Christa Ehmann at Universities UK Retention event 2019
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Christa Ehmann at Universities UK Retention event 2019

January 8, 2020


My name is Christa Ehmann, and I am the chief education officer and vice
president for a unit called Smart Thinking. We are part of Pearson Education, and we deliver online tutoring to students who are primarily in Higher Ed. We provide support in all of the high enrolment core courses in higher education, and we typically contract with institutions who purchase access to our service for blocks of hours. And their students can then work with our tutors 24 hours a day,
seven days a week. In the 90s then, the late 90s, you saw the emergence of the first online tutoring
companies like Smart Thinking, primarily in the United States. There were about three or four that cropped up all around the same time. And at that point, the
communication between tutors and students was very linear in the sense that there was synchronous communication, students used a virtual whiteboard with
tutors, and there was typing back and forth with one another. Alternatively, students submitted pieces of writing or documents for review, tutors provided feedback on that, and sent it back to the students. So, it was a pretty linear communications stream. Today, though, what we see is a far more
dynamic, multilevel exchange that includes group tutoring just between students
or with a tutor or with a facilitator online. We see tutoring with video and voice, so we’re getting closer to what a face to face interaction might look like. Within those synchronous opportunities, there is screen, photo, and document sharing between tutors and students. And there is
the simultaneous use of multiple modalities. So, you might be in a synchronous
video session with a tutor, but also sending documents or chatting back and forth with the tutor, other information about the topic that’s being discussed. I’ll talk just in a minute about mobile applications, because I think there are some interesting trends around that. But additionally, you are seeing rapid advances in
artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and virtual reality, particularly in the health sciences, where there will be an augmented reality scenario of a dissection, and then a human tutor can come in and assist with a student who’s using that type
of technology. This is just an example of, when I say virtual whiteboard, typically the virtual whiteboard across providers will look like the one in the upper right hand corner. And just to confirm, this stuff will be sent out after the presentation, so you’ll be
able to take a closer look at this. And then, in this box here, you see audio
capabilities, the ability to pull in a document, to share that document. And what we’ve seen over the years is a pattern of multitasking between tutor
and student in a way that was never seen before in the early days. The use of mobile technology between tutor and student is also seen now. And that is something that I think is relatively interesting. There’s a lot of discussion about mobile applications, particularly around online
learning. What we have seen though, is that while we do have apps for iPads and cell phones, and there is text messaging interaction involved, that unless a student is creating content on a mobile application in a classroom, they only use our apps for content consumption. And so, what I mean by that is if a student is not actually composing an essay on their iPad or on their iPhone as part of the class instruction, they’re not going to use the iPad or the iPhone to submit a paper for review. If a student is primarily
in the mode of using a laptop or a PC to do practice problems or other types of homework, they’re not necessarily going to gravitate towards connecting with an online tutor via an app. Rather, they’re going to review the commentary that a tutor provides them back. So, when they’re on the bus going home, when they’re standing in a pickup line for their child, they’ll be reviewing content, not necessarily creating it with a tutor. I think this trend is probably going to change as the use of mobile devices becomes increasingly important in the classroom. But that’s an observation that we’ve noticed that we thought at this point at least we’d probably be further along,
but it’s actually not in terms of practical use. Very frankly, there’s not a whole lot of empirical or theoretical research, specifically on the phenomenon of online tutoring. And so, oftentimes when you see pieces that address the theoretical components of online tutoring, they’re really grounded in more general principles of online learning, and teacher and learner interaction. And they’re also oftentimes grounded in face-to-face tutoring, conferencing, and writing review. And so, as I said in the beginning, while there’s absolute overlap in principles and alignment with certain thinking, there are very distinctive features of online
tutoring that we’ve seen, in terms of how students learn, teaching, writing through text for example, and how students are developing. I’ve written quite a bit on that, and I’m also happy to share some of that research in the follow-up information as well. But a lot of what you’ll see is really based on experiences from face-to-face
tutoring. From an empirical standpoint, you’ll see quantitative studies that are
largely driven by an investigation of questioning and answering techniques that are to be used to develop artificial intelligence and machine learning tools So, that’s helpful, but it doesn’t quite give the picture of I think what the true
power of online tutoring can actually be. And then, you also have some
qualitative studies that investigate online tutoring in its naturalistic setting, as it occurs in an institution or in a classroom, and that’s something that we’ll go over in just a minute as well. So, with this, I’ve entitled this slide, lessons learned from partner institutions. And so, many of our institutions do their own research on outcomes for online tutoring
as it relates to retention of their students around performance, persistence, and
overall retention. And so, these are smaller scale studies, and they use this to determine if they want to keep using the online tutoring solution. And so, what they’ve shared with us, it can be bucketed in four main sections. There’s student experience, student outcomes, curriculum and teaching, and institutional context. And I’ll spend just a couple of minutes going over some of the perhaps more interesting ones, although not surprising ones. That when online tutoring is implemented in a certain way, institutions have found that it does have an impact on improved grades, persistence in actual courses, and then overall program retention. And consistently, what they have found is that if a student uses 1.2 to 1.5 hours of online tutoring and engages with a tutor, whether that’s on mathematics, or whether that’s in a writing review, that they consistently see improved grades. Again, this is a broad meta analysis of all of the information that institutions have given to us. But time and time again, an interesting pattern is that it always hovers around that 1.2 to 1.5 hours. They’ve also seen that students have an increased
confidence and satisfaction, knowing that there are options outside of campus options, to provide them with academic support. One of the key reasons why institutions say online tutoring seems to work mostly
for students, or so well for students, is the anonymity factor that an online
