The equity implications of virtual tutoring during COVID-19


In brief

  • With 1.6 billion students transitioning away from bricks-and-mortar learning during COVID-19, variation in educational access and instructional quality has given rise to grave threats to our ideals of equity.
  • Advances in learning science and technology mean the proven benefits of one-to-one tutoring are more widely available than ever in the form of virtual tutoring systems. Where tutoring was once the privilege of high-income families, virtual solutions are poised to level the playing field.
  • Adaptive virtual tutors have universal efficacy, with learning gains demonstrated for students across the socioeconomic spectrum. By continuously emphasising engagement and feedback, virtual tutors enable all students to achieve.


During the 2019-2020 academic year, extended school closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic forced 1.6 billion students worldwide to rapidly shift to distance learning.  A return to traditional in-person instruction will by necessity be a gradual process calibrated to local health conditions. In the United States, 13 of the 15 largest school districts in the nation have decided to adopt a fully online learning model when ‘school’ reopens.

As school systems and educators work intensively to establish remote learning plans, there are still significant questions about how to most effectively mitigate the potential for long-term learning loss, and ensure authentic learning gains and mastery of grade-level content in remote or blended learning environments. There are also concerns that in the second round of distance learning, achievement gaps will widen as students attending the best-prepared school districts will thrive, while the majority of students and families will likely continue to face challenges navigating this new environment.

It is against this backdrop that many educators, parents, and caregivers are exploring options to supplement core classroom instruction with additional resources to ensure that their students don’t fall behind. One of the most commonly used approaches to supplemental instruction, individualised tutoring, raises its own equity issues.


Traditional tutoring: proven efficacy for the privileged few

A wealth of evidence suggests that tutoring is a good bet. One of the most well-cited studies by Benjamin Bloom found that private 1:1 tutoring can take a middling student and support them to perform at the highest levels of academic mastery.

These findings are robust and well-validated. A meta-analysis of research into the impact of high quality private tutoring conducted by the American Education Research Journal found that nearly 90% of rigorous program evaluations established that students receiving private tutoring outperformed their peers in terms of educational attainment. These results were consistent whether the key outcomes analyzed were grades, or performance on standardised assessments.


Nearly 90% of rigorous program evaluations established that students receiving private tutoring outperformed their peers in terms of educational attainment.


Yet many parents cannot afford to hire human tutors, and evidence suggests the widespread use of tutoring can systematically widen achievement gaps if only the most affluent families are able to access these solutions. To offset the costs of private tutoring, an emerging trend is for parents to join up in ‘pandemic pods’ where families collectively hire professional tutors to supplement their students’ core instruction. Yet for a large number of students even this solution remains prohibitively expensive creating the potential to exacerbate educational inequity.

In its traditional form, then, tutoring is an exacerbator of the achievement gap.


Virtual tutoring: the great equaliser

Advances in learning science and artificial intelligence have given rise to adaptive virtual tutoring systems that show comparable efficacy to human tutors. Just like a human tutor, virtual tutors can accurately diagnose students’ mastery of grade-level content and pre-requisite skills, and adopt similar instructional approaches to address students’ knowledge gaps and misconceptions. Critically, and unlike most human tutors, virtual tutors continually adapt to students’ needs and generate live reports as a by-product of students’ interactions.


The efficacy of virtual tutoring is universal.


Virtual tutors take advantage of scalable technology to make tutoring available at a fraction of the cost of their human counterparts. In doing so, they tackle the access barrier head-on. The Maths-Whizz virtual tutoring system, for instance, has been deployed in the far reaches of the world. While affluent families in places such as Bellevue, Washington have benefited from these innovations, so too have low-income communities in rural Africa, Mexico and large pockets of the UK and US.

The efficacy of virtual tutoring is universal: research shows that all students, regardless of socioeconomic status, can enjoy the benefits of these technologies when they are implemented in context . A commitment to eradicating the achievement gap must be rooted in the belief that all students are able to achieve, and virtual tutoring provides objective rigour to such assertions.


Continuous engagement and feedback: A closer look at where virtual tutors excel

For both human and virtual tutors, students’ motivation and engagement is a critical factor for success. Recent accounts suggest that disparities in student engagement may emerge as a factor that amplifies persistent inequities among different groups of students.  Strategies to drive engagement in tutoring settings need to be thoughtfully planned. For example, while offering praise to students is a common element of private tutoring, it can counterintuitively reduce learning gains when it is not directly connected to positive academic behaviors.  Virtual tutors can be designed to deliver positive feedback and praise in ways that elicit increased productive learning activity (‘time on task’) and reinforce appropriate academic mindsets and behaviors.

To be clear, there are several distinguishing features of face-to-face instruction that cannot be easily replicated by technology, including virtual tutors. While virtual tutors can rapidly and continuously assess student performance, they cannot yet observe students in the process of making a mistake and intervene as soon as they observe erroneous reasoning (that said, Whizz has participated in research projects that examine the potential of technology to handle more open-ended learning tasks).


Virtual tutors can be designed to deliver positive feedback and praise in ways that elicit increased productive learning activity (‘time on task’) and reinforce appropriate academic mindsets and behaviors.


Detailed ethnographic work examining effective tutoring has shown that the factors listed above are less essential to students’ learning gains than the ability to simply support students to recognise when they have made an error, and to provide them with the opportunity to try again, with scaffolded support, to master rigorous content. As a result, virtual tutors have been proven to support students to achieve equivalent or superior learning outcomes even though they may not replicate the full breadth of creative instructional moves that a professional educator could.

There is no substitute for returning to in-person classroom instruction, but the growing body of evidence confirms that students receiving virtual tutoring can do as well or better as those engaged in one-to-one tutoring, or the small-group tutoring of pandemic pods.


A new hope for strange times

Educators and families concerned about students from falling farther behind during this unique historical moment need not resign themselves to accepting either long-term learning loss or the widening of achievement gaps. Newly mature technologies mean that for the first time, students of all backgrounds have the opportunity to receive high-quality learning experiences.

We are at a historic inflection point. As a global society we are recommitting ourselves to the arduous task of dismantling institutional discrimnation. In that context, these advances in EdTech could not be more important.  There is an urgent need to respond to the potential learning loss associated with extended school closures, in order to prevent long-term damage. The good news is that schools and families finally have the means to do so in a way that can deliver these benefits to all learners rather than exacerbating maddeningly persistent achievement gaps.