opinion

Is Online Tutoring the Future of Personalized Learning?

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In celebration of their daughter’s birth, Mark Zuckerberg recently announced he would be donating a significant portion of an approximated $45 billion to developing personalized learning. But the Zuckerbergs are not the only people putting money or effort towards developing better learning systems.

In 2015, edtech businesses raised $2.7 billion, a figure that more than triples the $800 million raised in 2011. Many district leaders across North America are keen for a digital learning transition as well—a notion made evident by the thousands of K-12 superintendents who have taken the Future Ready District Pledge since 2014.

Change is imminent. How schools adapt to incoming change, however, remains to be seen. In the face of an extensive range of education-technology resources, what are the best ways to move forward? Decades-old research has pointed to the clear advantages of one-on-one learning, but only in recent years has technology become capable of providing everyone access to it. This change begs the question: Which edtech resources should educators focus on in order to produce the healthiest future of education, and where does one-on-one tutoring fit into that?

A brief history of (the benefits) of one-on-one learning

Over thirty years ago, Benjamin Bloom produced his 2 Sigma Problem, which states that “the average tutored student [is] above 98% of the students in the control class.” This was viewed as problematic in nature because the majority of students didn’t have access to tutoring. The result? An achievement gap that separated those students with access to one-on-one learning from those without.

Historically, only students with the means—time, funds, proximity—have been able to access one-on-one guidance. As a result, these same students were the ones able to perform an average of 98% better than their peers.

But this is changing, as technology is now becoming a democratizing force in a space once reserved for the wealthy or elite.

Not all edtech is created equal

Leveraging technology to meet new standards of education in North America is a must, but it’s not as simple as signing up with any tech startup that says it can help. Skepticism and careful filtration are essential on the part of education decision makers as they form partnerships for a move into a new era of learning.

Amongst the edtech buzz is the notion that these new businesses are the magic key to unlocking genuine mastery learning and one-on-one mentorship for more students than ever before. Companies like HackHands are taking the live mentorship approach, while others, like Udemy and Codementor, are partnering in order to combine education with expert knowledge. But without the ability to truly integrate with the traditional school system, these companies may be missing a crucial piece necessary to achieve widespread adoption. So far, few have been truly successful in finding large scale usage.

Solving Bloom’s 2 Sigma Problem will require superintendents, principals, teachers, and parents to align with resources that specifically focus on supporting the modern classroom model with technology that enables mastery learning and provides one-on-one mentorship.

Online tutoring, while not new, is one solution that may be able to bridge the gap between student and tutor, and provide the accessibility, affordability, and flexibility necessary to move education forward in a substantial way.

Why online tutoring could be the answer

Top-level online tutoring websites connect students with subject experts, and in turn, the personalized learning that students need to excel. At a time when families are the busiest they’ve ever been and median household income is on a steep decline, online tutoring has emerged as a flexible and affordable education resource. The flexible nature of online tutoring allows students to book sessions that fit their own busy schedules.

There is potential for online tutoring to become accessible to a much larger population of students by way of distribution on a larger scale, to schools and school districts. This kind of adoption will be essential for the success of any personalized learning edtech. But it won’t come without its challenges and criticisms. Among the concerns about online tutoring is the worry of tutor quality—and this is not unfounded.

The reality is that desired learning results won’t come from online tutoring websites that allow anyone to become a tutor. Genuine learning comes from tutors who can provide in-depth subject knowledge and who can connect with students in a way that promotes development, which is exactly what licensed teachers are trained to do every day. Credible online tutoring platforms that screen, verify, and monitor teachers as their tutors are the edtech startups equipped to incubate mastery learning and one-on-one mentorship.

Despite the benefits, online tutoring websites are having a difficult time finding a stronghold. Adoption rates have been lower than expected and gathering industry insight is limited by minimal amounts of available user data. Parents and students continue to pursue traditional tutoring over the online alternative as the model they know and trust. But as online tutoring resources develop full suites of interactive tools in addition to the benefits of accessibility, affordability, and flexibility, they are bound to become far more effective than in-person tutors.

The appeal of online tutoring will only increase as its primary users become tech-savvy "screenagers"—students born in 2010 onward whose whole life has known high-speed online communication.

With personalized learning a focal point amidst massive growth in digital education, it’s time for school districts to react and implement tools of the future. If adjustments in schools aren’t made to embrace technology and give students access to the best teachers, then the education of our young people will be at stake. Collectively, we need to find solutions that raise student performance, and so it may be time to embrace the technology that’s best poised to deliver sooner rather than later.

Dave Frey (@daveyfrey) is the CEO of Skooli. He’s passionate about global education and personalized learning. For more on online tutoring, follow Dave and the Skooli team @skoolionline.

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