“A key piece of tutoring is that social relationship with a caring adult,” said Amanda Neitzel, an assistant research scientist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Research and Reform in Education. “How can you build that in an online format?”
Her worry, she added, was that the federal tutoring push would amount to “an expensive disaster.”
Virtual tutoring is a big business opportunity for the education technology sector. Investment in ed tech surged to $3.2 billion in just the first half of 2021 from $1.7 billion in all of 2019, according to market research from Reach Capital, a venture capital firm specializing in education.
Now some online tutoring start-ups are drawing half their new business from federal funds, according to James Kim, a partner at Reach. Districts typically pay $1 to $100 per student who will use tutoring services over the course of a year.
Ed-tech investors and entrepreneurs say the academic and social failures of remote school have little to do with the services these businesses are offering. They emphasize that their platforms are supposed to supplement in-person education, not supplant it, and that being able to get a tutor anytime, from anywhere, has benefits.
“Online tutoring is a one-on-one communication,” said Myles Hunter, chief executive of TutorMe, which pairs students with tutors — mostly recent college graduates — over audio, video or instant messaging. “It’s not something where you’re trying to make sure 40 students don’t fall asleep watching a Zoom video for eight hours per day.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Kim, a former teacher, understood the doubts.
“I think the cynicism is justified,” he said. “I was pitched a lot of technology products that just didn’t have a place in my classroom. Especially during this pandemic when there was a lot of money in this market, we saw folks looking to make a quick buck.”
Some cities and states — like Chicago, New Mexico and Arkansas — are starting in-person tutor corps. But hiring has been difficult because of labor shortages, a major reason district leaders said they were turning to online tutoring.