The End of Tutoring?

Jed Applerouth, PhD
March 12, 2014
min read
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Following decades of strident denials that test prep can positively affect SAT scores, the College Board has de facto reversed its position by allying itself with an external provider of test preparation services, Khan Academy. This unexpected endorsement of the efficacy of test preparation has created waves in the college admissions world.

Why now? And what advantage does the College Board see in aligning itself with a free test-prep service like Khan after having maligned test prep for decades? Rapidly losing market share to the ACT, and criticized broadly in the popular press, the College Board has of late been struggling with its image. In dramatic contrast, the brand of Khan Academy couldn’t be stronger. With its humble origins, magnanimous founder, and wide-reaching philanthropic aspirations of providing free education to the masses, Khan Academy is nearly universally admired. By allying itself with Khan Academy, the College Board is hoping to redeem its tarnished brand and benefit from the halo effect derived from Khan’s efforts.

For years, our students and partner schools have been leveraging Khan’s free online resources. Since he began recording and posting his educational videos online in 2006, Sal Khan has been helping explain the most challenging SAT problems to students across the globe. Given this newly announced alliance with the College Board, Sal will no longer have to buy the 10 Real SAT book to find official SAT content; from now on, all of his source content will be free.

During last Wednesday’s College Board webinar, College Board president David Coleman spoke passionately about stamping out inequality and injustice and proposed that Khan Academy’s free SAT prep resource would somehow eliminate the private SAT tutoring industry. What motivated that statement, and what evidence is Coleman drawing upon?

Khan Academy has been offering free SAT prep for many years, so that’s not a novel development. The College Board has already experimented with free universal online test prep, and it was a colossal failure. In states like Georgia, the College Board inked multi-million dollar government contracts to provide free online SAT prep for every student in the state. Did this free online resource end test prep? Did a single one of my tutoring students even log into the College Board Website? The free software was largely ignored by students, and the industry was unaffected.

But isn’t this the exact scenario that Coleman is proposing: College Board-endorsed free online SAT prep? Why did the College Board’s free SAT prep cause neither a revolution nor a meaningful disruption to the tutoring landscape the first go-around? The answer is simple: the targeted end-users are high school students, and they are busy, and they are teenagers. Have you ever come across a teenager who had access to a valuable resource but didn’t use it? Trust me: they’re out there. Given the typical teenage behavior of ignoring free online resources, states like Georgia were upset with the abysmally low utilization rates of the College Board’s online SAT product and eventually terminated these contracts.

There were certainly select students who took advantage of the College Board’s free SAT prep, just as there are students who regularly log in to Khan Academy to seek academic support. They see a free online resource, and they dive in. For these self-directed, self-regulated learners, Khan may be the only preparatory resource required to help them attain their optimal scores, but how about for everybody else?

Many young people need support that extends beyond the scope of a piece of good educational software. From neuroscience we know that the executive functioning skills of teenagers are works in progress: their abilities to plan, to time-manage and prioritize tasks are still developing. Teachers, tutors, and coaches all help provide the structure and support to help present-focused young people stick to the plans that will ultimately service their long-term goals and interests.

Adults are no strangers to this phenomenon. We too hire personal coaches, personal trainers, those who will support us to accomplish our goals. We may know exactly what we should do, but in the midst of so many competing priorities, sometimes we need help attaining our goals.

Khan has created a learning platform that goes well beyond a standard textbook, but this learning tool, albeit a powerful one, has its limitations. For many students, a great text book or learning resource will not negate the need for a teacher or tutor. Khan’s online resources address the content of the SAT, but content mastery is only half of the equation of success on high-stakes tests. The other half of the equation centers on process: self-regulation, motivation, self-efficacy, time management and other factors.

How will a software program help students with severe test anxiety, processing speed deficits, learning differences or low motivation? Tutors offer something more than an advanced problem bank with a great statistical algorithm. Good tutors attend to their students’ information processing, their problem solving styles, their cognitive errors, any potential issues they have with speed, motivation, anxiety, or negative self-talk. The alliance formed between the tutor and the student is fundamental to the student’s success, and even the best piece of computer software cannot yet replicate that alliance or match that human rapport. We are entering the cognitive computing revolution, and eventually computers will match these human-skills, but we have some time until we arrive at that new horizon.

In the meantime, Khan will deliver free online educational resources and tutors will continue to do their work, establishing strong teaching alliances to help students overcome limitations and learn skills to serve them in academia and beyond.


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