I am a sophomore in college, and often I get asked what extra-curriculuar activities I'm involved in. When I mention Learn To Be, and that we provide free tutoring, most people get the impression that I'm in one of those student groups that carpool to visit schools in the area, making a dent in kids' lives here and there. When I go and pitch our services to schools, the moment they hear that we are a nationwide organization, school administrators automatically associate us with those Supplemental Educational Services providers who advertise free services to parents while living off of per-pupil SES allocations and other NCLB-related funding. There are obviously a lot of inaccuracies like these, but we are glad to be misunderstood. Learn To Be is proud to offer something different, and more cost efficient, compared to the stereotypical tutoring service.
The Learn To Be Foundation handled almost 8000 tutoring requests in 2011, providing over 4000 hours of one-on-one assistance to students across America. We have volunteer tutors from all but one of the contiguous states, and tutor recruitment representatives at over 30 colleges and universities. At our current rate of growth, we will facilitate over 20,000 sessions in 2012. Yet we don't operate any physical tutoring centers at all, and we hardly ever bus tutors to schools. We aren't taking any taxpayer money, and no one on staff gets paid. So, how does our model work? What are we trying to do? Today, I hope to give you a good overview of our operations, and the direction we are going.
On-demand Tutoring and Challenges
In a nutshell, our service allows K-12 students to request tutoring sessions on our website for free, and we recruit volunteer tutors to pick up those session requests. The sessions are then conducted in a live, interactive audio-visual digital classroom. The on-demand service hours are 9am to 9pm Pacific Time 365 days a year, and we have tutors on-call during all of those hours. Overall, we successfully match a tutor to a student more than 60% of the time.
Also, we've established some priority service hours during the peak time frames mostly to cover the after school surge in session requests. We work to put on social and personal development opportunities to attract tutors to work together during these priority hours, and thus have more than the usual number of tutors on-call to cover the peak demand. Our staff members mobilize volunteers for these priority hours from our existing certified tutor base, and they have to continually adjust because we don't want to have too many kids or too many tutors sitting around at any given time.
This balancing act of supply and demand has proven to be quite a challenge as we have various site partnerships that produce surges of session requests that need to be attended to quickly, and our tutors' schedules normally don't coincide well with the K-12 school day. Our national network of tutors definitely gives us an advantage in coping with these challenges. For example, we have a lot of volunteers in Texas universities who are done with class by 4pm Central Time, and they are linked up with kids in California as they come out of school at 2pm. I know a tutor in Arizona who regularly pick up a session during his company lunch hour to help support an after school program in Manhattan. Thanks to our wonderful volunteer tutors and staff, we are proud to report that 90%+ of the sessions requested during priority hours are picked up, compared to the 60% overall pick-up rate.
Crowd-sourcing and Sustainable Growth
People say that we are the Facebook and Twitter generation, but we are also the generation of Wikipedia, Google Docs, and Stack Overflow. Meaningful online communities thrive because they are autonomic, focused on knowledge and mastery, and are driven toward a meaningful purpose. For example, people at Wikipedia don't tell you what to write and what to edit; you can do whatever you want to contribute. Eventually, if you decide that you enjoy editing Wikipedia, you can self-nominate to help out as a community administrator. Similarly, as a Learn To Be tutor, you get to decide when you contribute and how much time to contribute. We'd like to believe that the amount of satisfaction you get is proportional to your input. Once you reach a certain level of experience and mastery, you may be elevated to an Education Specialist. Education Specialists can participate in new tutor admissions, and get to review session recordings and provide peer guidance. Over time, there are also other opportunities available. For example, at a certain level experience you can go through a panel review process and get to help develop entrance exams and build training programs as a LTB Instructional Coach.
The best part about crowd-sourcing through the internet is the efficient distribution of resources. As tutors and students join our movement from all sorts of different places, there is no need for them to be in a commutable vicinity to each other. A university can act as a tutor-provider hub for a community center in some rural area thousands of miles away. Just imagine the time savings and tremendously reduced risks and environmental impact.
