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Monday, September 17, 2012

Our Money is on the Humans, But We Need the Computers Too

Last week I had the privilege to give a talk to educational leaders in Denver as part of a series sponsored by A+Denver and Summit 54.  I was invited to discuss the role tutoring should have in today’s schools and classrooms.  Whenever I give a talk about tutoring, it’s inevitable that I’ll mention the watershed study on the topic – Benjamin Bloom’s 1984 paper.  Bloom was a professor at the University of Chicago and his research proved that one-to-on tutoring was by far the best way for students to learn.  Bloom’s work was referenced prominently just this past weekend in “How Computerized Tutors areLearning to Teach Humans” in The New York Times.

Bloom’s vision was that classroom teaching would become more like one-to-one tutoring – highly personal and based on students’ individual needs.   While schools are striving to create provide more differentiated instruction as part of the classroom experience, it’s an uphill battle with multiple obstacles, including classroom size, range of ability levels, and hours in the day.   Chris Heffernan, the subject of the NYT article, experienced these challenges first-hand as a new, Teach for America teacher in an inner-city school.  His response was to attempt to create a computer program to tutor children.
The article asserts that having a human tutor available for every child would be prohibitively expensive, while learning with the help of intelligent computer tutorials is a more viable solution.  I disagree – there is no software that is anywhere close to as good as a real human tutor, and at Tutor.com we’ve figured out how to make real human tutors available at a fraction of what it used to cost in the pre-Internet Bloom days of the 1980’s.

As I shared in Denver, it’s not only possible and affordable, but it’s critical that we bring more tutoring from real people into our schools.  It takes smart technology to do this efficiently and affordably.

Tutoring in the 21st Century Classroom

Tutoring was first introduced into the public school system en masse when No Child Left Behind was passed and districts were required to offer Supplemental Education Services.  This proved quickly to be the wrong way to offer tutoring. Service providers were not well monitored and there was little to no accountability.   Very few SES programs offered the one-to-one tutoring from expert tutors that Bloom proved was so effective.
So what makes a tutoring program effective for school districts?   These five key steps:

1. Tutor Selection – Hire experienced tutors who are experts in the subject and content they tutor. Offering online tutoring gives a district access to more talent especially in hard-to-find higher level math and science. Great tutors are excellent communicators, know how to diagnose a student’s specific issue, understand the variety of ways that students learn, and help students build confidence and take responsibility for their own learning.
2. Student Access - Tutoring no longer has to take place for an hour after-school. Online tutoring offers far more flexibility and access points. Students can connect for one-to-one instruction during the school day, in the afternoon or later in the evening from any device that is connected to the Internet. Schools need to decide if the tutoring should be offered on-demand to be available whenever a student wants help or offer scheduled sessions. On-demand access allows students to get help them minute they need it, and more fully participate in their learning.
3. Clear and Thoughtful Expectations – Set clear goals for any tutoring program and identify which students will receive the tutoring and for what purpose. Every student can benefit from tutoring, from remedial needs to advanced and challenging coursework, and all situations in between. Requiring tutoring for just remedial students creates a stigma and feels like a demotivating punishment.
4. Measurement and Feedback – Schools should use student and teacher feedback to understand how a program is working. Are students coming to school better prepared and with assignments completed as a result of the tutoring? Do tutoring analysis reports show trends in what students are missing in class? Student feedback at the end of a tutoring session provides additional insights into how they are doing and why they may be struggling. Tutors’ performance should also be measured by having tutor supervisors review the recorded sessions and students’ ratings and feedback. This keeps the quality of the tutoring consistently high over the school year.
5. Teacher Support - The information collected from tutoring sessions can help teachers understand where to spend the most classroom time and have additional insights into their students’challenges. And this information can be used to recommend additional coaching and professional development for teachers (see www.mylivepd.com).

We are happy to share examples of schools that are offering tutoring programs the right way.  One innovative program, School of One in New York City (now expanding as New Classrooms in 3 additional districts) uses Tutor.com as their tutoring partner to offer highly personalized, one-to-one learning to students throughout the school year. 
While self-paced tutorial software and artificial intelligence has a place in the classroom, it can’t come close to replacing an experienced real human tutor.  Motivation is a key piece of the achievement puzzle and we find that students are most motivated by positive, confidence building experiences with other people (face to face or through online interactions).  Online on-demand tutoring brings the best of technology  and the best of live human instruction together into students’ classrooms and homes in a way that is sustainable, affordable and measurable. 

Maybe in 100 years, computer power and software coding will evolve to create an artificial tutor as good as a great human tutor, but until then, human tutors will dominate and students will benefit.
George Cigale

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