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Roberta Schotka (center left), who oversees peer tutoring services at Wellesley College, trains peer educators at the Pforzheimer Learning and Teaching Center.

Courtesy of Wellesley College

As the coronavirus pandemic forced college campuses to shut down last March, Tiana Iruoje scrambled to quickly transition peer tutoring services at Indiana University's Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering to online-only appointments.

Iruoje, director of student engagement and success for the school, needed to be able to track student check-ins and tutor hours. She nearly hired a computer science student to develop from scratch a system that could do so.

“The time and resources we would’ve spent to have him do it were outrageous,” she said.

Student tutors are typically available to Luddy students for walk-in sessions most weekday evenings. The tutors sit and wait at tables in a classroom with placards denoting their majors placed in front of them so "clients" -- students seeking tutoring -- can find the appropriate tutor to work with, Iruoje said. It's a valuable service for students studying difficult technology and engineering subjects, but with the physical tutoring space closed and then reopened only for limited use during the pandemic, Iruoje and the center's staff needed to be flexible and creative.

Learning center staff members across the country faced a similar dilemma. Just as faculty members and mental health support staff members were forced to pivot to remote instruction and online therapy sessions within a matter of weeks, academic support services also quickly shifted gears and made accommodations for the public health emergency. Very few centers had existing online systems established to smoothly transition their traditional, brick-and-mortar centers to online peer tutoring sessions. Tutors also weren’t trained to work in that format, said Roberta Schotka, director of programs at the Pforzheimer Learning and Teaching Center at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

“It was a steep learning curve for everybody,” said Schotka, certifications director for the College Reading and Learning Association, or CRLA, a national membership group of academic support professionals that establishes benchmarks and guidelines for tutor training programs and has certified more than 1,200 programs worldwide.

Some institutions, such as the Luddy School, turned to for-profit, third-party companies that provide software for learning center management and an online platform for tutoring sessions. Executives at the companies said their services are being requested more often -- and have experienced massive increases in use since the pandemic was declared. They promote their products as an all-in-one solution for colleges and universities aiming to expand the reach of their peer tutoring services, which experts say have the potential to increase students' grades and graduation rates.

But the companies mostly rely on the labor of students hired by their institutions to provide academic help to other students. Learning center directors worried the tutors would step away from their jobs, said Jon Mladic, director of professional development for CRLA. After all, the tutors are students first, and they were experiencing their own uncertainty, adjustments and personal challenges caused by the pandemic, he said.

Mladic, who is also dean of library and learning services at Rasmussen University in Illinois, said stories from learning centers around the country proved the opposite. As the pandemic caused poor academic outcomes for students during the spring and fall 2020 semesters, tutors, who tend to be high-achieving students, were willing to continue and in some cases increase the level of academic support they provided their peers, he said.

“It’s been incredibly heartwarming to hear about programs where peer tutors stepped up,” Mladic said. “It was an incredibly selfless act in the moment, and it really made the difference for many programs.”

‘Educationally Purposeful Peer Interactions’

The level of support and social interaction peer tutors provide to other students is especially important during the pandemic, when students are more likely to be isolated and lacking connection to their institutions, said George Kuh, chancellor’s professor of higher education emeritus at Indiana University and a nationally recognized student engagement and success expert.

Kuh considers peer tutoring an “educationally purposeful peer interaction” -- activities designed for students to work both academically and socially with one another. Positive indicators and anecdotal data suggest that scaling up structured peer tutoring services at institutions can boost student engagement and, as a result, retention rates, he said.

First-year students who say their colleges provide “quite a bit” or “very much” academic support in general are more likely to want to return to their institution the following year, according to recent results from the National Survey of Student Engagement, or NSSE. The annual survey of thousands of undergraduates is a project of the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research, which Kuh founded.

Ninety percent of first-year students who said their college emphasized using learning support services, such as tutoring or writing centers, also said they intended to return the following year, according to 2019 and 2020 NSSE data provided by Robert Gonyea, associate director of the IU Center for Postsecondary Research. About 10 percent fewer first-year students said they intended to return if their college provided “very little” or “some” emphasis on learning support services, Gonyea’s analysis showed.

However, peer tutoring is not officially labeled a high-impact practice, a set of student engagement and learning strategies approved and promoted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities that are proven to improve students’ grades and increase persistence and graduation rates. The current list of 11 such practices includes first-year seminars and living-learning communities. But Kuh said the success of peer tutoring specifically has not yet been proven through widespread research. He's hoping that will change and believes peer tutoring not only helps the student being tutored but can help tutors develop career skills that employers emphasize in their searches.

