Tutoring 2.0: New Online Tutoring Tech and Trends

There's no denying the benefits of subject-specific, one-on-one tutoring for college students, but online schools have been a ways behind the curve in offering the level of tutoring resources available on campus at traditional universities. Fortunately for students in today's tech-enhanced, Skype-enabled colleges, however, online tutoring has taken some big steps forward in the last few years. Here are some new ideas that are helping to close one of the few remaining gaps between online universities and their brick-and-mortar ancestors.


On-demand homework help

A lot of online tutoring options work on an appointment basis, which doesn't do a lot for students who realize they need help right before a due date. A good percentage of brick-and-mortar universities provide walk-in tutoring centers, where students can get help on an individual assignment or exam topic right when they need it, but that feature can be hard to find online.

In fact, InstaEDU co-founder Alison Johnston Rue learned first-hand exactly how hard it can be. When running her former company -- an in-home, by-appointment service called Cardinal Tutors -- she received enough frantic, late-night tutoring requests to understand that students were crying out for an on-demand online tutoring solution. She and her brother Dan, who had founded Cardinal Tutors together, decided it was time to create one.

InstaEDU presents students with a list of tutors, of whom hundreds may be online at any given time of day. Students just need to sign up, choose a tutor from the subject-based lists and then message them with a request for a one-on-one session. Subjects like physics, chemistry and math usually boast the highest numbers of tutors, but students can also find help in the language arts without much trouble.

Emotional AI

It may sound like something straight out of science fiction, but researchers at North Carolina State University have taught computers how to understand emotions. More specifically, a facial analysis program called Computer Expression Recognition Toolbox (CERT) was trained to accurately translate facial expressions and subtle body language cues into an interpretation of a student's feelings about how a lesson is going.

The results of the facial analysis can be used by JavaTutor, the university's artificial intelligence tutoring program, to produce context-appropriate messages to students viewing prerecorded classes or tutoring sessions. For example, if a student's face shows confusion or irritation, the tutoring program might produce an encouraging message about how success comes with perseverance.

The customization of virtual environments using this sort of emotional input is known as "affective computing," and researchers expect further advancements in the coming years. It would be hasty to speculate what other benefits these technologies might bring to non-real-time interactivity in online education, but they do suggest some exciting possibilities.

Khan Academy's self-teaching robo-tutor

Not every student knows immediately how to conduct their academic journey in the self-paced, open online education model offered through non-profits like Khan Academy. Founder Sal Khan understands this, and the team behind Khan Academy's success are working on a personal tutor program that can help students start strong and stay on top of their self-directed education.

Referred to by Khan as a "learning flow," the silicon-brained tutor makes use of two hot trends in edtech -- adaptive testing and gamification -- to help students develop their skills and keep track of them on a knowledge map accessible through their Learning Dashboard. The learning flow is still undergoing development and can currently only be used for math, but sources at Khan Academy assert that the same functionality is coming soon to other subjects.

Online tutor matching

Some students may have shied away from online tutoring because they weren't sure how to pick the right tutor, or because they couldn't quite afford the hourly rate. California startup Tutor Matching Service aims to help out on both points by providing a transparent tutor selection process and an average rate of just $12 an hour.

The young company has only been providing its services for a few months, but it's already well on the way to achieving its goal of becoming a sort of "tutor list" for universities. Tutor Matching Service formed partnerships with 30 universities over the last few years of business development, and part of its platform is to offer free progress reports and data visualizations to college and university partners.

The technologies and conveniences typically associated with online schooling have finally reached the realm of tutoring, and these advancements are only the beginning. Soon, online students could have just as many, if not more, academic resources available to them as their on-campus counterparts.

"One on one tutoring? Tech startups finally catch on," SFGate, Ellen Lee, September 3, 2013, http://www.sfgate.com/education/article/One-on-one-tutoring-Tech-startups-finally-catch-4784466.php
"A Tutor Cloud in a MOOC World - InstaEDU raises $4 million," EduKwest, Kirsten Winkler, August 14, 2013, http://www.edukwest.com/a-tutor-cloud-in-a-mooc-world-instaedu-raises-4-million/
"NC State facial analysis software helps identify online students' emotions," Degree360, Heather Bieber, July 9, 2013, http://www.onlinedegrees.com/degree360/e-learning-news/nc-state-facial-analysis-software.html
"Khan Adds Personal Tutoring To Help Identify Skills Gap," Campus Technology, Dian Shaffhauser, September 26, 2013, http://campustechnology.com/articles/2013/09/26/khan-adds-personal-tutoring-to-help-identify-skills-gap.aspx?admgarea=news
"Tutor Matching Service debuts online marketplace backed by 30 universities," Degree360, Aimee Hosler, August 15, 2013, http://www.onlinedegrees.com/degree360/student-focus/tutor-matching-service.html

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