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Opinion: High-Tech Tutoring Tools Advance Academic Equity

Some education experts say focused tutoring will be needed to address learning loss that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, and technological advances such as AI chatbots make tutoring more accessible than ever.

Illustration of four people in computer chat windows surrounding a robot using a laptop. Light blue background.
Within the broad field of equity is the topic of academic equity — the opportunity for each student to have a personalized education that meets them where they are and that gives them every opportunity to master their next step before moving on. Before recent technological advances, this was almost impossible; now it can easily be done, and it gets easier every day!

To achieve academic equity, I have often written and spoken about how traditional classrooms and schools can and should transform into mastery/proficiency/competency models. For many schools, this is a long-range solution. In June, I wrote about the potential of AI as a teacher and tutor and mentioned intelligent tutoring in a list of ways the technology will transform education. Here I want to dig deeper into tutoring as a viable short-term solution that has been greatly enhanced by technology — in the classroom, in person and by using AI.

For students who are behind or struggling in any subject in a traditional classroom, there are supplemental software tools, and some schools have after-school programs. But where those aren’t available or aren’t meeting students’ needs fast enough, the main solution is tutoring, or any form of extra learning time outside of the classroom.

Tutoring done correctly is highly effective. As Education Week’s Stephen Sawchuk wrote in 2020: “One-on-one tutoring is the original ‘personalized learning,’ dating back centuries. Along with the Socratic seminar, it may be among the oldest pedagogies still in existence. And as it turns out, it is probably the single most powerful strategy for responding to learning loss.”

In 1984, educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom noted in the peer-reviewed journal Educational Researcher that in controlled studies, students who are tutored do significantly better than the average student taught under “conventional group methods of instruction.”

High-dosage tutoring is making headlines lately. Some schools are using tutors in school settings, and many companies are expanding their work in this field. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently reported that “[h]igh-dosage, or high-impact, tutoring is a growing, evidence-based practice that can help schools shrink learning gaps and accelerate learning through intensive, personalized student support.” Another recent headline from The Business Journal read, “Ohio Investing $26M in Tutoring to Boost Student Achievement.”

I know a lot about this topic because I tutored many students while I attended college. When I tutored, I drove from house to house, sometimes tutoring more than one student at a time. They just needed extra time to fill in gaps and fully master their current steps, and with that, they all did better in their studies — as do many others. Today my school’s students tutor in our local schools during the school day. Tutoring centers are wonderful solutions as well, and learning pods are yet another approach.

While there are many logistics involved in training and certifying tutors, monitoring the actual tutoring, doing background checks, addressing the materials used, funding (profit, nonprofit, school district), et cetera, here I will broadly address the topic.

Free, or affordable, quality tutoring hasn’t always been available, but technology is aiding the field in many ways. One example is online tutoring.

The online approach can be very effective and efficient. It broadens the field of available tutors and is an improvement in logistics over driving from house to house. Different software can be used to deliver this, and in some cases, a tutor may be able to work with students in different locations at the same time. In addition to individual tutors using this approach, many companies offer online live tutoring. To support online live tutoring, another technology solution is tutor-coordination software. Done right, this software could:

  • Train and qualify tutors
  • Allow teachers or school administrators to select the best tutors for each student, with parent participation in the selection process
  • Record the tutoring sessions and student progress
  • And much more
I’m working with a group that has developed this form of software, and it’s being used both in the U.S. and in other countries. I am sure we will see big advances in this field to expand live-tutoring options.

Another technology solution is growing rapidly — AI tutoring. One example is Khanmigo, a new part of the education nonprofit Khan Academy which wants to make tutoring more accessible. In addition to many other AI-related services, they say on their website, “[B]y leveraging AI, we can bring the benefits of one-on-one tutoring — deep understanding, confidence, clarity and empowerment — to all students.”

There are too many developments in this space to cover them all, but a few examples come to mind. In 2020, a Carnegie Mellon University news headline read “New AI Enables Teachers to Rapidly Develop Intelligent Tutoring Systems.” Here at GovTech, a 2021 headline was “Google Announces AI for Individualized Tutoring and Advising,” and the piece went on to explain: “This week, the tech company announced a new AI-driven tutor platform that uses competency assessments by educators to generate quizzes, course recommendations and other guidance specially tailored to a student’s needs.”

In May, the education website eSchool News posted “Six Ways AI Tools Will Impact Tutoring.” In June, an Education Week headline read, “How AI Tutoring Can Reshape Teachers’ Days.” In July, a piece on the financial advice website The Motley Fool said this: “Another one of the more useful applications for AI is tutoring. While AI isn’t a complete substitute for classroom learning, it can help students who are falling behind and need extra practice. AI programs can drill students in any subject and coach them on areas that require extra study. AI is especially useful for tutoring because it can be personalized, and programs like ChatGPT allow users to come up with a specific and unique study plan that will work for the student. … Teachers can also work with students to design AI tutoring programs that can help students master a subject in a learning style that works best for them.”

While this field is relatively new and rapidly developing, high tech is helping make academic equity a reality. There are issues to be resolved, financial and otherwise, to improve education through tutoring for all students in the U.S., and much bigger issues to be addressed at a global level. As Education Week noted in May:

“‘An AI-enabled tutoring program can give students immediate, personalized feedback,’ said Helen Crompton, an associate professor of instructional technology at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. ‘And the kinds of questions that students ask of the AI can offer teachers and tutors an insight into their thinking.

“‘But there’s also the possibility that a virtual tutor could present students with incorrect information, or reinforce bias,’ Crompton said. ‘And then, there’s one crucial element of good tutoring that experts agree an AI can’t replace: the student-tutor relationship.’”

But AI is increasing the opportunity for each student to be fully educated in a way that works for them.

That is what academic equity is all about!
Mark Siegel is assistant head at Delphian School in Sheridan, Ore.