Privatized v. Academic Online Tutoring: Determining the Effectiveness of Platforms

 Testing Online Tutoring

Online tutoring may be a constant of the tutoring landscape, but the question of effectiveness remains. Which organizations are best prepared to meet the needs of students: writing centers affiliated with universities or “professional” tutoring agencies, such as Pearson-Smarthinking? It is this question I intend to address in conducting a proposed experiment.

Important Background Information 

The concept most central to this proposed experiment is that of knowledge claims. In his book Reformers, Teachers, Writers: Curricular and Pedagogical Inquiries, Neal Lerner identifies the three primary types of knowledge claims that appear in a writing center:  “writerly knowledge,” “emotional knowledge,” and “role knowledge” (Lerner 115).  “Role knowledge” is arguably the most important knowledge claim (Lerner 115).  While analyzing transcripts of student sessions, Lerner noticed there was a correlation between the presence of “role knowledge” claims and the “success” of the session (Lerner 116).  When both tutor and tutee made and received role-based knowledge claims they’d engage in an “expression of values” and create an unofficial curriculum of sorts—establishing what each party wanted out of the session and as result leading to increased engagement and satisfaction (Lerner 112).

The Proposed Experiment

The experiment I propose will provide much-needed data regarding the operational effectiveness of Salem State University Writing Center’s online platform when compared to that of a professional tutoring service such as Pearson-Smarthinking.  The experiment will require two groups of at least ten students: Group A students, who will solicit the online tutoring services of the Salem State University Writing Center for aid with an assignment of their choice; and Group B students, who will solicit the services of Pearson-Smarthinking. It will be important to increase the chances that the tutors will have the opportunity to make valuable observations regarding the students’ work and provide pertinent feedback. Therefore, both groups will be comprised of students familiar with writing as part of their “academic experience,” but not so familiar with it to the point where it is their primary discipline. (I will make a concerted effort to avoid students who major in or focus on writing and rhetoric and English studies). Given both their necessary reliance on academic writing and research as well as their well-documented positive inclination towards experiments and surveys, I believe that students who major in or focus on the social sciences will be the most useful candidates for groups A and B, respectively. However, I am considering integrating business administration students into both groups, for—like students in social sciences—much of the academic work of business students involves writing without it being their primary discipline. Unlike students in the social sciences, they are not as familiar with academic surveys and, as a result, may provide more authentic data.  

The Advantage of “Peer Tutoring”

The tutors in the Salem State University Writing Center are undergraduate or graduate students and currently enrolled in Salem State University. The first innate advantage they will have is that they likely have a greater degree of familiarity with the university (its policies, its professors, its student body)  than a tutor from Pearson—Smarthinking. The “certification” itself is the second reason a tutor from the Salem State University Writing Center might have an advantage over a tutor from Pearson-Smarthinking. In order to obtain their certification, all tutors at the Salem State University Writing Center must take a “practicum” course (ENL 302 for undergraduate students and ENL 870 for graduate students) in order to be authorized to tutor in the Center. Tutors become well-versed in Writing Center scholarship and peer tutoring practices. Students are also introduced to evolving developments and prepared to service a wide variety of clients (with a special emphasis placed on multilingual interactions). Each tutor receives months of theoretical instruction and supervised “hands-on” training before being authorized to conduct independent sessions. In summary, writers visiting the Salem State University Writing Center have access to well-trained, peer tutors at no cost to them.

The Advantage of “Professional Tutoring”

There are few aspects of Pearson-Smarthinking that could give it an edge over the Salem State University Writing Center.  Perhaps the most obvious potential advantage Smarthinking has is that it specifically collects “ready-made tutors.”  Ninety percent of all Pearson-Smarthinking tutors have advanced degrees in the discipline of their expertise. While having a degree in of itself does not guarantee mastery of the discipline in question, it is safe to assume that all Pearson-Smarthinking tutors are familiar with writing and rhetoric in “college-level” institutions. Another advantage Pearson-Smarthinking has is the scope of its budget. As an “industry leading” publishing and assessment company, Pearson’s bottom line is robust, earning $4.12 billion for the fiscal year 2018 alone. Pearson can afford to research and develop the latest technological and practical developments in the field of online tutoring.  It is important to note that Pearson-Smarthinking does offer “institutional packages” that allow students from colleges and universities to access its online tutoring services at no cost to them (Tutoring).  However, the precise cost for implementing such programs is rather opaque and Pearson does not seem to provide cost estimates until a college or university has contacted them, or until their sales department has successfully solicited the college or university in question. 


While creating and conducting an accurate experiment is my primary goal, there are a few inevitable inconsistencies that might invalidate the results.  The first and most glaringly obvious issue is the small sample size of Group A and Group B.  With only ten students per group (twenty in all), any trends that might appear in this experiment will not necessarily be present in the student population as a whole.  While the study will reach definitive conclusions regarding the data I receive, it will not profess to be right or true, universally, but merely within the confines of the experiment.  With this study, I hope to identify potential patterns regarding writing center operations, patterns that can be proved, disproved or otherwise explored by other scholars who will hopefully be inspired by my work and conduct studies of their own.  The second biggest flaw in the experiment is the lack of standardization of the assignments the students from both Group A and Group B will be submitting to the tutors from the Mary G. Walsh Writing Center and Pearson-Smarthinking, respectfully. It is possible that tutors from either platform may receive a disproportionate amount of “challenging” assignments and their “performance” may suffer when compared to the tutor from the other platform.  As much as I concede that this is an issue and may inevitably skew the results one way or another, I believe that it is essential to see how tutors from both platforms handle diverse and “challenging” situations. A good tutor should always be prepared for the unexpected. By focusing on the knowledge claims within the transcripts of session from both Groups and platforms of tutors, the study will be more concerned with how tutors deal with a challenge as opposed to whether they help the student arrive at the “right” conclusion.  The third and final issue I foresee see being the biggest problem that could skew the results of the experiment is any favoritism towards the Salem State University Writing Center.  Both Groups A and B will be comprised entirely of students enrolled in Salem State University and a certain degree of favoritism/sentimental attachment is expected—if not inevitable. That being said, I will take every measure possible to ensure that both Groups A and B remain as unbiased as possible. Not having any financial reward or penalty (or any other sort of reward or penalty academic, personal or otherwise) for engaging in the experiment will likely be the most effective means of ensuring that every student remains objective in assessing and interacting with tutors from both online programs. 

In Conclusion

Those of us who work in the writing center already know how effective well-informed peer tutoring can be. I look forward to providing evidence for that tacit knowledge and reporting back to PeerCentered readers. I hope the experiment will ultimately inspire others to conduct their own research to expand, challenge, and perfect my investigation.

Works Cited

“The Hidden Curriculum of Writing Centers.” Reformers, Teachers, Writers: Curricular and

Pedagogical Inquiries, by Neal Lerner, Utah State University Press, 2019, pp. 111–124.

“Tutoring, Training & Student Success: TTaDA.” TTaDA | University of North Dakota,


  1. Hi Will, Great experiment! When students learn in collaboration they learn far better. Recently I found many online programs, where they use such innovative tactics. Peer tutoring not only engage students well but also encourages them to learn in a fast space. I really appreciate your experiment and the efforts you put. Tutors need to think out of the box and upskill themselves to serve better. It requires a passion for teaching. Thanks for sharing your research work. Keep sharing!


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