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Every year, Eastern High School English teacher Amanda Turner has her seniors write an eight-page research paper. It’s the longest paper most have ever written. It’s a lot of work for the students and a lot of work for Turner, who has to give feedback on papers for all 110 of her seniors.
“It takes me so long to read each paper because—they’ll tell you, they’re like—it looks like I shredded them with my pen,” Turner said. Once she’s through with her markup, she schedules a sit-down conference with each student.
The process means it can take weeks before students hear back about their first draft, weeks that could be spent improving that draft and boosting their final grade. So to move things along, Turner asked students to upload their first drafts to a new online tutoring platform called Paper. Students upload their essay, and within four hours they get feedback from a real tutor.
Jefferson County Public Schools made Paper available to middle and high school students this spring. It’s one of two online tutoring programs the district started using during the pandemic, and will continue using even as most students have returned to in-person learning.
JCPS Chief Academic Officer Carmen Coleman said the district’s new openness to integrating technology into the classroom is a “silver lining” of the pandemic.
Turner, who has spent more than two decades in the classroom, agreed. She plans to keep using the online tutoring service alongside in-person instruction.
“Where has this been the last 24 years of my life?” Turner said.
Tech and the teacher shortage
When the district was fully remote, many students struggled. Failing grades were up across the board, and especially for students that schools already weren’t serving as well: Black students, low-income students and English language learners.
What students need now, Coleman believes, is individualized, high-impact instruction.
“We’ve continued to think about how can we provide that kind of support, and with a teacher shortage, the idea of doing that in person is next to impossible,” Coleman explained.
JCPS is struggling to find enough teachers to staff the classrooms, let alone find additional educators for small groups and extended learning. Enter: virtual options. The district has become more comfortable with them since the pandemic began. And it has money to spend. JCPS has more than half a billion dollars in federal pandemic relief funds that have to be spent by 2024.
The district is spending $1,286,000 on its contract with Paper over the next year. It also has a contract with another virtual tutoring company called FEV Tutor, which JCPS signed in 2021.
JCPS has also spent millions in federal relief funds to ensure every student has a computer for schoolwork.
“With virtual support, we can do a whole lot more, and now that our students all have devices, it really puts us in a much better position,” Coleman said.
What do students think?
Eastern High School Senior Parker Drane said he got high-quality feedback from Paper. His tutor helped him make his essay more clear and to the point.
“It was originally, when I first wrote it, 15 pages of nonsense,” Drane said.
His classmate Nicole Hicks had a similar experience.
“Sometimes you think you need big words in a paper, but they showed that you can still use a formal language but in a more concise manner, and that was really helpful,” Hicks said.
Hicks said that advice will help her when she goes to Berea College in the fall.
Coleman, the district’s chief academic officer, is hoping the tutoring service will not only help students prepare for college, but help them get in. She said students can use Paper to get feedback on college admissions essays.
“We’re always trying to think about how do we level that playing field so that all of our students have those kinds of opportunities,” she said.
But, like most technology, Paper is only as good as the real live humans behind it. It all comes down to which tutor you get.
“You can either get a really good one, like the one I got, or you can get not a great one,” Drane said.
Drane and his classmates have seen online learning take off over their high school careers. They were sophomores when the pandemic forced school fully online. But Hicks said she still thinks in-person instruction is really important. In fact, her research paper is about the drawbacks of remote learning.
“That connection between teachers and students is kind of lost,” Hicks said. “Because the teacher couldn’t see that student, they didn’t know their learning method, they couldn’t really connect.”
That’s why even as classrooms integrate more and more technology, for many students, researchers say, virtual learning is still second-best to in-person instruction.
Even so, the district is hoping virtual options will help fill in the gaps created by a teacher shortage and new pandemic-related student needs.
Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund.