Last week, I had the opportunity to visit Covington Elementary School (Covington) in Los Altos, Calif., where a class of 5th graders is using Khan Academy for its math curriculum. The pilot program, which the school began in November 2010, has students work on Khan Academy on individual laptops during the first half hour of every one-and-a-half-hour math block, but receive face-to-face instruction from their teacher for all other subjects. Although I could easily write several blog posts about some of the exciting things happening in this classroom, I’ll focus today on peer tutoring.

There has been much debate concerning the socialization question in online learning. Read what Michael B. Horn wrote about it here. Although one unfamiliar with online learning might assume that online-learning students sit silently at a computer all day without interacting with their peers, this was certainly not the case at Covington, where some of the students were quietly working at their computers, but most were conversing with other students. What was remarkable about this scenario, however, was that all the discussions were about math—and not one student was off task or surfing the Internet. In fact, much of the chatter was actually students helping other students understand the problems or concepts with which they were struggling.

Rich Julian, the 5th-grade teacher at Covington, said he never instructed the students to help each other. “It happened on its own. [The students] just began to get out of their seats and work with each other. They’ve identified their trustworthy peer tutors. They know they can call on Sriram and Akhil and Albert, and that they know what they’re talking about,” Julian said.

I find it fascinating that online learning can naturally facilitate peer tutoring. I previously taught at a high school that prescribed to the theory that students learned best from peer tutoring. To facilitate peer tutoring, the school had unsuccessfully tried to manufacture a similar environment as to what is happening at Covington by eliminating most honors courses so advanced and struggling students took classes together. As a teacher, I found this extremely frustrating and difficult because the current factory-model system, where students learned the same material at the same time, wasn’t set up to support peer tutoring. Yet, within a new system, peer tutoring seems to be naturally occurring without being crammed into it.

In what ways have you seen peer tutoring occurring in your online-learning programs?


  • Katherine Mackey
    Katherine Mackey