dabbler lets you sketch and draw, as well as mark up photographs. You can share and embed saved images.

Classic WhiteBoard
The biggest draw (pun intended) is the “old school” images – you “draw” using three different colors of dry-erase markers (digital, of course), and delete using “erasers.” The design looks like a whiteboard, with an overall impact that is friendly and inviting. 

WizIQ is more of a light learning management system, and it’s not free. But, it’s low-cost and has whiteboard capabilities. If you’re looking at group tutoring, this could be a good way to go, and if there are ongoing activities or assessments, it’s also good.  Like WebEx, it’s possible to share the desktop as well. Collaboration / discussion threads are available.

Final Suggestion:  Connect Content with Whiteboard – the case of Exam Preparation

KhanAcademy-Enhanced Personal Synchronous Tutoring
Khan Academy is amazing. They have a huge repository of free online learning videos, which include test preparation. The problem with video tutorials is that learning can be passive. The problem with the quizzes and “test your knowledge” tests in many of the online test-prep sites  is that they do not really replicate the conditions of testing, and they do not allow you to get a sense of where you are lacking knowledge. 

A Final Thought:  Perhaps the most powerful solution to online tutoring is to connect to online videos, and useful content. Exam preparation is particularly tricky without a tutor because it is all too tempting to simply study what you know, and not what you need to know.

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