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Teaching and Learning

24/7 Help for the Online Student

Two institutions share their experiences rolling out online tutoring services, from garnering faculty and student buy-in to analyzing usage data and measuring outcomes.

Tutoring for online learners is a tricky business. Even the best-staffed brick-and-mortar tutoring center would be hard-pressed to overcome the time zone challenges presented by students hailing from all over the world. CT spoke with two institutions — the Ivy Tech Community College System (IN) and Pennsylvania State University World Campus — that turned to a third-party, 24/7 online tutoring service to help bridge that gap.

The schools are both similar and different. In a presentation during the OLC Accelerate conference last year, Stacy Atkinson, a project manager for strategic initiatives at Ivy Tech, reported that her 31-campus community college system has 14,000 "exclusively online" students. They tend to be working students based primarily in-state; 70 percent of them attend college part-time and are of "traditional" college age. Penn State's World Campus, which is entirely online, has a similar number of online degree students (15,000), but they come from 60 different countries and tend to be adult learners — mostly over 30 years old and attending part-time.

Both institutions offer multiple forms of student support, including tutoring services, through asynchronous formats as well as web-based software that connects an "on-the-ground" adviser with the student in real time. And for both, adding a 24/7 online tutoring program to the mix was a new endeavor. During implementation, they found they had to knock down some commonly held myths: that students wouldn't use online tutoring; that faculty wouldn't want it; and that it wouldn't really have an impact on student success. Here's what each has learned about making sure online tutoring works.

Faculty Buy-in Is Essential

Yes, all stakeholders — administration, learning designers, IT and advisers — provide important input on a project like this, but faculty are even more vital. "We don't want [faculty] to believe that this is going to replace their instruction in the classroom or that this is more meaningful to students and that students should spend more time on tutoring online than they should engaging with their instructor," suggested Atkinson. "We want it to be a partnership of some sort and we want them to support it." Faculty are the ones, after all, who know the students best and will encourage some of them to seek out tutoring.

Amanda Mulfinger, Penn State's director of program planning and management, added that World Campus instructors and lead faculty participated in the request-for-proposal process to choose an online tutoring service and approved which courses would receive it once it was in place.

It helped, Mulfinger noted, that the company the university contracted with,, has a "pretty specific, sound, robust pedagogy that they work through with their tutors to not give out answers, but to help the student learn the concept behind the problem." That's truly important, she said. "When you're a large institution like Penn State that comes with the amount of academic rigor and preserves its brand very carefully, we want to make sure students are getting appropriate tutoring."

Student Response Can Turn the Tide

Ivy Tech and Penn State both use to deliver their online tutoring. When students finish a tutoring session, they're given the option of filling out a five-question survey asking whether or not they're glad the organization offers the service, whether they'd recommend it to a friend and whether it's helping them complete their homework, improve grades and be more confident in their schoolwork. Response rates are high: At Ivy Tech it's 34 percent; and at Penn State it's 48 percent. And in both cases, affirmative responses across the board rate higher than 90 percent.

Sharing that data along with personal testimonials from students with advisers, faculty and administrators has opened their eyes to the need. "Each of our 14 regions has a tutoring or learning resource center of some sort on campus," said Atkinson. "Online tutoring has by no means touched upon replacing that. That wasn't our intention. It's just a supplement that the students really used and really wanted." As she explained, there was no desire to shut tutoring centers down. The system wanted to be able to provide help "on a Saturday night at 10:30 or when [the student] lives in Sellersburg and they're taking a biology course in Central, Indiana, three-and-a-half hours away. We have to figure out a way to meet them where they're at."

Use Data to Figure Out Where Students Want Help

Besides student satisfaction information, the analytics generated by report on time of day, day of week, and week of semester where tutoring activity is heaviest. Heatmaps show that the most intense simultaneous usage for both institutions starts up around 7:00 p.m. or 8:00 p.m. on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays and runs until about 10:00 p.m. each night. However, as Mulfinger observed, "Every hour of every day has at least a little bit of tutoring going on."

Even more important, faculty and staff are given reporting tools that allow them to see information about which topics students are requesting help in as well as which courses dominate the tutoring sessions, which varies by institution.

By far, the most popular feature at either school is a "drop-off essay review," which allows students to upload papers for feedback. Within 24 hours they receive guidance about how to improve their papers, but without actual mark-up.