“Tutors become more confident in expressing themselves to other people, and there are other benefits we assume they will accrue: conscientiousness and the ability to work with a person who’s very different from oneself,” he said. “These are all qualities that employers say are essential.”

However, peer tutoring services have also been difficult for institutions to scale, especially large, public universities with thousands of students and various degree programs and curricula that students need help with, Kuh said. Officials at many colleges know their services aren’t reaching “nearly as many students as could benefit from peer tutoring,” but they can’t afford to simply hire more tutors and build more spaces for tutoring to solve the problem, he said.

This is where ed-tech companies that manage and deliver tutoring services directly to students can be a big help, Kuh said.

Potential Third-Party Solutions

Mladic, of the CRLA, said that as many colleges shut down their centers for in-person services during the pandemic, they also quickly contracted with third-party companies to outsource academic support. Administrators who contract with and are proponents of the companies said they have helped expand peer tutoring services on their campuses while also cutting costs.

Iruoje, at the Luddy School at Indiana University, signed a yearlong $10,000 contract with Knack, a company that connects students with tutors through an application available on a computer, smartphone or other device. The Florida-based company currently also has contracts with the University of Florida, Florida A&M University and about two dozen other institutions, said Samyr Qureshi, co-founder and CEO of Knack.

Knack offers to manage most aspects of a traditional tutoring center, such as hiring and training tutors, tracking their hours, and providing a platform for tutors and student clients to message and work with one another over video or in person, Qureshi said. Students can search for tutors at their college or university based on the specific class they need help with and at any time of day, whereas traditional campus learning centers are open for specified hours each day.

Deals between Knack and institutions range in scale and size. For example, the University of Florida has a $540,000 contract with Knack lasting through the spring 2021 semester to provide tutoring services at no charge to some students. The services are available to low-income students enrolled in courses from which students most often withdraw or fail. Florida A&M, a historically Black university that enrolls about 70 percent Pell-eligible students, decided to provide Knack’s services at no charge to all of its students, Qureshi said.

Jorge Del'Angel, a senior at Florida A&M who tutors through Knack and also at a center in the university's College of Engineering, said the online platform has allowed him to reach and support more students. Since the platform launched at the university nearly two years ago, Del'Angel has had 130 tutoring sessions with 43 different students, he said. He focuses on introductory classes for biological and agricultural systems engineering students that many tend to fail, such as chemistry and physics. It's been fulfilling for Del'Angel to help others in classes he also once struggled with, he said.

“If I’ve been through the storm already and I can help someone who’s just starting to go through it, that makes it all better,” Del'Angel said.

Helping other students with these courses has also ingrained introductory material and concepts in his mind, which is helpful now that he’s taking advanced courses.

“It’s not just a one-way street of me helping someone else. They help me, too,” Del'Angel said.

In fall 2019, Florida A&M hired 76 tutors for 133 courses, and by the end of the semester it had provided nearly 1,000 total tutoring hours, according to a case study that Knack conducted at the university. Qureshi said that from 2019 to 2020, overall Knack users grew by 347 percent and the average student who sought tutoring through the platform during fall 2020 used it about four times, or about once each month. He declined to provide exact usage and session numbers, citing competitive risk for the company.

Iruoje said she was initially hesitant about outsourcing the Luddy School’s tutoring services to a third-party company. But the partnership saved the school more than $42,000 in tutoring costs in 2020, mostly because the peer tutors were no longer being paid to sit in classrooms and wait for students to seek help. Knack allows for both the students and tutors to work together on their own schedules, whereas previously the peer tutors would get frustrated when students weren’t coming in for help, Iruoje said.

“It didn’t only save dollars, it also saved my time,” she said. “I can focus on other student engagement activities for the whole school on a larger scale, not just focusing on clocking tutors in and clocking out.”

Luddy School students who received tutoring via Knack during fall 2020 had a 2 percent higher persistence rate going into the spring 2021 semester than those who did not use Knack tutoring, according to data provided by Iruoje.

The difference "seems small at first glance," she said. "Even so, the results are positive and promising."

Schotka said Knack is one of three corporate partners associated with CRLA that have developed a tutoring platform or training program to assist colleges attempting to scale their peer support services. In the last two to three years, more third-party companies have entered the market to address the needs of college learning centers, such as providing an online platform through which to deliver peer tutoring, she said.

Association partners that specialize in tutoring services include Innovative Educators, which offers CRLA-certified peer tutor training and Tutor Matching Service, a company with tutor training courses and online scheduling and a platform to connect students with tutors. (Note: This paragraph and the preceding paragraph have been revised to correct and clarify the corporate partners of the College Reading and Learning Association.) 

brand-new online peer tutoring service, Knoyo, recently launched this year and offers to connect high school and college students to a national network of honors college students who are tutors. 

