Everything changed the day after I came back from the weekend #MathsConf22 trip to Manchester on 15th March 2020. The seriousness of the current pandemic truly hit home. It would still be another week before the government would stop politely asking people not to go out but to enforce a lockdown. I’ve been in my London flat ever since that weekend and have barely ventured a mile away from it during my daily walks. Avoiding the high street and tube station. It is bizarre as a Londoner not to have used the tube station for two and a half months.
In the immediate aftermath of lockdown I witnessed tutor colleagues lose their jobs, Bitpaper go from bust to survival and I threw myself into training friends to learn how to work online.
The constant attention to news, social media and the lack of being able to go out enough made for a cocktail of restlessness and being on edge. I have no garden in my small London flat so each outing was invaluable respite. As the clocks changed and spring arrived, the earlier sunrises further reduced sleep hours.
Nonetheless, given everything I am still extremely fortunate to not have had more serious family and work related stress. I was already working from home and in that aspect business continued for me as normal. Indeed, one of the few constants I was able to provide my tutees was our same tutoring slot at the same time of the week. That wasn’t to last long as like many tutor colleagues I too lost tutees for a myriad of reasons. I was having daily conversations with parents and realised the pressure that families are under. It made total sense that for some families tutoring would not be a priority at this point in time.
I was disappointed to see fake news that the tutoring industry was booming, a more detailed and comprehensive Sutton Trust report confirming that in the UK the amount of tutoring taking place was down overall. There are various global Facebook groups of tutors with thousands of tutors in them. We get a far more accurate and nuanced picture of the industry through hundreds of daily conversations between tutors. Almost every news story on the tutoring industry has an agenda.
Transferring my online teaching skills – Two to tango?
My job to transfer my skills had begun back on the train from Manchester to London already. I saw a Facebook message from my Argentine Tango dance instructor that they were offering free online trial lessons. The thing that was their life and works purely in the physical realm was seemingly going to be gone for months. I knew I held a part of the solution as I had pushed online tutoring a long way. I had chosen to stop tutoring in person altogether in 2016, so working from home and teaching was now the norm for me. While still on the train I got my instructor to install zoom and we made a video call while I was on a train going at more than 100 miles per hour.
After 2 months of running several group and 1-to-1 classes online my dance instructors are one of the few who have quickly adapted to the art of teaching online and done it well. I have a lot more to write about this but what they achieved is a truly rare event. There have been a few other exceptions, those tutors that were already adaptable and creative in their tutoring. But on the whole mass attempts to deliver online tutoring have been sub standard to say the least. Live online teaching is a highly sophisticated form of teaching requiring its own separate pedagogy and intersection of skills. Like learning anything worthwhile it requires consistent, deliberate effort and constant improving. Those who tutor well online, tutor all or mostly all online.
One of the most effective ways how online learning can work was for me to actually just live stream examples of this teaching. This happened in a CPD context and is mentioned later on this blog post.
Bitpaper or bust – further consequences of the rapid shift to online
The whiteboard company I work for called Bitpaper was facing an emergency. Tutors who previously either dabbled in online tutoring or were complete newbies were forced into online tutoring by the pressure to save their livelihoods. I am glad that the perceived quality of Bitpaper from existing users meant that so many people chose Bitpaper. The product was still in beta mode and therefore free at that stage. Nothing comes for free though as there were server costs amongst the other costs that included mine and other people’s time.
With a huge increase in user base, server and AV platform costs were escalating out of control. This was running the company and the team into the ground very quick. The levels of stress placed on the team and me as the social media community and PR person was immense. Plans to commercialise were brought forward by a few months and it was now imminent or we’d go bust. We made an announcement to commercialise which went down well with most but there was an inevitable backlash by a minority. After a live stream to a big facebook group to fully explain our reasons we could breathe easy. We commercialised and I went out of emergency mode to focus on other aspects of the product. I remember sleeping well that night for the first time in several days.
I had numerous messages and requests from tutors on training them to become online tutors. I was way too busy with my own tutoring, life and Bitpaper to do this. I had already prepared detailed guides on online tutoring a long while back. I can only think of maybe 10 tutors at most who are expert at tutoring maths online. Along with me, their voices got drowned in providing what is the correct and expert advice on online forums.
I offered free training to those who wanted it but on the condition that this training is live streamed so that others can see this too and a recording is kept. Not many signed up to this as one might imagine. But the few who did made it totally worthwhile. I then extended this to live streams with other experienced online tutors, something that had been on my to do list for a year already. Our voices were being drowned by constant panic and terrible mass novice to novice advice. The video platform was far better to present this expertise.
I now knew that live streaming was going to be the most valuable use of my time and expertise. Previous experience with tutors showed me that only a small minority of tutors put in the effort to take CPD or read books. The few that do value CPD turn up to meetups and events anyway. The next step for me was logical, I turned to the mainstream school teaching community which does actually care about CPD and has had well evolved networks formed over the years. I approached La Salle Education CEO Mark McCourt to live stream on twitter as I had known him from attending several CPD days and maths conferences. This would leverage on an already well formed network on twitter in a novel and more human way.
The #MathsChatLive live streams were born and took right off. I have learned a lot from this level of live streaming. They have around a thousand viewers on each live and more that view the recording later. In many ways all my experience of tutoring online, making tutees comfortable in a virtual environment, holding the space and using tools to teach online was preparing me for this. We are only a few live streams in and I’m keen for this to evolve and get better with time. I will write a separate blog post on multi live streaming for CPD as it has been a fascinating learning experience.
And then the rest of my life moved online too
On 1st March 2020 in a studio under a church on a sunny Sunday I took my first ever singing grading exam. Grade 3, Trinity Rock and Pop. I had been taking singing lessons consistently for about 2 years, every week in fact. It was all online. I had convinced my singing teacher to teach me online 3 years ago and we had found a way for it to work for me. The only part of the entire grading that took place in person was the actual grading exam itself. I am glad to say I passed with a distinction. Bring on grade 4.
But ultimately we exist in the real world and not in a virtual space. I take two dance classes a week and a pilates class as well. The reason I was doing this was to get out of my home and get out! With even these moving online, everything I do now is online. Now that it is no bad thing as I have made my room a practice space for dance classes and pilates, something I never thought was possible. I have also learned to live stream music performances from my room and have made an art form of that in itself. This will all come in useful even after lockdown.
With Gigabit internet, 5G, the internet of all things, video walls, autonomous cars, bio technology, data driven algorithms etc. all developing very fast we should expect a different world in the coming years. The American civil war propelled the use of the telegraph to the mainstream when it was a niche product for the railways initially. And so this global pandemic has also moved the use of video calls, cloud computing etc. more to the mainstream I hope. And we can truly now ask, which appointments need our physical presence and which do not? Something that I have tested for years now. I have formed fairly sophisticated relationships with tutor colleagues and families in other parts of the world that I have never met in person. A lot is possible online.
All the technology aside, I keep in mind the seriousness of the global pandemic we are in now and that there have been lives lost. I have a civic duty in playing the small part asked of me to minimise risks. And it has been fascinating to see what that means for my tutees in other countries and my extended family in India.