Leo Salvatore graduated from university in May 2022 and dreams of becoming a philosopher. As he applies for graduate school, the affable 23-year-old takes on a part-time job that barely existed before the pandemic: online tutoring. From his home in Baltimore, Maryland, Salvatore logs on to one of his four-hour shifts three times a week and earns $20.25 an hour. Often he has two or three students from different classes discussing different assignments with him simultaneously. It could be a fourth grader in Los Angeles struggling with English, an eighth grader in Palm Beach, Florida asking questions about history, and a 10th grader in Las Vegas who needs help with French verb conjugation.
“It can be overwhelming,” Salvatore said in an interview, describing his life as an online tutor in the time of coronavirus.
On a few occasions, Salvatore recalls, he taught up to seven students at a time. Keeping track of student questions and chatting with them in real time can feel like a short-lived cook during the breakfast rush rather than an educator. At least his commute is excellent.
Salvatore’s employer is Paper, which is based in Montreal, Canada, and claims to be the largest online tutoring company in the United States. The company is fueled by more than $120 billion that Uncle Sam pumped into education recovery after the pandemic, when students lost months of instruction and fell behind. Schools are required to spend at least 20% of those federal funds on academic remedial programs for students, and the U.S. Department of Education encourages schools to use “high-dose tutoring,” which has produced gains impressive learning experiences in rigorous studies where students work. working closely with an in-person tutor every day using prepared lessons.
Paper has had impressive success marketing its online tutoring model as a version of high-dose tutoring. Students at schools that pay Paper between $40 and $80 per student are entitled to unlimited on-demand tutoring at any time of the day. More than 300 school districts across the country, serving more than 3 million students, have purchased it. Paper has also entered into statewide agreements with Mississippi, New Mexico and Tennessee, serving millions more students.
The company has hired 3,000 tutors – and says only 4% of those who apply are successful. Its tutors all have a university degree or are finishing their studies and have at least one year of teaching or tutoring experience.
“Apart from education and experience, what we look for in our tutors is their ability to approach our students with warmth, positivity and patience, while being able to adapt to the unique needs of each student. said Philip Cutler, CEO of Paper, in an email. statement.
As Paper has grown, so have its services. In addition to unlimited homework help, its tutors provide feedback on the essays students upload. Salvatore has been spending most of his time on it lately. The pace is grueling. The company expects him to revise a 500-word essay in 20-25 minutes and only gives him a little longer, 35 minutes, for 750 words. During this time, tutors are expected to not only read, but also write a general comment paragraph, highlighting strengths and weaknesses, and write five specific notes per page.
“It’s difficult,” Salvatore said. “We receive a lot of subjects. Sometimes I jump from an essay on George Bush’s speech after 9/11 to an essay on Lord of the Flies and the death of Piggy. So it’s also a kind of brainstorming – in the negative sense.
Nonetheless, Salvatore says he enjoys the job. Reviewing essays helped him improve his own writing. “It’s very rewarding and hopefully also helpful,” he said.
Salvatore was born in Italy and immigrated to the United States at the age of 15 in 2014. He has a flair for languages and worked as a part-time French tutor at Soka University of America in the Orange County, California. There, he tutored other undergraduates the old-fashioned way, in person, at the library.
Then, in the spring of 2020, when the pandemic hit, Soka sent students home. Salvatore moved in with his mother in Brooklyn, New York. An elementary school teacher, she was suddenly teaching five-year-olds online.
“She was zooming in every day with these little kids in their homes, some of them with parents behind them, some of them alone,” Salvatore said. “It was a very serious situation. I remember witnessing it all first hand. It was quite intense.”
Back on campus during his senior year in January 2022, Salvatore noticed a recruitment ad on LinkedIn for online tutors with Paper. Given his experience as a tutor and the memory of seeing his mother struggling with children on Zoom, he was inspired to help and applied. He said he had passed a test for job applicants, clicked through a short online training module and was directly mentoring students within a month.
