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  • Writer's pictureKristen Weatherby

The promise of online tutoring

It seems like everywhere I turn these days I see something about online tutoring – and I don’t think I’m imagining things.

According to a recent Dealroom blog, VC funding for online tutoring start-ups has increased from $836M in 2018 to a whopping $11Bn in 2020 and 2021 combined. Brighteye Ventures’ European Edtech Funding Report for 2021 named GoStudent, an online tutoring company, as Europe’s largest edtech start-up. The Austrian start-up books in excess of 1.5 million online tutoring sessions per month and is valued at $3.4Bn. The Department for Education in England has invested £5Bn in its National Tutoring Programme, hoping that the mix of online and in-person tutoring that it is making available to schools can recover learning lost due to the COVID pandemic. (Unfortunately, the House of Commons Education Select Committee recently labelled the programme a failure.)

Why is everyone betting on online tutoring? There is a substantial body of evidence extolling the potential impact of in-person tutoring on the academic achievement of primary and secondary school students. Parents have long been making use of these face-to-face tutors to improve their children’s chances on exams or to secure spaces at elite universities – so much so that countries like China and Singapore have placed limits on private tutoring to alleviate pressure on schoolchildren. Yet the benefits of face-to-face tutoring are not accessible to all children due to the cost and availability of appropriate tutors locally. Moving tutoring online can alleviate some time and geographical barriers, while saving costs for parents and schools.

However, online tutoring can still be too expensive for those socio-economically disadvantaged students who might need educational support the most. Thus it was timely to see some interesting research on not-for-profit online tutoring in the bi-weekly “Best Evidence in Brief” newsletter from Johns Hopkins University. Researchers from several US universities piloted a low-cost online tutoring programme in which volunteer university students conducted online tutoring sessions with mainly low-income and low-performing students from an urban middle school. The objectives of the programme were to improve students’ skills in literacy and mathematics and to build positive relationships between students and their tutors.

In the study, 230 volunteer university students were recruited from 47 universities in the United States. The tutors received three hours of initial training in which they were given guidance on how to conduct their tutoring sessions and support the emotional well-being of the students. Tutors were also offered weekly group mentoring sessions to help them troubleshoot common tutoring issues. A total of 530 middle school students were randomly selected to receive tutoring or to be in a control group. Those students receiving tutoring could attend 18 sessions over the 12-week programme for a total of 9 hours of tutoring. On average, however, students only received 3.1 hours of tutoring, and 18% of the students in the intervention group received no tutoring at all. Researchers attributed this lack of participation to low overall school attendance as schools transitioned from fully remote to hybrid learning.

Nonetheless, the observed impact on student achievement in both math and reading was positive (although statistically insignificant) for those students who received tutoring. The effect sizes for both were about one-third of what is typically seen with in-person tutoring; in other words, online tutoring was not seen to be as impactful as face-to-face tutoring. However, the “dosage model” was still maintained, in which students who received more hours of tutoring showed larger positive achievement results.

Overall, the findings were positive, especially given the extremely low cost of this tutoring model, which worked out to approximately $32 per tutored student overall (compared with £10-29 per lesson at Go Student, or an average £30-60 fee for in-person tutoring in the UK). Online tutoring can make a difference, but we need to be investing in not-for-profit models if we want to reach those students who need support the most.

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