By: Andrew Geant, co-founder and CEO, Wyzant
There’s no shortage of promises of what big data can achieve in education. Edtech companies and tech-minded educators have heralded everything from individualized learning experiences to proactive intervention for students likely to drop out to predictive guidance on where to build new schools. Too often, though, the promised results require large-scale adoption of new technology and / or a systemic shift in teaching methods, neither of which is easily achievable or even necessarily desirable.
Still, big data isn’t all hype. Third-party data in particular has the potential to improve education equity and opportunity for K-12 students in the near term. Here, I’ll offer one example application: targeted individual tutoring with data from Wyzant, where I am co-founder and CEO.
Background: The Case for Tutoring
Despite the explosion of edtech in recent years, we have yet to find a teaching method more effective than one-on-one tutoring. This method is particularly effective when tutors are well-versed in their subject matter, trained and able to provide useful feedback to students.
Given the realities that less-experienced and less-qualified teachers are more likely to teach in low-income and high-minority schools; that fixing this problem at scale will take significant effort, policy overhaul and time; and that teacher quality has been linked to student achievement, there is a clear need to make high-quality instructors available to students who don’t currently have access to them in the classroom.
Internet-facilitated tutoring is an obvious solution: with no geographical limitations, students can receive one-on-one instruction from highly effective instructors regardless of their location. And the tutoring format means qualified instructors can connect outside normal working hours, meaning instructor supply isn’t limited to those available to work full time.
Creating an Effective Tutoring Program with Third-Party Data
Knowing that online tutoring works, though, is not enough information for a school or school system to plan and budget for a tutoring program with a reasonable expectation that it will be effective. What we need is data to illuminate what works: how much tutoring and in which subjects?
This is the kind of data that a private online tutoring platform like Wyzant has. When we examine how K-12 students use our platform, we find several useful data points:
- Most students seek tutoring support in either one or two subjects. This is good news, because it’s much easier to remediate just one or two subject areas. At the elementary level, 75.5 percent of students seek tutoring in just one subject, and 17.2 percent seek help with two. In middle school, 66.5 percent want support in just one subject, and 20.1 percent want support in two. At the high school level, 63.4 percent seek help with one subject and 20.2 percent with two.
- On average, students seek about 14 hours of tutoring. Elementary school students tend to need the most time – about 15 sessions of about 67 minutes each, for a total of 16.8 hours. Middle school students average 12.5 sessions of just under 70 minutes, for about 14.5 hours of total instruction. And high school students prefer fewer, longer lessons – about 10 sessions of just over 70 minutes each, for a total of 11.7 hours of instruction.
- Younger students need more help with language, older students with math. For elementary school students, seven of the top 10 most popular tutoring subjects were language related (including reading, writing, English, Spanish, Chinese, ESL / ESOL, and dyslexia-related tutoring), and only two were math-related. The split is almost even with middle school students: five of the 10 most popular subjects are math-related, and four are language-related. In high school, the balance shifts: six of the 10 most popular subjects are math-related, and just two are language related.
These data points are valuable to educators in that they reflect tutoring use on the “free market” – i.e., tutoring use when students presumably can afford to pay for as much as they want or need. Assuming that students (or their families) buy only what they need (in other words, pay for tutoring only until the student feels confident in the subject matter in question), this data offers insight into what resources will be necessary to craft a tutoring program in a public school.
The Bigger Picture: Benefits of Private-Sector Data for Addressing Equity & Opportunity in Education
Maybe the most compelling argument for tapping into private-sector data is that it’s plentiful. Private sector companies (and edtech companies in particular) tend to be more data-savvy and data-focused than public sector entities like schools. Edtechs often rely on the accuracy and utility of their data to optimize their products and profits, which means they’re incentivized to collect and analyze data quickly.
Their datasets tend to be limited in scope, but the insights they offer are invaluable for addressing problems within that scope.
Armed with insights from Wyzant’s experience providing one-on-one tutoring to K-12 students, schools and school districts can craft tutoring programs that improve equity by making the right types of tutors available to students for the right amount of time. By adopting a proven online tutoring model (or partnering with a platform that offers one), schools can improve opportunity and access, making highly qualified instructors available to students regardless of geographic restrictions. Finally, schools can use data from edtech companies to predict the cost of such a program and therefore determine its feasibility.
While big data undoubtedly has the potential to transform K-12 education in much more dramatic ways than what’s outlined here, short-term data applications like this have the potential to bring impactful change to students around the country. By leveraging the insights private-sector edtechs have gathered, schools can craft innovative and effective ways to improve equity, opportunity, and outcomes for their students.
Andrew Geant is the co-founder and CEO of Wyzant, an online learning tool that enables one-on-one, relationship-based tutoring. The views expressed in this essay are those of Mr. Geant only and not those of The Line, the Frontline Research & Learning Institute or Frontline Education.