tutoring environment affords. The student is in control of whether they want an audio session, a video session, or just a text-based, asynchronous session with a tutor. And oftentimes, and I’ve seen this in my own research, what fuels a lack of engagement for tutoring, is a fear of looking stupid or dumb. And so, when a student knows that they’re operating with a tutor who knows something about
them, but isn’t necessarily going to have a direct line back to their faculty member to say, so and so asked for help, etc. That seems to foster a level of comfort that then fuels this lower box here, which really develops or promotes a general culture of help seeking at the institution. So, as I said in the beginning, most of the institutions with whom we work, already have established academic writing centres, tutoring centres, support centres. And institutions employ online tutoring to extend the support of those existing features on campus, so that the commuter students who can’t get back to campus can still get help through a tutor. The student who has a family, who has to pick up their child from day care, can still get help. So, they’ve seen that when those students are helped, it actually increases the use of their face to face tutoring services as well. So, this is a typical type of comment that we will see. We work with many non-traditional age students who
are coming back to school, who are juggling many demands. And this is a
mechanism to bridge support for them. For those institutions with whom we’ve worked, who’ve been the absolute most successful, the key is in this statement, engaging learners who need online tutoring the most. And, as Joe was saying this morning it’s not rocket science, but it’s getting the individuals who need tutoring the most to use it, is the key to success. At many institutions, students who want to make their B plus an A minus, or their B, a B plus, or their two a one, will seek out opportunities proactively themselves, regardless of whether an administrator or a faculty member is telling them to do that. It’s those students who are in that mid-range, who might not be as institutionally savvy, who won’t necessarily go after that help. And the key is figuring out how you engage those individuals who institutions believe will move
the needle the most on retention. Is a representation of what we found are key elements to learner engagement. And obviously, the learner is straight in the middle. And institutions really first have to identify what challenge or problem they want to solve as it relates to retention. For some institutions, it might be the struggling first generation student who drops out, or the non- traditional age student who’s juggling a lot of things outside of their learning, and also just drops out because they don’t feel they
have the support. For other institutions we’ve worked with, I’ll give you one example of a nursing department that we worked with, where their single biggest concern was helping
their nursing students learn to become better writers. And they said that, given all of the writing intensive demands of reports, nursing care plans, lab reports, things like that, if their nursing students were not successful in that area, that led to a retention challenge with those nursing students. And so, to that end, it’s very important to identify which group of learners an institution want to target first. And then, there are four components that are all
equally important, the first of which is faculty buy in. If faculty don’t support online tutoring, it will not succeed. It will have very little impact on student learners at an institution. We have found time and time again that many students take a very utilitarian approach to their education and learning. And so, when a faculty member says, ‘do this’, or ‘I strongly encourage this particular activity’, students are going to do it. If they get any hint of a faculty member’s
resistance, or not supporting an initiative, they’re not going to use it. So, this faculty buy in and faculty encouragement for online tutoring, and an
encouragement of student usage is really very important. The second component is the approach to support. So, is online tutoring viewed as just a remedial, punitive type of activity, or is it viewed as a supplemental extension to the classroom? When it’s viewed as a supplemental extension to the
classroom, a norm of learning at the institution, we found that that’s been very
effective. Another key area then is where reminders for online tutoring are placed within the coursework. If institutions just say, we have this service, use it; it’s sometimes difficult to find where to get that help. And so, for this key coursework placement, we have seen that when online tutoring access is integrated at meaningful points throughout the course, that’s what helps move the needle the
most for those students who will engage. And we have some examples for that in a few slides. But that’s very important. So, what I mean by that very practically is reminders in the LMS, reminders where homework assignments are, or larger projects are, to give cues to students about when to use it. And then, the fourth item is related to the very straightforward technology integration. If the access to tutoring is difficult, or students have to log in to some other place, you’re more likely to lose students when they’re at that help-seeking point. So, all of these work together in a very strategic, systematic way. And it all starts with having the institution identify the group of students they want to help with online tutoring, and then implementing online tutoring according to those outcomes and objectives that the institution wants to achieve. Interaction between the tutor and the student is saved and archived. And so, from our management perspective, that is a great way to maintain quality control,
to make sure that tutors are actually performing in the way we want them to perform. From the institutional perspective, it provides a very deep level of
transparency into what is happening with students and tutors. And depending on the way, that information is then coded and delivered back to the institution. It can also help with proactive outreach that might also increase retention. So, I’ll give you a very clear example. After all of our sessions, we have our tutors code, a subject taxonomy that identifies the topic and sub, sub, sub, subtopic of the area in which they’re asking the question. And then, we also have them code an engagement taxonomy, which addresses the level that they feel the student is at in terms of engagement. So, after the session, is the student going to be most likely successfully onto their next step, or has the student left the session and there are still concerns about foundational content knowledge? Or is the student still concerned about
the question or the assignment that the faculty member has assigned? And tutors are able to code this information. Institutions are able to, on a 24 by seven basis access this information. And it’s a very clear checklist to say, okay, 94% of my students who utilise this service, the tutor felt they were safely onto their next step. But 6% of the students left that session, and this professional educator had concerns about them and where they were. That’s a potential opportunity for the
institution to pick up the phone and make an outreach to the student, and say,
‘Hey, how are things going? Is there anything we can do to help you with this
particular issue?’

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