How a Free, 24/7 Tutoring Model is Disrupting Learning Loss for Low-Income Kids
The ed tech nonprofit UPchieve is growing rapidly as more students seek academic support. The difference? It’s free, individualized and on-demand.
No paywall. No pop-up ads.
A new 24-hour online tutoring service is helping the nation’s most underserved students make huge academic gains — at no cost to them.
UPchieve, an ed tech nonprofit, is bringing on volunteer tutors to offer free, on-demand academic and college application support to any U.S. middle or high school student attending a Title I school or living in a low-income neighborhood.
The platform is a game changer for students of color living in poverty, disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and unable to access costly individualized tutoring. Often working jobs or tending to family responsibilities, many are prevented from utilizing traditional offerings afterschool.
Through a mobile app or website, students are matched with one of 20,000 trained, volunteer tutors worldwide within five minutes. Sessions are typically 40 minutes, but can extend beyond an hour until students feel confident with the task at hand.
“Right now in the United States, that sort of extra support is not available to the majority of low-income students,” said founder Aly Murray. “That’s where we come in. We think that every student, regardless of their family’s income, should be able to get support with their classes and applying to college when they need it.”
Murray, who grew up low-income to an immigrant single mother, launched UPchieve in 2017 looking to build the platform she wished she had as a child. Of the more than 37,000 students who have completed over 100,000 sessions since, 64% are first-generation college-bound and 81% are students of color.
More than half are not enrolled in any other academic or college access program, and many start programming with very low motivation or in the lower third percentiles in terms of academic performance — sometimes grade levels behind.
“We’re reaching kids — and this is exactly what we wanted,” Murray added. “UPchieve is especially valuable and high impact in cases where kids have nothing else,” especially those whose college and career trajectory could be changed by this level of support.
That was the case for Michael Lyons, a rising 11th grader who works at a Bloomington, Illinois grocery store three days a week and usually starts schoolwork at about 10 p.m. Having used the platform since finding it in an internet search for writing help in 7th grade, Lyons now has dreams of becoming an elementary school teacher.
“I need help on demand,” Lyons said. “I think of [UPchieve] as a teacher away from school … I could participate more, because I know what I’m doing.”
After just nine sessions, students scored an average of nine percentile points higher on the national Star math assessment, gains equivalent to 8 months of additional learning, according to policy research firm Mathematica, which studied 9th and 10th graders in the 2021-22 school year. Students also showed increased academic motivation, confidence, and engagement in class.
Mathematica’s report was the first to show the effectiveness of on-demand tutoring — findings “useful for the field of math tutoring because they are examples of preliminary evidence that on-demand, online tutoring drawing on unpaid, volunteer tutors improves math achievement and motivation.”
Math, particularly algebra and geometry, is UPchieve’s most commonly requested subject, accounting for about 56% of 2022’s sessions, followed by humanities and writing support at 22%, science at 17% and college prep at 5%.
Because the model draws on volunteer labor, the operational cost to provide one student with a year’s worth of unlimited tutoring is only $5. In comparison, other tutoring programs with similar impact can cost thousands per student.
UPchieve’s international tutor base ranges from college students and retired teachers to business professionals looking to make an impact. The majority have prior tutor experience, but all have to complete an introductory training to learn best practices and demonstrate content mastery.
David Seides, director of finance and customer experience at AT&T, began volunteering nearly three years ago, encouraged to put some hours in as a corporate sponsor. To date, he’s logged over 400 sessions.
He sets the times he is available each week, and gets alerts when students request help. When he has an extra hour, Seides pops online to see if there’s any students waiting. The setup is ideal, he said, because his work schedule is unpredictable.
For students who are struggling in class but don’t want to let on to the teacher or their peers, UPchieve provides a level of needed distance, too.
“This online platform, it’s anonymous enough that I think we get people coming with the real problems that they can’t figure out how to solve,” Seides said.
Confidence was a struggle for Stacy, a rising 11th grader from Ghana now in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her math grades pre-tutoring were in the 70s. Today, she regularly earns As and sees a future at one of the University of Massachusetts campuses.
“I was surprised because I didn’t expect the tutors to help me so well. I started crying and screaming when I got it,” she told the nonprofit.
“They don’t just help me do [homework], but also make sure I understand,” Stacy said. “They also give me similar problems just like the ones on my homework or what I’m learning in school … My math teacher is really impressed with my grades and understanding in class now. I am very grateful for that.”
Like other programs, UPchieve is still working on how to get students to regularly return. While some students log on far above average, up to 400 hours in a single year, only about 12% of new students log 10 or more sessions — about 6 hours, the threshold for seeing large academic gains.
In comparison to the popular Khan Academy, UPchieve does seem to be striking a chord with students. Only about 7% of Khan’s new users complete two or more hours of sessions, according to a 2020 annual report.
Adding an audio or video connection would be a welcome change, or being able to “favorite” past tutors, students told The 74.
The current text-based communication is preferred by most — especially because many use the platform late at night, or have slow or limited internet access. A predominantly text-based platform also streamlines student safety, Murray said, as chat logs are stored and reviewed, and filters in place prevent emails or social media accounts from being shared.
UPchieve does plan to develop voice capabilities, with safety measures, for students and tutors who both opt-in in future versions of the app, for times when a concept is particularly confusing. One of Seides student’s, for example, once had difficulty understanding which way to flip their paper to understand reflection and rotations on a quadrant plane.
Still, in its current iteration, the platform is filling a gap for students who need it most.
“It has given me a support system in stressful times. Without the comfort of private tutors that my peers had, I knew I would have to work even harder,” Xin, a high school student in Queens, NY, told the nonprofit. “Having UPchieve meant that I wouldn’t have to work alone or live with the constant anxiety of falling behind.”
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