IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Online Tutoring Is in High Demand, but Does It Work?

With students falling behind over months or years of remote learning, online tutoring has become a popular solution, and certain design principles might help make it effective at scale for millions trying to catch up.

It’s understood that the COVID-19 pandemic and schools’ subsequent switch to remote learning has caused many students to develop significant learning gaps. The long-term consequences of this COVID-19 slide remain unknown, but already at-risk students are being hit the hardest.

Some school districts have tried to build in-person tutoring programs to help their struggling kids. A number are paying their teachers to work after-hours with students. Some have been trying to hire people from their communities to assist, with current or recently graduated college students being a particularly popular commodity. But finding qualified tutors willing to work for the wages schools can afford has been difficult, and though in the past schools could bring in outside tutors to work in their buildings, ongoing COVID-19 concerns have made this problematic.

So, just as they did when the pandemic interrupted face-to-face classroom instruction, schools are looking to online solutions to solve their tutoring dilemma. And having already outfitted their students with laptops for remote learning and ensured most have reliable home Internet, two major hurdles for online tutoring have been addressed.

Additionally, school districts have the money to venture into online tutoring, thanks to the recent $122 billion in federal stimulus funds allocated to schools, of which 20 percent is earmarked to address student learning loss.

A recent New York Times article points out the irony of schools using online tutoring to address issues that occurred in part because of students’ struggles with remote learning. But schools are in a bind, and many kids are struggling to both catch up and keep up. So with no other practical solutions available for such a thorny problem, looking at quality online tutoring options makes sense. These can be broadly lumped into two categories: live online tutoring and computer-based tutoring.

There’s been little research conducted on computer-based tutoring applications that could help educators tasked with making these purchasing decisions. That leaves schools to choose from unproven solutions, hoping their already struggling students will independently use the applications for several hours each week, both at school and home, and catch up.

Seeing a ripe business opportunity, a growing number of ed-tech companies are moving into the online tutoring space. Amira is one company that’s getting a lot of attention for its application’s focus on helping struggling readers by using artificial intelligence, and some educators have been impressed with the results.

There’s a market for these AI applications, and independent research may well find some to be effective if used properly and regularly. But when it comes to addressing where we are today with student learning losses, I’m not alone in believing the stakes are too high to take chances on unproven computer-based solutions. We should instead consider ways that successful in-person tutoring operated in schools before the pandemic, and as best we can, work to re-create these strategies online. Though doing so won’t be easy or cheap.

A 2021 report from Brown University, Accelerating Student Learning with High-Dosage Tutoring, lays out some proven design principles for effective tutoring. Though these guidelines weren’t developed for an online environment, there’s early research to suggest that instructor-led online tutoring can be effective. As the Brown report states, “Virtual learning offers the potential to lower tutoring costs and potentially provide stronger matches between students’ needs and tutors’ skill sets by expanding the potential supply of tutors.”

Some for-profit companies and nonprofit groups are working to build online tutoring systems that replicate many of the design principles included in the Brown report:
  • Frequency - Provide students with three or more 30-60 minute tutoring sessions per week, or intensive week-long, small group, teacher-led programs.
  • Personnel - With adequate training and support, a wide variety of tutors can successfully improve student outcomes.
  • Measurement - Data and ongoing informal assessments should be used to assist tutors in tailoring their instruction for individual students.
  • Curriculum - Use high-quality instructional materials aligned with classroom content so tutors can reinforce and support teachers’ classroom instruction.
  • Group Size - Trained tutors can effectively instruct up to three or four students at a time.
  • Relationships - Ensuring students have a consistent tutor over time can help build positive tutor-student relationships and a stronger understanding of students’ learning needs.
  • Scheduling - Tutoring interventions conducted during the school day tend to result in greater learning gains than those provided after school or during the summer.
TutorMe is one of the companies working in the online tutoring arena, and it’s been a popular choice among districts looking for an online solution to learning loss. But the company has struggled to keep up with its pandemic-created demand, and as the previously cited New York Times article points out, this has left some students unable to connect with a tutor.

That’s a good synopsis of where we are today as a country. There’s a huge unmet need for qualified tutors to help with widespread learning loss, there’s stimulus money available for schools to buy or build online tutoring options, but time is short, both on spending deadlines and on the ability of schools to catch these kids up before it’s too late.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to name TutorMe as the company cited by the New York Times as a popular online solution to learning loss that has struggled to keep up with pandemic-created demand. A previous version of this article said it was
Kipp Bentley is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Education. He has been a teacher, a librarian, and a district-level educational technology director. He currently writes and consults from Santa Fe, New Mexico.