Why positive change and technological intervention is needed to close the COVID learning gap

Virtual tutors can be a cost effective and efficient way to help children get back on track

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on students’ learning.  Despite the heroic efforts of teachers placed under extraordinary pressure, many students have struggled during the past year due to a situation which was completely out of their control. However, terms like ‘catch-up’ are casting a significant shadow over education.  It might seem like a helpful phrase, but we need to adopt a more positive approach and look at how we can work more closely to support schools with tools such as virtual tutoring systems.

We know there has been learning loss.  The Institute for Fiscal Studies states: “By the time the pandemic is over, most children across the UK will have missed over half a year of normal, in person schooling. That’s likely to be more than 5% of their entire time in school. The unprecedented nature of the current crisis makes it hard to predict the actual effects and the negative effects are also likely to extend beyond educational attainment.”

While it’s accepted that there has been learning loss and many students are possibly not where they should be or where we would like them to be, how this is presented and how it is addressed needs to be carefully managed to ensure students don’t feel penalised for something that’s not their fault and to ensure teachers don’t become overwhelmed.

‘Recalibrating the currciulum’

The next few months in schools should be about recalibrating the curriculum with opportunities for teachers to reconnect with students, build confidence, informally assess gaps and secure firm foundations with an emphasis on quality over quantity.

Knowledge can be regained, and students have plenty of time to accelerate their way to recovery. We believe tools such as virtual tutoring platforms have a vital part to play as we move forward.

A virtual tutor is an AI-enabled learning platform that simulates the most effective instructional behaviours of a human tutor. While not designed to replace one-to-one human interaction, virtual tutors can offer teachers and students additional support, providing content which adapts to different levels of attainment and pace of learning, resulting in measurable learning gains.

For the express goals of recovering and acquiring core knowledge, virtual tutors have been shown to be as effective as human tutors and they are far more scalable. Our research shows that an hour per week using our virtual tutor Maths-Whizz drives an average 18 month learning gain in maths in the first year alone. These are gains which have been recorded in the UK and worldwide over fifteen years. Virtual tutors could therefore be a crucial way of identifying knowledge gaps and delivering the support required to achieve the necessary learning gains.

‘Cost-effective’

Virtual tutors are also a cost-effective option when compared with traditional tutoring models. Virtual tutoring costs approximately £30 per child per subject per annum when deployed at individual school level, which can be substantially less if adopted at scale.  It could even be reduced to as little as £10 per child as part of a long-term national strategy, as easily scalable processes bring more stability and efficiency to implementation over time. Compare this to 1:1 human tutoring; the rates payable by schools for just 15 hours 1:1 human tutoring from the National Tutoring Programme (NTP) subsidised tutors an average of £180, so the typical total cost per pupil is generally £700 or more. A further benefit of virtual tutoring is its limitless capability, providing far more than 15 hours if required.  A further benefit of virtual tutoring is its limitless supply of instruction; why settle for just 15 hours?

Teacher workload

The efficiencies of virtual tutoring and the flexibility with which it can be implemented as part of teaching practice can also help to reduce teacher workload. This is because these systems can offset the burden of differentiated planning, instruction and assessment and serve as the perfect complement – a virtual assistant – for teachers.

For students, highly engaging and interactive content, pitched at the right learning level means progression can become an uplifting experience that brings joy to learning rather than a situation which introduces anxiety to catch-up. Virtual tutoring can ensure a completely personalised plan is built for each child, and then continues to tailor it as they complete lessons.

Because continuous assessment is embedded in the virtual tutoring process, measuring and driving learning gains need not be a negative, stress-inducing experience.

Any wide-scale roll-out of virtual tutoring, however, needs to be based on a principle of access for all.

Access to technology to enable virtual tutoring is key. However, the government initiative to distribute laptops to students experienced challenges in reaching communities in most in need.  According to government statistics, more than 1.2 million laptops have been distributed to schools since the start of the pandemic as of 28 February 2021. The challenge has been that distribution has not been uniform. It is likely that the regions more familiar with tutoring have had a greater take-up.  No initiative should be allowed to exacerbate inequalities in access to much-needed learning resources.

The COVID crisis has increased many notable injustices across the world, among them access to quality education. Virtual tutoring now has the potential to form an integral part of education and serve as a safety net for all students, irrespective of their background to enjoy uninterrupted access to quality education. It has the potential to help to close the learning gap and make progression a more positive experience for all.


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