Could on-demand online tutoring be the gateway to personalizing learning for colleges?


Feb 15, 2019

A few years ago, the ReWired Group and Bob Moesta, my coauthor on my next book, Choosing College, undertook a project for the tutoring marketplace company, Wyzant.

As players like Byjus, Khan Academy, and others have disrupted the tutoring market, online tutoring companies, which offer access to real, live tutors, have mostly struggled to break out of a crowded market.

The question Wyzant, which began as a platform that typically facilitated face-to-face tutoring sessions, wanted to understand was what “Job to Be Done” were people hiring it to do in their lives—that is, what is the progress people were trying to make that caused them to pay for Wyzant’s services.

In Bob’s words, they initially discovered four discreet “Jobs” (you can listen more about the process Wyzant took on this podcast at the Disruptive Voice):

1. Help me recover from failure. After students failed in something in school, they would hire Wyzant to help them get back on track.

2. Help me ensure my success—and avoid painful failure. Students hired Wyzant before trouble arrived.

3. Help me get the skills I need now to do my job or help me get the skills I need in the future to look good. Employees with this Job were either currently working in a job where they didn’t have the requisite skillset and they wanted to cover up for it, or they were eyeing their future and knew they needed to improve their skillset so they could look good in the eyes of their colleagues.

4. Help me advance in my hobby or passion. People wanted help in a variety of pursuits. Rather than hire a full-time private instructor, an on-demand tutor was good enough.

What’s striking about these Jobs is how emotional and, in certain cases, social they are. The tutors weren’t just being hired for the functional reason of helping a student with their academic progress, but with elements far more fundamental to their sense of self and the avoidance of crippling failure.

Following this research, Wyzant focused its efforts on becoming a one-to-one, synchronous online tutoring platform—as opposed to the face-to-face tutoring on which it had focused previously—as it realized its customers were willing to work in any environment to avoid failure.

As Wyzant has continued to grow, they also work directly now with colleges and universities to provide on-demand online tutoring support that helps students ensure their success.

That’s a Job that colleges themselves are increasingly paying attention to.

As Levi Belnap, Wyzant’s VP of Business Development, and I argue in a new white paper titled, “Success for Post-Traditional Learners: How to Make Colleges More Student-Ready,” given the increasing proportion of diverse “post-traditional students” who hail from a far wider range of backgrounds, it’s time to not only prepare students to be college ready, but for colleges to also become more “student ready.”

Today, the “post-traditional” college student is in the majority. In 2012, roughly three-quarters of students had at least one of the seven post-traditional characteristics, according to the National Center for Education Statistics: being independent for financial aid purposes, having one or more dependents, being a single caregiver, not having a traditional high school diploma, delaying postsecondary enrollment, attending school part time, or being employed full time.

The challenge is that higher education was not designed for this diversity, but rather with the needs of only an elite few in mind. Although many post-traditional students attend college, relatively few graduate for a wide variety of reasons, as we detail in the paper.

We recommend that colleges explore several actions.

They could move away from offering remedial classes that are a blunt instrument with low efficacy and instead offer so-called corequisite classes, in which students in need of support take more rigorous credit-bearing classes that are paired with some sort of additional reinforcement, such as a small-group seminar or one-on-one tutoring designed to fill in their academic gaps. The City University of New York and Austin Peay offer promising examples of this approach.

Another piece of advice is to move away from lecture-based courses that are tied to the credit hour and instead use competency-based education, in which students progress as they demonstrate mastery. In this system, time becomes the variable and learning the constant as opposed to our current system in which time is held as a constant and students’ learning is highly variable.

The challenge, of course, with this sort of an approach is it flies in the face of decades of processes and priorities in most colleges and universities that are built around the credit hour and passive learning. Undoing this is difficult at best.

And it’s why I left with one other takeaway.

In K–12 education, the last decade has seen significant innovation around personalizing learning—tailoring learning to an individual student’s particular needs to help each individual succeed given that students learn at different paces and possess different background knowledge.

In higher education there has conversely been a lot of innovation around business models, but, relative to K–12 education, comparatively less innovation around learning models. Personalizing learning is sometimes discussed—by leading disruptive innovators like Western Governors University—but for most it’s a fanciful term.

If colleges and universities cannot redesign their processes and priorities—or introduce new models with new and different processes and priorities—then bolting online tutoring on top of their existing model could be a critical sustaining innovation that allows them to capture some of the benefits of personalizing learning to become student-ready institutions.

The reason why is that tutoring is inherently adaptive. Even if a college course can’t slow its pace of learning or accommodate learners with different levels of background knowledge about a subject, tutors can adjust and fill in what’s missing—even if it’s knowledge entirely outside the scope of the class that dates back to earlier concepts a student should have mastered in high school.

If a student is struggling with a different challenge—a sense of belonging in a class or on campus, the ability to prioritize, or other habits of success critical to making progress—tutors can offer the necessary emotional and social support to allow a student to persist and ultimately thrive.

As such, online tutoring can be the gateway to personalizing learning for traditional higher education institutions—and a critical step toward accelerating needed innovation on the road to becoming student-ready institutions.

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently works as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions.