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Andrew Geant, CEO

People Want To Learn From Humans, Especially During a Pandemic

COVID-era education is a glimpse into the future of learning; more online, self-directed and affordable. But also less human, which is why the role of online tutors is so important.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn on May 21, 2020

If necessity is the mother of all invention, global pandemics are the father of adoption. Overnight, people have been forced to embrace tech-enabled behaviors like online tutoring, remote work, ecommerce, telehealth and grocery delivery. All of these were at various points on the adoption curve and are now universal behaviors.

A graph that reads Covid is Moving Consumers Up the Adoption Curve

It’s very clear that online tutoring is serving as a lifeline during COVID and a remedy to the abrupt remote learning implementations from K-12 to college. And as millions of people experience Zoom for the first time, they now more intuitively understand the experience and potential of online tutoring. Each passing week, more parents and students are turning to online tutoring. Last week we saw 158% growth.

A graph that reads Year Over Year Online Tutoring Growth

Across industries, the widespread trial of pandemic-necessitated technology by the “late majority” and “laggards” will have varying degrees of staying power; how much depends on the customer’s experience and benefits as compared to their historical approach. Changes to the industry landscape will also play a big factor. In our business, and in education broadly, I predict the future will look very different.

Higher ed will never be the same

The news that California State University System and its nearly 500,000 students will move to online classes this fall is the first domino to fall. Hundreds of other universities are likely to follow suit in the coming weeks. Until there’s a vaccine, dorm and campus life is just too risky.

The question is, will higher ed go back to business as usual post-vaccine? I think the answer here is a resounding no. The writing was already on the wall for higher ed, especially tier 2 and tier 3 universities. Tuition inflation, decreasing enrollment and emerging online alternatives were already causing strain on the industry. Consumers were asking themselves whether it was worth it to take on six-figure debt before ever earning a paycheck.

Ultimately, I expect we’ll see massive consolidation in higher ed and hundreds of schools go out of business. Millions of 18-22 year old students will forgo a traditional four year campus college experience in favor of fully online degrees, gap years, apprenticeship models, and less expensive a-la-carte options like MOOCs and bootcamps. Non-traditional students were already embracing these alternatives in growing numbers, and for them it will become the norm.

As more students pursue remote and online learning, they will miss out on two major facets of college life. First is the “coming of age” experience in which they grow socially and emotionally, try new things, and become independent adults alongside a like minded peer group and in the safety of their campus bubble. Fortunately, there are other ways to “come of age,” such as the Peace Corps, Military or even in the real world, with an apartment and a job.

Educationally, the main thing they will miss is the personalized, human element of learning. Nobody will reminisce about the massive lectures and expensive textbooks. What they’ll miss is the impromptu conversations with the professor or TA after class, the study groups, and the peer mentors. Learning is a highly personal endeavor, and the human touch is a crucial ingredient. Every learner is unique, with individual strengths and weaknesses, motivations, interests and learning styles. Learning requires vulnerability, persistence and the courage to get back up when you inevitably fall down. This is why learning and development is fundamentally a social activity. Despite the bold claims and headlines about adaptive learning, in which algorithms try to get to know the learner and “personalize” the approach, we’re far too complex as creatures for robots to meet our human learning needs.

The reason so many more people are turning to online tutoring so far during COVID is that learners, as well as parents of K-12 students, intuitively understand that they need personalized, human support. They are hiring tutors in record numbers, not just to explain academic concepts, but to provide coaching, mentoring and guidance.

Thankfully, in just the last few years, hiring an online tutor has become an established solution. Even four years ago, the online tutoring market was much more nascent. Had the pandemic struck then, the industry would have a harder time responding. For Wyzant, despite offering a full-featured online tutoring product in 2016, it represented just 12% of the overall tutoring volume. In February, before COVID, it was over 70%. Now, of course, it’s 100%.

When you dig a little deeper, some useful insights emerge from the data.

A graph that reads May 2020 Fastest Growing Online Tutoring Subjects

Hard subjects are even harder remotely

Campus-based college students have been the most severely disrupted by the pandemic. They had to physically relocate off-campus overnight, find somewhere to live and come up with money for food and other necessities. Meanwhile, unlike K-12 students who have been given a high degree of latitude with grades and exams, universities are still pushing students to pass their classes and complete the semester.

Demand for online tutoring among college students is up 170% so far in May. And when you look at “killer courses” like organic chemistry and physics, the need is even more pronounced, with both subjects spiking over 450%.

In general, you can view tutoring demand as a proxy for learning urgency. Fully remote learning of advanced subject material without access to campus support resources is causing students to turn to tutors in various states of anxiety and even panic. One tutor I talked to referred to his new students as “weary travelers seeking shelter.”

The younger the student, the bigger the challenge of remote learning

Since April, demand for online tutoring among Elementary Students has been up over 500%. Without a doubt, the major factor is the burden of homeschooling and child-care. Parents, especially working parents, are not accustomed to overseeing their kid’s school day, and many are not equipped to teach the material. Who knows common core math? Parents also recognize the importance at this age of developing foundational skills, particularly in math and language arts.

In talking to K-12 parents, the story is very consistent. Out of necessity, they decided to try online tutoring. They went into it with some reservations. For one, they were hesitant to create additional screen time. They were also wary of hiring strangers to work with their kid. And many still didn’t get how it worked. After trying it, however, parents are realizing the vast benefits, and can’t imagine getting by without it. Tutors are keeping kids engaged, making it fun, and providing a type of social outlet. They are also creating an important buffer in the relationship between kids and their parents, which tends to get combustible around homework help, especially while sheltering in place together.

As you can see in the chart below, demand for online tutoring among high school students has barely increased. I take this as a major red flag that academic rigor and expectations have been dialed back so far that many high schoolers are in summer break mode. I suspect video game usage among this population, on the other hand, is way up.

A graph that reads May 2020 K through 12 Online Tutoring Growth

Post-COVID, K-12 education will go back to looking pretty much the same as it did in February. The “schoolhouse and chalkboard” educational model developed in the 19th century is remarkably entrenched. Plus, the child-care function of grade school is a crucial part of our job-market and economy. I do hope and expect to see some positive changes such as “digital equality,” which to me means universal access to devices and high speed internet outside of the classroom. Schools will also exit the COVID era with better remote learning systems and an increased appreciation for blended and mastery-based models.

There will unfortunately be substantial learning and knowledge gaps caused by the pandemic that we’ll have to overcome. COVID brain drain will be real, and grade level standards will need to be flexed.

Test prep’s temporary hiatus

Unlike virtually all other subject areas, demand for test prep is way down. Across Wyzant’s marketplace, test-prep tutoring was off 31% in April as compared to last year. This comes as no surprise since most tests have been postponed or radically altered. Those that have tried to move online have gotten off to a rocky start, such as the thousands of students being asked to retake their AP exams.

There’s been a lot of talk in the last few years about the role of standardized testing in benchmarking progress, quantifying aptitude and predicting college readiness. The general current of opinion, particularly among teachers, was for less testing. I predict, however, the opposite will occur in post-covid education.

For one, as learning becomes more self-directed and people increasingly follow alternative learning pathways, we’re going to have to care more about what you know and less about how you learned it. Our historical approach of relying on university degrees as credentials will be insufficient. Testing and certification, in some form or another, will be a key piece of how learners demonstrate mastery of subjects and skills.

Most other developed nations rely much more heavily than the US on high stakes exams as a gating and guiding mechanism through a student’s education and into their careers. I don’t necessarily endorse this approach, but I do think we’ll find ourselves taking steps in this direction, not away from it.

The online tutoring era has arrived

The role of one-on-one tutoring has been a cornerstone of learning for as long as humans have roamed the earth. Ever since early humans taught each other how to use a spear or chisel a wheel, it’s been the preferred way to learn. In the 1980s, sociologist Benjamin Bloom completed his famous “Two Sigma Study” in which he proved that one-on-one tutoring was two standard deviations more effective than other forms of learning.

Tutoring today is estimated to be a $100B industry globally. Yet the vast majority of tutoring still takes place in-person, at home or in brick and mortar learning centers.

Since the dawn of the internet age in the late 90s, the promise of online tutoring has been bright. But it was very slow to catch on. At Wyzant, we’ve been investing heavily in moving our historically in-person marketplace online for over the last five years. Finally, in 2017, adoption started to become widespread, due to continual improvements to the user experience, increasing bandwidth and consumer readiness. 2019 was the first year in which tutoring online became more popular than in-person. Now, of course, it’s the only option.

The beauty of on-on-one online tutoring is that everything you can do in-person can be done as well or better with the right tutor and technology. The student and tutor can look each other in the eye with video chat. They can collaborate on a virtual whiteboard, solving problems, annotating assignments or editing papers in real time. They can even graph equations and edit code.

What makes online tutoring in fact superior to the in-person version are the things you can’t do in person but are enabled with online. For one, you can be far more picky about finding the perfect tutor. Second is access; it’s cheaper and available no matter where you live. The third reason online tutoring is better is that it’s massively more convenient, especially when you need help right away, late in the evening or on-the go. Finally, the online format allows for functionality like lesson recording and playback that enhances the overall experience and impact.

Four Reasons why Tutoring is Better Online Fit, Access, Convenience, and Functionality

At some point, the COVID-19 vaccine will be widely available, and we will be free to resume our lives as they were prior to the pandemic. When this happens, we’re going to immediately embrace certain activities we missed dearly like visiting friends and family, going on vacation and dining out. Some pandemic-necessitated behaviors and solutions, however, are going to fundamentally change how we operate. Online tutoring is one of them. As education inevitably becomes more digital and self-directed, it’s the perfect way to keep learning human.