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Engagement Critical to Making Online Tutors Effective

Online tutoring has evolved in the years since the pandemic, with schools and tutoring companies adjusting to the new reality of remote learning. For it to succeed, teachers and students both need to make adjustments.

A young student looking at a laptop while writing in a notebook, participating in a virtual lesson.
Online tutoring is not a novel idea. It’s been around for a while, but it has picked up in interest since the COVID-19 pandemic, with companies such as GoStudent and TutorMe making gains in recent years. But despite the increase in demand for online tutors, some question its effectiveness. Members of the National Tutoring Association (NTA) believe the model will work, though they say several improvements must be made to maximize it, by both students and teachers.

NTA senior board member Teresa Lubovich, who is also the education director at Poulsbo Tutoring in Washington, said there was a dire need for tutors after the learning loss that came with the switch to remote learning, and her company’s focus has been on engagement by educators. They achieve that using interactive tools, whiteboards and discussions, which goes beyond the simple face-to-face conversation through a computer screen.

“Many students were able to check out and not be engaged during remote classroom work in the pandemic,” Lubovich told Government Technology. “So student engagement is critical to their success with online learning.”

Lubovich said tutors aim to achieve this through the use of professional video tools like Google Meet or Zoom, screen sharing and digital pencils, as well as by being as interactive as they can through the virtual setting. Though these create a recipe for success, Lubovich still sees areas for tutors to improve.

“The ability to observe our students’ work on the other side of the screen (needs improvement),” Lubovich said. “Tutors must be asking students to show what their work is so we can effectively monitor and encourage as they go.”

Karen Loffler, a member of the NTA board who also serves as the academic success center coordinator at Eastern Florida State College (EFSC), said the college had to develop its whole online tutoring process on the fly once the pandemic hit. She said tutors adapted well thanks to apps like Microsoft OneNote, for note-taking, that help support students. But the onus goes beyond the teacher.

“If a student was prepared for the session, the tutoring went well. When the students were not prepared, the online tutoring seemed to take a bit longer to get things straightened out,” Loffler said.

She said tutors needed to take a more customer service-like approach, being patient in explaining to students how to turn on their cameras or share documents time and time again. They also added new guidelines for how long to wait in a virtual room for a no-show student, and whether students could attend sessions via smartphone.

“Several tutors have expressed how they did not realize how much they relied on body language to assess a challenge, [but] … in general, our tutors have adapted well to the online learning,” Loffler said.

Lubovich echoed that sentiment, saying her company’s tutors have gotten more comfortable with the litany of tools at their disposal. She said Poulsbo Tutoring holds 40 percent of its sessions remotely, which has held steady since schools returned to in-person learning.

“The expectation seems to be that engagement (would) be lower than it was during the pandemic, but that hasn’t proven to be true at all with our students,” Lubovich said, crediting the effort and engagement of the company’s tutors.

But while schools, companies and higher education institutions are ramping up tutoring programs to fill demand, new problems are also popping up. Loffler said that all EFSC tutors are back on campus, but with students both on campus and online, it is creating a staffing issue.

“Our online campus is the biggest by far, and students have become used to online tutoring,” she said. “As most colleges, we are seeing an increase in online courses, and like most colleges, we don’t have enough staff to cover tutoring for both.”

Dr. Miriam Osborne Elliot, an NTA board member and assistant director of academic outreach at the University of Maryland’s Office of Multi-ethnic Student Education, said that tutors and students have responded well to the blended-model approach adopted at UMD. She doesn’t see it going anywhere.

“The demand (for tutoring) skyrocketed because we have this blended model,” Elliot told GovTech. “Our tutoring program needs more resources to meet the demand and to continue students’ satisfaction with their educational experience.”

Elliot said that when asked, students who participated in the tutoring program said they preferred the choice. And that choice, she said, is beneficial on multiple levels.

“Education as an industry needs to listen to what the end user is saying. The end user is saying they like choice,” Elliot said. “For adult learners with families, or rural-area students, it’s helpful to have choice. Students with multiethnic backgrounds and socioeconomic backgrounds need this choice.”

Loffler said any student’s lack of sufficient technology — old desktops without video capabilities, or poor Internet connectivity, for example — remains a huge problem, which translates to learning problems.

“We are starting to see an increase of students who passed a class during the pandemic that did not retain the information and are not able to recall the skills needed to succeed in the next-level course,” she said.

Elliot presented a potential solution.

“What would be helpful would be for students who are working remotely to be set up with some kind of technology resource bank, for students who would benefit from enhanced access to the services they need,” Elliot said. “Looking at student learning from a multiethnic lens is an important piece to this puzzle, as well as students with multiple learning styles. Technology should be diverse like our students.”
Giovanni Albanese Jr. is a staff writer for the Center for Digital Education. He has covered business, politics, breaking news and professional soccer over his more than 15-year reporting career. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Salem State University in Massachusetts.