drawing tablet

How Using A Drawing Tablet Revolutionized My Online Tutoring Service

I’m an organic chemist and I tutor the subject online through Skype. Chemistry is a very visual subject. So one of the major problems I had to solve in order to provide a valuable online tutoring experience was to be able to draw structures for my students in real time.

My initial approach was to buy a dry-erase board and an HP webcam and to hold the board up in front of my webcam when I wanted to show my students something. Unfortunately, this was not without its problems: if bandwidth was tight, my video would get fuzzy, and I’d often have to refresh my screen. Sometimes I’d be refreshing my screen >15 times per session. I am certain that the poor connection quality led to the loss of several tutoring clients, who were clearly disappointed with the experience.

Another problem with using a whiteboard was that it failed to give a student a permanent record of what we talked about. This meant that students had to take notes during our session, and I had to hold up my whiteboard to the camera for extended periods. One brute force way around this – recording sessions – led to file sizes of >1GB, which presented its own problems. As an alternative, I found myself spending time after each session writing down a text summary for each student’s tutoring session. This ate up a lot of extra time – sometimes as much as 30 minutes per session.

What I wanted was to be able to draw something on my screen and have my students see it in real time. So about a year ago, I bought a Wacom Bamboo Pen Tablet. The idea was to draw structures on my tablet while using the Screen Share feature on Skype. After playing around with a few drawing programs I found TabletDraw by Moo software, which provided me with a very customizable drawing platform.

Basically, this just lets me create blank slides, which I can write on in any method I choose, and then save them as JPG files. When the session is done, I zip up all the JPGs and email them to the student.

After implementing this I noticed four things

  • First, my students never complained that they couldn’t see my screen, so their happiness with the experience had increased considerably.
  • Secondly, since I could now save my drawings, I could now give my students a permanent record of what we talked about.
  • This led to the third effect: we could cover more material during each session, since I no longer had to hold up my whiteboard to the camera, waiting for the student to finish taking notes.
  • Finally, I no longer needed to create text summaries of the main ideas of our sessions afterward, so it saved me countless hours of extra work.

In other words, this approach led to better, more productive tutoring sessions for both myself and my students. Because we were covering more ground, I could feel justified in charging more, and furthermore I spent less time after each session making summaries. It was the single best  $70 I’ve ever spent for my tutoring business.

Hopefully it shouldn’t be too hard to see how a tablet can be used in combination with Skype to tutor other subjects with a visual element, such as mathematics, physics, or biology. I hope you find this helpful!

Picture “9/365 – Bamboo” by Richard Annable

James Ashenhurst (@jamesashchem) is a Ph.D. organic chemist, online tutor and the founder of Master Organic Chemistry, an online guide to introductory organic chemistry. In collaboration with Metamolecular he recently published the Reagents app for iPhone, a guide to the 80+ reagents in undergraduate organic chemistry.