Tutors become part of the app culture

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Students facing the worries of the exam season are offered help by online tutors

Tutoring is one the world's oldest professions, but even a vocation so entrenched cannot escape the rising "Uberisation" of daily life.

Plato tutored Dionysius, ruler of Syracuse, while Aristotle instructed Alexander the Great.

But modern parents, in the stress of the exam season, can now turn to a tutoring industry using online technology.

Timothy Yu is founder of Hong Kong company Snapask, a mobile app that allows students to ask questions with a snapshot and then matches them with a tutor within seconds to have a one-to-one instant learning session.

Launched last year, Snapask is now serving over 100,000 students in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, with over 5,000 qualified tutors from top universities receiving tens of thousands of questions each day.

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Tutoring is the latest service to become part of an online, app-driven world

"It is more like a WhatsApp-style instant messaging environment. Users can use image, text or audio to communicate," said Mr Yu.

It also has benefits for tutors in terms of making the most of their time.

More stories from the BBC's Global education series, looking at education from an international perspective and how to get in touch

Mr Yu says that private tutors working in person, rather than online, will typically earn about $20 (£14) per hour, but their capacity to earn is limited by constraints of time and balancing with other work.

But he says tutors working online, such as through his app, can earn much more by being able to work flexibly in any spare time and wherever tutors might be.

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Putting out a call for a maths tutor? Tutoring is taking the Uber approach

Online technology has also changed how parents can select tutors.

There was a time when finding a tutor relied upon recommendations from friends or looking through newspaper adverts.

But now tutors are offered and reviewed online.

Tutor Hunt, operating in the UK, allows parents and students to browse through a list of tutors offering subjects in their area, correspond with them and arrange lessons.

Tutor Hunt's John Underhill says more than 250,000 people have used its services to find tutors - and that the hunt for a tutor has moved a long way from "looking through the Yellow Pages, or peering into newsagent's windows at the multitude of cards".

As with other tutoring services, they are offering online tuition via Skype and other video services, as well as interactive whiteboard software.

Mr Underhill says taking tutoring fully online certainly has its benefits, opening up a much bigger student base to tutors, while also giving students more choice.

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Interactive online technology is an increasing part of tutoring

"In the past it's been quite difficult to deliver good quality online lessons as the technology wasn't there," he said.

"Things have changed over the last couple of years, as the online technology has improved. We have found that more tutors are using interactive whiteboards, often in conjunction with VOIP [speaking over the internet] services, to deliver their online lessons.

"They have become more adept and proficient at using all available online resources, and incorporating them fully into their lessons."

It is not just in the developed world where this trend is evident.

In Egypt, for example, local startup Tyro is testing its own whiteboard software that allows for tutoring sessions to take place entirely online.

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A Hong Kong-based tutor service operates through mobile phones

Nigerian companies Tutor.ng and Tuteria also allow for solely online tuition, signalling the emergence of a truly global trend.

But do you really need a tutor?

Are tutors really a necessity? Not according to Murray Morrison, which may be surprising as he built a reputation as a so-called "super tutor", as tutor to celebrity families.

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Parents in Beijing wait outside a school where their children are taking exams this week

"Private tuition is a fundamentally flawed idea in almost every aspect," he says, citing cost, inaccessibility, and lack oversight as reasons.

"In many cases it actively undermines a student's ability to learn independently or improve their understanding of the subject."

Mr Morrison compares the effectiveness of a private tutor with that of a personal trainer at the gym. They can point you in the right direction and show you how to use the equipment, but after that impact diminishes.

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Praying or paying?: Parents in South Korea pray for their children taking exams

"In private tuition, the tutor is doing most of the work, while the student hopefully learns by osmosis.

"The result is that a lot of money is spent on a method of learning that at best is effective in the short term, but at worst can create a dependency on outside help."

Mr Morrison has his own technological approach to tuition for exams.

His online service, Tassomai, helps with GCSE revision by getting students to answer multiple-choice questions. It uses the information to build a profile of students' strengths and weaknesses, which is used to develop a personalised revision programme.

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Tutors will be hired to help with pushing up exam grades

"This approach makes sure that students' understanding of each topic becomes stronger and that they also build confidence in the subject, making it easier to learn more effectively in class," said Mr Morrison.

Another important concern for parents will be safeguarding.

Tutor Hunt requires tutors to upload a high-resolution photograph of their passport or driving licence, which it then inspects and validates before it lists the tutor.

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Students in Qingdao after China's highly-competitive university entrance exam this week

Its terms of service stipulate that if a student is under 18, a parent or guardian must be present at all times during the lessons.

Once lessons have taken place, it also requests that students leave feedback for the tutor, which it displays on their profile page. This should mean that badly-reviewed tutors are pushed to the fringes.

Mr Morrison says online tutoring software presents a far more secure alternative to private tuition, with no direct contact between students and tutors, and all interactions logged and recorded.

It's the exam season, so there will be plenty of tutors helping with last-minute revision, in the hope that grades can be improved.

Tutors will say that they offer the individual help that can make a big difference - but taking the opposite view, Mr Morrison warns that tuition can sometimes be more like the joke about the drunk and the lamp post - "relied upon more for support than illumination".