Leo Salvatore graduated from college in May 2022 and dreams of becoming a philosopher. While he applies to graduate school, the affable 23-year-old holds a part-time job that barely existed before the pandemic: online tutor. From his home in Baltimore, Maryland, Salvatore logs in for one of his four-hour shifts three times a week and earns $20.25 an hour. Often, he has two or three students in different grades simultaneously text chatting with him about different homework assignments. It might be a fourth grader in Los Angeles struggling with English, an eighth grader in Palm Beach, Florida, asking about history, and a 10th grader in Las Vegas needing help with French verb conjugations.
“It can be overwhelming,” Salvatore said, in an interview, describing his life as an online tutor in the time of coronavirus.
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A couple of times, Salvatore recalled, he tutored as many as seven students at once. Keeping track of students’ questions and chatting with them in real time can feel more like being a short-order cook during the breakfast rush than an educator. At least his commute to work is great.
Salvatore’s employer is Paper, which is based in Montreal, Canada and says it is the largest online tutoring company in the United States. The company is fueled by more than $120 billion that Uncle Sam has pumped into educational recovery after the pandemic, when students lost months of instruction and fell behind. Schools are required to spend at least 20 percent of these federal funds on academic catch up programs for students, and the U.S. Department of Education is encouraging schools to use “high dosage tutoring,” which has produced impressive learning gains in rigorous studies where students work closely with an in-person tutor every day using prepared lessons.
Paper has had impressive success marketing its online model of tutoring as a version of high dosage tutoring. Students at schools that pay Paper between $40 and $80 per pupil are entitled to unlimited on-demand tutoring at any hour of the day. More than 300 school districts across the country, serving more than 3 million students, have bought it. Paper has also landed statewide deals with Mississippi, New Mexico and Tennessee, serving millions more students.
The company has hired 3,000 tutors — and says that only 4 percent of those who apply make the cut. Its tutors all have a college degree or are completing college and have at least a year of experience teaching or tutoring.
“Education and experience aside, what we are looking for in our tutors is their ability to approach our students with warmth, positivity and patience, while being able to adapt to each student’s unique needs,” said Philip Cutler, Paper’s CEO, in an emailed statement.
As Paper has grown, so have its services. In addition to unlimited homework help, its tutors give feedback on essays that students upload. Salvatore is spending most of his time on these lately. The pace is grueling. The company expects him to review an essay of 500 words in 20-25 minutes, and gives him only slightly longer, 35 minutes, for 750 words. During that time, tutors are supposed to not only read but also write a paragraph of overall comments, highlighting strengths and weaknesses, plus make five specific notes per page.
“It’s challenging,” said Salvatore. “We get lots of topics. Sometimes I go from an essay about George Bush’s speech after 9/11, to an essay about Lord of the Flies and Piggy’s demise. So it’s also kind of a brainstorm – in the negative sense.”
Nonetheless, Salvatore says he enjoys the work. Reviewing essays has helped him improve his own writing. “It’s very fulfilling and, I hope, also helpful,” he said.
Salvatore was born in Italy and immigrated to the United States when he was 15 in 2014. He has a flair for languages and worked as a part-time French tutor in college at Soka University of America in Orange County, California. There, he tutored fellow undergraduates the old-fashioned way, in person, in the library.
Then, in the spring of 2020 when the pandemic erupted, Soka sent students home. Salvatore moved in with his mom in Brooklyn, New York. An elementary school teacher, she was suddenly teaching five-year-olds online.
“She was Zooming every day with these little kids in their homes, with some of them with parents behind them, some of them alone,” said Salvatore. “It was a very serious situation. I remember witnessing all that firsthand. It was pretty intense.”
Back on campus during his senior year in January 2022, Salvatore noticed a recruiting ad on LinkedIn for online tutors with Paper. Given his experience as a tutor and the memory of watching his mom struggle with children on Zoom, he was inspired to help and applied. He said he passed a test for job applicants, clicked his way through a short e-learning training module and was directly tutoring students within a month.
The first few weeks were nerve-racking, he said, while he got the hang of keeping students engaged and thinking what to type next in the chat screen. “I remember I was panicking,” he said. “I think the training had been somewhat effective. But when you’re facing the screen in the first couple of sessions, at least for me, all the concepts can flow away.”
Salvatore has deep-set eyes, close shaven hair and a trim dark brown beard. When I interviewed him on Zoom in December 2022, he exuded the inner calm of a yoga instructor. 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 chatting 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 looked at 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 is finding that so many students lack basic background knowledge that he sometimes teaches a mini lesson from instructional materials that he discovers online.
By contrast, the kind of high dosage tutoring that’s shown great results in studies involves structured lesson plans. Tutors aren’t making it up on the fly. The same tutor meets with the same student at least three times a week. In the year that Salvatore worked as an online tutor, he says he’s only met with the same student twice a handful of times. Each was by chance.
I was surprised to learn that tutors are frequently handling multiple 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 scheduling required. Salvatore doesn’t tutor math, for example, so he wouldn’t be matched with a student who has an algebra question. Even if all the tutors are busy, the algorithm will keep adding students who log in to the system into each tutor’s screen. The tutor toggles among them, but all the student sees is a photograph of his or her one tutor, not the other students. Students may have no idea that their tutor is helping others, too.
It’s similar to text chatting with a customer service representative online. You get your individual question answered, but behind the scenes, the representative is chatting with several customers at once. Often customers wait several minutes between questions and replies. That can happen with online tutoring too. I watched one video of a tutoring session, where it seemed to take 30 seconds or more for the tutor to reply to each text that a student typed. I was impatient just watching it.
Students can log in any time of day, but tutors aren’t 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 has never requested a 3 a.m. graveyard shift. “No, I like my sleep schedule,” he said.
The research critique of this kind of 24/7 online tutoring is that very few students are motivated to take advantage of it. Fewer than 30 percent of students even tried it once in one study and students who used it regularly, as recommended, were rare. Researchers say it’s not reaching the students who need tutoring the most; the students at risk of failing 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 pay. (Starting wages were recently increased to $18 an hour.) Some disgruntled tutors describe a sweatshop-like atmosphere where tutors quickly burn out and are fired.
Salvatore is not disgruntled, but his experience shows the pressures that online tutors are operating under, and make it seem unlikely that quick homework help like this can effectively help students fill large holes of instruction that they missed.
Not all online tutoring companies are the same. Some like Paper focus on drop-in homework help, but others make an effort to replicate an in-person tutoring experience over video with certified teachers or specially trained tutors in frequent, scheduled sessions. That model is far more expensive to deliver and I plan to continue writing about the experiences of these kinds of tutors too.
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 that 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 learning a bit more informal and fun.”
This story about an online tutor was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.