“There’s new players in the field every day,” Schotka said.

Qureshi, of Knack, said the company has grown tenfold since the pandemic began, and its contracts with various colleges increased by 900 percent from 2019 to 2020. He declined to provide specific revenue information.

Another online student engagement company, Upswing, which originally launched in 2014, has seen a 400 percent increase in demand since the pandemic shut down campuses last year, said Melvin Hines Jr., CEO of the Austin, Tex.-based company. Upswing provides an online platform through which colleges can operate their peer tutoring services, as well as other tools that can help keep students academically engaged, such as a chat bot powered by artificial intelligence that sends reminders and nudges to students about upcoming classes and assignments, Hines said.

"We were slammed pretty much from beginning to end," Hines said of 2020. "Demand for online tutoring doubled immediately. We’ve done twice as many coaching sessions just with our tutors than in 2019 and had a twofold increase in sessions with peer tutors."

Upswing's revenue grew from $1.2 million in 2019 to $2 million in 2020, or by 67 percent, Hines said. In 2019, 66,000 peer tutoring sessions were completed through Upswing over all, and in 2020, that grew to 100,000 sessions. Typically, 80 percent of students who use the platform once return for another session, he said.

Upswing currently partners with 70 institutions and advertises specifically to community colleges, historically Black colleges and universities, and other institutions that want to provide more targeted academic support for nontraditional and online students, Hines said. The United Negro College Fund announced last month that it is partnering with Upswing to provide the company's academic support services to more than 500 UNCF scholarship recipients, who are Black and studying science, technology, engineering and math fields.

During a recent Upswing webinar, Joyce Langenegger, executive director of academic success for the Blinn College District, a two-year institution with multiple campuses between Houston and Austin, said Blinn was encouraged to invest in the company's services when the pandemic prompted a significant increase in students who took classes entirely online.

"Suddenly, with COVID, everyone became a distance learning student," Langenegger said. "Students suddenly placed in five courses that started out face-to-face and suddenly were all online were desperately struggling to figure out how to survive in that online environment."

The End-All, Be-All Peer Tutoring Solution?

Most colleges with CRLA-certified tutoring programs have their own homegrown system for tutor training, scheduling and service delivery, Schotka said. Mladic said most of these institutions are not looking to replace their traditional peer tutoring setups with products from outside contractors, but they may be interested in supplementing them in hopes of making existing resources more effective and reaching more students.

“Really, the external resource can only be impactful if it complements the existing internal resources and fits within the larger strategic vision of that institution’s online academic support,” Mladic said.

Schotka said many learning centers have also stuck with basic videoconferencing platforms -- such as Zoom and WebEx -- to make peer academic support available virtually during the pandemic, rather than relying on a for-profit company to manage tutoring services. The ways in which institutions shifted to remote services "really runs the gamut," Schotka said.

Across most of the campuses that Knack contracts with, engagement with the tutoring platform has been up as more students are seeking out virtual peer help from locations far away from campus, Qureshi said. Other campuses, however, saw a drop-off in clients during the fall semester, potentially due to students getting used to the online-only version of the platform or institutions moving to pass-fail grading policies, which Qureshi said de-incentivize students from getting better grades.

While the third-party services may provide cost savings for institutions themselves, students' disengagement from the services could result in lost income for tutors. In a brick-and-mortar center, tutors typically get paid to staff the center, whether they have appointments during their shifts or not. But on Knack, for example, whether a tutor gets work completely depends on their peers' demand for the service. Qureshi noted that at the University of Florida, nearly three-fourths of students who tutor through Knack rely on it as their primary source of income.

Del'Angel, the student tutor at Florida A&M, said he doesn't need his $12-an-hour tutoring income to pay for his basic needs -- it's more of a "side hustle." But he has seen a dip in clients since the pandemic was declared last spring. Even students whom he had seen on a weekly basis stopped requesting sessions on Knack, and students he saw over Zoom during the pandemic were in need of drastic and immediate help for an exam or homework due the next day. He believes students preferred meeting with him in person and aren’t as interested in a virtual session.

Kuh, who’s also a senior adviser for Knack, which is a paid staff position, said in-person tutoring is more effective for students, but it’s not realistic to expect today’s college students -- who are more likely to be working adults with families -- to come to campus during the hours that a traditional learning center is open. Companies that help deliver virtual tutoring to those students are here to stay beyond the pandemic, he said.

“One lesson we learned over this past year is if you can’t be in the same room with one another, what else we can do to approximate that experience,” Kuh said.

He said that among the various strategies to keep students engaged with their college, peer tutoring “is probably the least used and most promising lever we can pull, if we do it systematically and with greater intentionality.”

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