Both institutions have also taken advantage of Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) middleware to integrate with other student systems. For example, in the case of students who show "low prerequisite knowledge" during a tutoring session, Ivy Tech allows the tutors to send early alerts through its Hobsons Starfish implementation to college staff members, who then reach out to instructors, suggesting they consider opening up a dialog with the student.

Seek Equity in the Tutoring You Offer

World Campus delivers courses in four world languages: French, German, Italian and Spanish. However, when came on board, the service didn't have any Italian tutors. So the company went out and hired some and then "credentialed" them to fill the gap.

Likewise, during its RFP process Penn State considered what days the tutoring companies were open during the year. only closes on four days — all American holidays.

"For me that's a baseline message," said Mulfinger. "For online adult learners who may not have taken a language for quite some time or who have never taken a language or some of our military students who may have already taken a language, but they're taking a different one, we need to meet the needs of all of our students. One way you can do that is by offering a good group of courses and having extreme flexibility in the hours of tutoring."

Students Still Need to Come Prepared

At both institutions, students are limited in the number of hours they can access online tutoring. A tally of time is maintained on their sign-in screen so that they know how much more tutoring time they're allotted, encouraging them to come prepared for the tutoring session.

That means making sure they have their textbook in front of them, they're not driving while talking on a Bluetooth speaker in their car, that they have access to video software enabling them to see the whiteboard that the student and tutor share during the session, and similar best practices, said Atkinson. "Just because it's a virtual appointment, it still has to be quality, and part of that is their partnership in engaging in a quality conversation and discussion," she noted.

As Mulfinger pointed out, the same need for preparation is true with on-campus advising and tutoring services too. "Like, 'Please don't come with nothing written. I expect you to have at least a rough draft and outline and know what you want your main points to be in your conclusion.'"

Beware Too Much of a Good Thing

If there were one thing Atkinson wishes Ivy Tech could do over again with its implementation of online tutoring, it would be to put parameters on the amount of time every student could use the service from day one. After all, the monthly fee charged by is dependent on usage. The more it's used, the higher the fee. Early on, as the institution ran pilots, there were no limitations. Due to overuse by a small number of "power" users, "we really got into a budgetary crisis very quickly," she recalled. "We went over our budget by 75 percent, and we had to go back and ask for forgiveness. And that's really hard when at the same time you're trying to get buy-in from every institution [in the system]."

Once a limit of 15 hours per student per semester was imposed, however, the college system was better able to manage its budget.

Although it didn't face quite the avalanche that Ivy Tech did, Penn State also imposes a restriction of 10 hours per student semester based on usage patterns calculated from its multi-semester pilot. "There's a cost to everything," noted Mulfinger. "Our budget folks are really happy that we set a limit."

Although neither publicizes this fact, each also has a process in place for circumstances in which students need additional tutoring hours, such as when a student is an English language learner or is receiving accommodations tied to a disability. What it's not intended for, both emphasized, is when a student wakes up weeks into the course and realizes he or she is way behind and needs to cram to catch up.

Plot Out Ways to Measure Outcomes

Last year, an institutional researcher at Ivy Tech examined data from fall 2015 on a large pool of students with 25 like characteristics, such as how many courses they were taking, their employment status, which region they lived in and what their GPAs were. Everybody in the pool attended at least one course that offered Then he divided the students into two groups: those who used the online tutoring service and those who didn't.

When the researcher compared outcomes between the two groups, said Atkinson, he found that those who had availed themselves of the online tutoring were seven percentage points more likely to persist to the spring 2016 semester or graduate: 78 percent vs. 71 percent. Atkinson anticipates that the college will try to duplicate the study in a future semester.

At Penn State, understanding the impact of providing online tutoring will have to wait awhile, said Mulfinger. World Campus courses that use the online tutoring service have varied too much from the start. "We need to wait that out and have several semesters of data from courses that are just starting to receive the tutoring," she explained. In the future, she added, the analysis will also examine the timing of when a student decided to partake in the service and the impact of it on student success in subsequent courses.

Both institutions view online tutoring as another way to nudge student success upward overall. "We're really trying to help students with those foundational courses that would typically be taken the first two years," asserted Mulfinger. That's the same model, she added, "as the learning center on campus — which can't really cover tutoring for all of our subjects 24 hours a day for every student in every class."

4 Other Tutoring Services

Besides, the following organizations also contract with universities and colleges to provide online tutoring services.

Used by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas
In use by the Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium

Link-Systems International NetTutor
Used by Oregon State University and the University of Missouri

Pearson Smarthinking
Used by Utica College and Pasadena City College

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