The first few weeks were nerve-wracking, he said, as he learned to keep students engaged and thinking about what to type next on the chat screen. “I remember I was freaked out,” he said. “I think the training was somewhat effective. But when you are in front of the screen during the first sessions, at least for me, all the concepts can fly away.
Salvatore has deep-set eyes, clean-shaven hair, and a trimmed dark brown beard. When I interviewed him on Zoom in December 2022, he exuded the inner calm of a yoga teacher. But his students never see his face or hear his voice. On the Paper website where students and tutors connect, there is no video or audio. The only communication is through text chat and a whiteboard where students and tutors can draw and write numbers.
Paper tutors are trained not to give students the answers, but to use the Socratic method to help students find the answers themselves. When a student shares a homework problem, Salvatore begins by asking what the student already knows. “Do you have any resources that you consulted in class? And from there, I would say, well, let’s look at some examples,” he said.
Direct teaching “from scratch”, he said, is discouraged. But Salvatore finds that so many students lack basic knowledge that he sometimes teaches a mini-lesson from teaching materials he discovers online.
In contrast, the type of high-dose tutoring that has shown great results in studies involves structured lesson plans. Tutors don’t invent it on the fly. The same tutor meets the same student at least three times a week. In the year that Salvatore worked as an online tutor, he says he only met the same student twice. Each was by chance.
I was surprised to learn that tutors often take care of several students at once, even though the service is marketed as one-to-one tutoring. An algorithm matches students with a tutor within 30 seconds, according to the company’s marketing materials, with no planning required. Salvatore doesn’t teach math, for example, so he wouldn’t be matched with a student who has an algebra question. Even if all Tutors are busy, the algorithm will continue to add Students who log into the system to each Tutor’s screen. The tutor switches between them, but all the student sees is a photograph of their tutor, not the other students. Students may not know that their tutor also helps others.
It’s similar to a text message conversation with an online customer service representative. You get your individual question answered, but behind the scenes the rep is talking to multiple customers at once. Often customers wait several minutes between questions and answers. This can also happen with online tutoring. I watched a video of a tutoring session, where it seemed like the tutor took 30 seconds or more to respond to every text a student typed. I was impatient just looking at it.
Students can log in at any time of the day, but tutors are not expected to be on call at all hours. Tutors submit their availability to Paper and an algorithm determines the schedule, based on expected student demand. Salvatore never asked for a 3 a.m. shift. “No, I like my sleep schedule,” he said.
The research criticism of this type of 24/7 online tutoring is that very few students are motivated to take advantage of it. Less than 30% of students even tried it once in a study, and students who used it regularly, as recommended, were rare. Researchers say it doesn’t reach students who need tutoring the most; students at risk of failure were the least likely to try it.
Salvatore is just one of 3,000 online tutors employed by Paper. Others may have different experiences. But dozens of tutors describe similar stories on a Reddit discussion board, complaining about time constraints and low salaries. (Starting salaries were recently raised to $18 an hour.) Some disgruntled tutors describe a sweatshop-like atmosphere where tutors quickly burn out and are fired.
Salvatore isn’t unhappy, but his experience shows the pressures of online tutors and makes it seem unlikely that quick homework help like this can effectively help students fill in big gaps. instruction they missed.
Not all online tutoring companies are the same. Some, like Paper, focus on drop-in homework help, but others strive to replicate an in-person video tutoring experience with certified teachers or specially trained tutors in frequent, scheduled sessions. . This model is much more expensive to provide and I plan to continue writing about the experiences of these types of tutors as well.
Salvatore is also interested in exploring other types of tutoring. He misses the camaraderie that developed when he was an in-person tutor. “The more I did it,” he said, “the more I realized it was a very, very meaningful way to help people, with their academics, but also to connect with them and have a conversation and make the learning a bit more informal. and funny.”
This story of an online tutor was produced by The Hechinger Report, an independent, nonprofit news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger Bulletin.