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Carl McGrone had dropped out of his rural Mississippi high school decades ago and pursued a job in a poultry processing plant.
But with his retirement looming, McGrone wanted to earn his high school diploma, and in the midst of a global pandemic, he has been able to pursue his goal thanks to online tutoring from a Bay Area teen. The unlikely duo had connected through schoolhouse.world, a platform that provides free small-group and peer tutoring, linking learners and tutors around the globe.
The two “were able to form a bond and a friendship,” Sal Khan, CEO of schoolhouse.world and creator of the popular online learning resource Khan Academy, tells Big Think.
McGrone never learned algebra before he dropped out of school, but with the encouragement and instruction he is receiving from his teenage tutor, he stands an excellent chance of performing well on his test and receiving that diploma.
It’s an educational story that would have seemed like science fiction mere decades ago.
Building the schoolhouse
When COVID-19 emerged and school districts began to move to remote learning, the ability to access tutoring — be it peer tutoring, extra time with teachers, or small-group tutoring — became even more difficult.
Khan began reaching out to friends. “Couldn’t we build a prototype of a platform where folks who need help in a topic could say they need help? And that other people, high quality vetted tutors, could say, ‘yes, I could run a small group tutoring session on that topic.’”
Khan partnered with Shishir Mehrotra, co-founder and CEO of Coda — and a college friend — to build schoolhouse.world using Coda’s platform.
Schoolhouse.world puts the focus on a different aspect of remote learning than Khan Academy. Where the Academy’s online education offerings focus on pre-recorded lessons, courses, and practice sessions, schoolhouse.world is keyed toward providing real-time feedback via peer tutoring and small group sessions.
The organization now boasts over 3,000 learners like Carl McGrone across more than 100 countries, with hundreds of online tutoring volunteers leading teaching classes and courses.
Currently, those courses focus on math — from pre-algebra to calculus — as well as SAT prep, Indian Exams, and review sessions for AP exams.
“The gold standard”
When he initially founded it, Khan envisioned Khan Academy as not just a place for practice or to find educational resources — important as those things are. He also hoped to create a place where people can “connect as human beings and learn from each other.”
But with a user base of over 120 million people, Khan Academy is too big to fulfill that role, losing the “face-to-face” (albeit virtual) aspect. With COVID rampaging, Khan saw a chance to bring that vision of online tutoring — including peer tutoring and small group tutoring — back to the fore.
“And we’ve always known, well before the pandemic, that small group tutoring is really the gold standard,” Khan says.
Peer tutoring looks to have a positive impact on learning, according to Australian education organization Evidence for Learning. Math skills, in particular, seem to benefit the most from peer tutoring, and these classes make up the bulk of schoolhouse.world’s courses. Research suggests that even peer tutoring from near-peers — say, someone who took the class the semester before their student — can be extremely effective.
“And in some cases, even more effective, because they can touch on things that the recent learner can remember versus the expert.”
Small-group tutoring — usually 2 to 5 students — has also been found to be effective, although the results do seem to decline the larger the groups are.
But despite its well-documented benefits, tutoring is not something available to every student. It can be expensive and time consuming, which makes it difficult to access for some students. But the adaptation of internet devices, like smartphones, is rapidly changing the status quo: more students are gaining access to this educational gold standard.
“We could literally have a place where people can come and not just learn from resources, from practice, from videos, but they could also learn and grow from and with each other,” says Khan.
“Teach what you know”
Schoolhouse.world’s free courses are taught by volunteer tutors. While some have educational backgrounds — teachers by trade, retired college professors — no prior experience is required.
Instead, online tutoring volunteers are mentored by experienced tutors — peer tutoring for tutors! — and certified through schoolhouse.world’s program.
The volunteer model has invited some skepticism, Khan says. But the certification system, as well as oversight from more experienced tumors, helps keep the quality of the online education high.
Peer tutoring volunteers begin by uploading a video of themselves working through one of Khan Academy’s unit tests, the assessments Khan Academy uses to test the skills learned. They need to show their work, demonstrating a knowledge and mastery of the skill.
Two randomly selected tutors will examine their application video; once the volunteers have their go-ahead and have reviewed two videos themselves, they become certified for online tutoring with schoolhouse.world.
That certification means more than just your ticket to conduct small-group and peer tutoring sessions, however. The certification is added to an online accessible schoolhouse.world transcript — kind of like the transcripts you get from high school and college — where it can be used as a way to demonstrate academic achievement, an assessment beyond a standardized test.
“What’s interesting… is, when you tutor, not only are you helping someone, you are learning it deeper yourself, you’re building muscles yourself,” Khan says.
“If you are a highly rated tutor of calculus on schoolhouse.world, no university, no employer will doubt whether or not you know calculus.”
It also speaks to a tutor’s communication skills, their patience, empathy, and willingness to help others.
“Those are dimensions that [don’t] show up in any grades, that [don’t] show up in any traditional standardized test scores. So we’re already seeing universities, employers say, ‘Hey, we want, we want to use that signal.’”
Currently, the University of Chicago officially recognizes schoolhouse.world transcripts, and the organization hopes to expand that recognition to more colleges and universities.
Skate to where the puck is going
Online education and online tutoring are likely to become a larger and more important part of people’s learning, a destiny accelerated by COVID. And while internet access is not yet available to everyone equally, Khan believes we are getting to a place where it soon will be.
That gives Khan the confidence to “skate to where the puck is going,” to quote Wayne Gretzky; to begin building out the infrastructure now for remote small-group and peer tutoring to fill in an important gap in online education.
“We’re actually talking about anyone in the world having access to truly world-class tutors,” says Kahn.