Of course, we'd also like to be able to dish out technological improvements to volunteer programmers. With GitHub and other distributed version control systems like Kiln, we hope to piece together the best features to deliver a seamless online tutoring experience. We already have volunteers who also have real jobs at top tech firms, and we are open to more corporate volunteering gigs. If law offices and accounting firms can allocate pro-bono time, there's nothing stopping the geeks from helping us out on the side as well. But first, for programming work to be scalable, there needs to be clear, industry-standard organization of the code. We rely mostly on amateur programmers who, out of frustration and the limited time available, have taken a lot of shortcuts. We will be working hard to clean up our code so that additional modules can be reviewed and plugged into the branches more readily in the future.
So, whom do we want to work with? We want everybody who is qualified, and we want them to consider giving some free time to tutor a kid through Learn To Be. Our number one priority is the safety of our students. We look for patient, caring individuals who have a clean background check to ensure that we facilitate positive experiences. The background check we use can find adult criminal records in the United States, so we are limited to American residents aged 18+. In order to gear our students toward the right direction, we want our tutors to be college graduates or are currently enrolled and doing well in college. There are some rare exceptions issued on a case-by-case basis.
In addition to these demographics, we also evaluate the writing and speaking abilities of our prospective tutors. There are writing samples requested in the application and a number of email exchanges in the induction process. At the interview, we have a mock tutoring session in which the applicant is given scenarios to respond to. Of course, we use tests to make sure that all applicants have adequate basic knowledge in the subject areas they applied to tutor in. Throughout the induction process, we do our best to ensure that our tutors know their strengths and weaknesses, have excellent problem solving skills and are able to deliver information effectively. We find that these important traits lead our tutors to pick up only the sessions they are able to tutor, and to navigate problems intelligently when they are hit with uncertainty in some concepts. We encourage our tutors to help the student look up information themselves, by providing source links in the chat or through screen sharing. These supplemental resources on our interactive whiteboard also enable our tutors to learn together with the student when there is an unfamiliar concept.
Tutor Recruitment and Retention
We have tutors from retirees to Air Force squadron commanders, but from a strategic standpoint, we mainly count on college and university communities to support our rapid growth. There are many excited young Americans who want to make a difference and have more free time to utilize compared to adults who are employed full-time and have other important obligations. Most of our university chapter leaders are undergraduates who step up by filling out a Chapter Interest Form. University chapters are the primary drivers of tutoring session uptake during the peak demand time slots, and tutors are more excited to help in groups. Mutual support between our tutors is definitely the key to long-term commitment, and the best form of support is in-person exchanges which are possible on college campuses. Of course, we want to host weekly online exchanges for our non-university tutors as well, and we are making a start by first organizing through Facebook.
We also look for other communities where potential tutors have some kind of group identification, pride and commitment. College alumni networks are good places to advertise Learn To Be volunteer opportunities, and in large corporations there are community impact action centers where opportunities like Learn To Be tutoring can be listed. Above all, we want to work with organizational units that have social responsibility and active citizenship as guiding elements of their culture. For example, our admissions staff members are currently reaching out to the alumni network of Teach For America, the alumni community of Boy Scouts of America, and programs with tutoring requirements at teachers' colleges all over the country.
Some websites have been particularly helpful to us. Hulu.com appeals to people who tend to spend more time on the internet. They have graciously run our public service announcement since 2009 and it has been the primary source of our tutor applications aside from our university chapters. We've also worked with VolunteerMatch to post opportunities, and we are looking to get onto websites like HandsOn Network, Idealist.org and All for Food.
More recently, we've been looking into recruiting exemplary senior high school students. In most states, minors aged 16 and 17 are allowed to be engaged in almost all forms of non-hazardous work. There were arguments against our 18-years-old age restriction in that if a minor is old enough to get paid for work, why can't he/she be allowed to volunteer through Learn To Be? We have thus developed the following exceptions. First, students aged 16 or 17 but have graduated high school and are currently enrolled in college are eligible to become Certified Tutors. Second, we are actively looking for tutor recruitment partnerships with honor societies in senior high schools.
Our high school pilot is currently open to National Honor Societies, and we link them up with a particular deployment partner (a school where tutoring is needed), provided that our deployment parter is satisfied with having high school tutors in the mix. We are also open to peer tutoring and mentoring arrangements within the same district. We want to open soon to those working toward an International Baccalaureate Diploma or a Duke Edinburgh's Award. The overall guiding principle is that there must be closer monitoring when there are tutors who are minors. Because we cannot perform the needed background checks, some kind of clearance such as continued membership in an honor society is required, at least for now.
