Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) is the use of two-way, voice communication – like a telephone – over the Internet. This technology has been around for a decade or so. For online tutoring, though VOIP will be a common feature in the future, its past and present have been characterized by more hype than usefulness.
Why the hype around voice? People are accustomed to being tutored in-person, implying the use of voice. Therefore, voice is assumed to be a required element of tutoring. It is not. Tutoring requirements for math and other subjects are the efficient communication of symbols (it’s hard to describe the quadratic equation over the telephone), graphing and drawing ability, and text input. In fact, when students are being tutored effectively, there are lengthy pauses while students and tutors are working through problems. The presence or absence of voice has no bearing on the length of these pauses. So, for the most part, VOIP neither increases the quality or efficiency of communication. It is simply more familiar. Though SMARTHINKING will offer voice in a limited capacity in some subjects starting in January, we have provided hundreds of thousands of tutoring sessions without it. In fact, VOIP can cause more problems than it solves. Among the challenges of VOIP are:
- Technical support – The number of students needing help with headsets, microphones, sound cards, bandwidth, processing capacity, voice installations, and simply turning the volume up, is significant.
- Bandwidth – Using VOIP requires more bandwidth than a whiteboard or chatroom connection. With the increase in broadband penetration, this problem is diminishing, but it is still present in dial-up and shared bandwidth connections.
- Archiving (Memory) – A whiteboard tutoring session can be archived by saving a single image or series of images. When a voice track is added, the memory needed for archiving increases exponentially.
- Archiving (Quality Control) – A tutoring session saved as an image can be reviewed in a couple of minutes or less. A voice track requires the reviewer to listen to the entire tutoring session (an average of 25 minutes long).
- Software installations – VOIP usually requires an installation of a program – rather than a flash or java download – onto the student’s computer.
- Glitches and Voice Quality – For many users, VOIP can result in tutors and students talking over each other, waiting for the other to speak when the other doesn’t realize it, and other barriers to the tutoring interaction. With students already frustrated with their academic work, adding communication and technical frustration can be the last straw.
For the most part, online tutoring companies that do use VOIP require students to install software locally, sometimes give away headsets and microphones, and do not archive tutoring sessions. Installation of software requires a significant amount of forethought on the part of the student/buyer. Shipping of computer accessories dramatically inceases cost and also requires forethought. The lack of archiving impacts quality control and dispute resolution procedures. Students using services that provide on-demand support to struggling students, like SMARTHINKING’s services, typically do not have the time or the patience to go through a significant installation process at the same time that they are struggling with their homework. Requiring such installation serves to limit, rather than increase, the number of students using these services.
Having said all of this, voice may be a requirement for effective live tutoring in some subjects. Foreign languages, for instance, would seem to require voice. However, on the whole, lack of voice has had no adverse effects on student tutoring demand or satisfaction. Once VOIP becomes embedded into operating systems and browsers and voice input devices (headsets and microphones) are standard computer accessories, it will be interesting to see whether students choose to use, or not use, VOIP. This is getting closer and closer to reality as more computers come with Bluetooth connections that can integrate with mobile phone ear-pieces. However, for now, in SMARTHINKING’s experience, VOIP serves to limit the market for tutoring rather than expand it.