Learn To Be was established to fill a gap in educational offerings. America needs a large scale on-demand free tutoring provider. There's a lot of technology out there. Legislators, non-profits, and scholarship-granting institutions work hard to pour money into underprivileged communities. Schools everywhere are now equipped with computers and internet. City governments and literacy programs invest in computers for the neighborhood community centers. We really want to take advantage of these offerings by adding that human layer that is normally only accessible in a personal, physical setting.
Our site partnerships teams go out to the community and target the schools that need the help. We look at subsidized lunch rates, state test scores, and a host of other factors when deciding which schools to actively reach out to. In Texas, for example, there are a number of "academically unacceptable" schools in this improvement program where if they don't get the scores up the school is subjected to potential closure. We can work with existing or new after school programs, and we also try our best to fill the needs of pull-outs (times during the day when struggling students get extra remedial support), study halls, and lunchtime tutoring.
We are always happy when schools initiate the conversation and indicate that they want to work with us. We also love the idea of seeing LTB used in libraries, Boys & Girls Clubs, homeschool support groups, and online schools. Generally, we work with a specific counselor or coordinator to identify those who can benefit most from our service, and distribute accounts accordingly. The overarching guideline is that we want to help students who need the help, want the help, and otherwise can't afford the help. Basically, we want to prioritize LTB services for use by students who are at a disadvantage because they can't easily access after school assistance.
On this front, we have found some success working with the universities that host our chapters. Universities often have outreach departments that support the local school district and efforts to bridge the achievement gap. We have experience with ESL teachers-in-training whose departments partner with us so that they can earn the practicum hours to fulfill their certification requirements. Needless to say, there are also unofficial efforts at universities to support their local communities, and these come from the wide array of hardworking student organizations. At the LTB flagship chapter at UT Austin, we have chapter liaisons who act as consultants for all our other chapters. These consultants regularly stress the paramount importance of building campus alliances and fueling community-wide high-impact movements, and that should be a priority at all our chapters.
In the relatively distant future, once we get the LTB infrastructure all hammered out, I look forward to seeing the LTB on-demand interactions model being used in other contexts. Imagine if we can make a copy of the LTB system and let universities use it in their admissions departments to offer virtual office hours for students filling out college applications. Other closed environments where LTB-type of setup can be used include professor office hours, academic advising, career planning, etc.
At Learn To Be, we are confident that truly differentiated instruction can empower every child to Learn To Be whatever they want to be. This concept is certainly easier said than done. We are lucky in that our stakeholders love working with us to continually improve and deliver more effective sessions. Also, we are fortunate that all our sessions are recorded and the recordings made available to tutors, students, LTB administrators and coordinators at our deployment institutions. LTB administrators and teachers at our partnerships can even drop in on the live sessions between a tutor and a student.
Parents and teachers familiar with Supplemental Education Service providers know that there is a contract for each student and a plan of attack that comes with regular feedback. Learn To Be is certainly taking steps in this direction, and we want to take advantage of the interactive technology that gives us an edge over traditional providers. We are currently soliciting funds and volunteer programmers to build an evolving student profile add-on to every session. As soon as the tutor joins the requested session, we want there to be a pop-up window that outlines the student's past sessions and academic background. Eventually, we can integrate teacher and parent feedback, and tutors can also depend on each other's notes on the student. It would also be the place to add and track assessment modules.
Until we find the resources to build this module that essentially allows our tutors, teachers and parents to maintain a file on every student, we have an interim solution. Each teacher can be paired up with a squad of a few LTB tutors, and these "teacher support teams" can participate in a Facebook group with the teacher where the teacher can answer questions and share the curriculum, syllabus and classroom progress. With parental permission, teachers can even discuss with their squads the strategies for dealing with specific students.
We are here to fill a gap, and we try not to redo what others have been successfully doing. In fact, I strongly believe that non-profits must work together to promote best practices and cut back on the redundancies. It hurts especially when I see multiple organizations try to do something poorly when someone else who specializes in that one thing has already developed the optimal solution.
Neeraj Kapoor, the CEO of our foundation, had encouraged that we integrate the practice modules on Khan Academy in some way at Learn To Be. Linking student learning objectives on LTB to self assessments on Khan would be nice, but that requires a lot of programming and curriculum mapping on our end. We started out just using it to certify our tutors. Our veteran tutors have reported that the math challenges on Khan set a much higher bar for our incoming tutors, which really help with our session quality as most of the LTB sessions are in math. We also developed a matching chart suggesting Khan videos for students according to the topics they requested the session in, and this was our first enrichment offering for students while they waited for their tutors. I dream of the day when we are seamlessly integrated with Khan Academy, and can prove our worth by using Khan for pre and post assessment.
We also want for our tutors to be able to quickly pull in relevant resources during their sessions. Our tutors don't get the luxury of prep time for their sessions. They don't even get the lesson objectives till the student presents his/her problem. I wish we can get to work with textbook publishers to gain access to some kind of search engine or internal e-book database. That would be a dream. Imagine when your online tutor whom you just met can pull in relevant example problems in a flash and as many practice problems you need. In fact, I am exploring this week a number of worksheet repositories and worksheet generator websites, and my goal is to find something that has an API that we can push key terms from LTB sessions and pull out instant worksheets to link up with our students' accounts.
Without writing into too much depth, we are exploring a number of add-ons to our session waiting period. We are trying to build or find integrable typing speed practice web apps, multiplication table quizzes, educational games, and even geography trivia. We lose a lot of kids because they are stuck on a problem and simply aren't patient enough to wait till their tutors show up, which can take an average of 10-15 minutes when we are not operating in priority hour mode. We want for these kids to have meaningful little competitions with each other, and I can't wait to duel my students and fellow tutors to a multiplication contest. Basic skills are everything, but why can't we have a bit of fun, too?
This summer, we will have a team member work full-time on a college prep curriculum. There is a lot of good stuff out there, but they are mostly standardized resources used by college counselors and so-called professional consultants. We want to build something that our college-aged tutors can use with their mentees. Our tutors don't know the magic formula, but they definitely know what they are talking about because they have had their share of personal successes and difficulties through the college application process. On a broader scheme of things, we have a lot we can push through our online platform. Our Harvard chapter founder had suggested a speaker series. We can do a virtual career day, or a Learn To Be Healthy nutrition panel. The opportunities are endless.
There are a lot of proposals coming my way, and such is the Learn To Be culture amongst our staff. None of us get paid and that certainly drives us to push our limits. There's no bad idea that will get you fired, and we all work on each other's projects so there is no extra burden on the idea leader. Most importantly, we earn mutual respect through innovation, and nothing needs to go through organizational red tape and politics. It's quite refreshing to see so many of our volunteers who are always in "Learn To Be mode," a term I coined to describe the mentality of constantly linking what you see on a day-to-day basis to potential applications at Learn To Be. I call on our students, parents, and others out there to submit ideas as well. If I knew how to code a website, one of the first things you'd see is a votebox where our community can write, promote and rank new ideas.
Get Started Today
You can join the movement by applying to become a tutor, recommending a school, program or classroom that would benefit from our services, or becoming a recruiter / chapter leader. We also rely on members of the public for donations and referrals to contacts who can help us out strategically or financially. We have an internship program if you are staying in Southern California in the summer, or at least schedule a time to drop by and say hello. Please stay in touch with us via email and Facebook.
Our economy has been stagnant, and our government is in deep debt. Politicians and interest groups are fighting over how to spend money that our country does not have. They are spending to plug holes in one aspect of education while other holes continue to burst. I challenge you to act now and pitch in personally. People know that there is a problem with our education system, but it won't fix itself unless the average American feels compelled to act on it.
Teach a man to fish and you will have fed him for a lifetime. Teaching is the best way to give; and there are so many of us qualified to lend a hand to primary and secondary school kids, because there are more and more people who have or are working toward a college degree. It's not only a great way to care and to give back, it's a great tool to reinforce learning as well. So what are you waiting for? Check Facebook only once a day instead of five times, and you have just freed up enough time to inspire a kid.
Volunteer, Learn To Be - Operations