Virtual tutoring plays principal role in partnerships with urban schools

Jim Carlson
October 07, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Technology has altered traditional teaching methods to the extent that those charged with helping children learn can be at the head of the class without actually being in the classroom.

Through virtual tutoring, Penn State’s prospective teachers can relay their knowledge, their enthusiasm and their perspective into schools near and far.

Partnerships between Penn State’s College of Education and other academic institutions include, among others, elementary schools in Philadelphia and Hazleton. These urban teaching collaboratives are growing, they’re evolving and, most importantly, they’re helping students on both ends of the spectrum. These partnerships provide multiple options for people at Penn State to help young people not only around the state, but the country and the world.

Virtual tutoring at University Park is a powerful option for providing students in teacher education programs opportunities to work with culturally and linguistically diverse learners, according to Mark Merritt, instructor of science education in curriculum and instruction. “This is critical given the diverse make-up of schools where many of our students will come to teach,’’ Merritt said.

Merritt also directs the teaching and technology initiative EDUCATE, or Exploring Directions in Ubiquitous Computing and Teacher Education. “One of the roles of EDUCATE is to support initiatives like virtual tutoring that have the potential to meaningfully impact teaching and learning for our students,’’ Merritt said.

“We are here to provide ongoing support for faculty to iron out wrinkles and help these valuable programs run as smoothly as possible. EDUCATE is also seeking to tailor a physical space on campus to serve as the hub for virtual tutoring which should not only support the current initiatives but should lower one of the significant barriers that exists for expanding the programs.’’


The college’s affiliation with the Isaac Sheppard School, which began about 10 years ago, and John Marshall School within the School District of Philadelphia, is an Afterschool Program Partnership that is part of the technology-enhanced urban teaching collaborative.

The John Marshall School, which has nearly 400 students in grades K-5, just last year became part of the virtual tutoring program. University officials also are working to expand afterschool virtual tutoring with a partnership with Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences, a middle school in Philadelphia, according to Maria Schmidt, assistant dean, multicultural programs.

Students who opt to perform their student-teaching requirements in the school, either by student teaching or participating in the two-week Philadelphia Urban Seminar class (CI 295A/D), have said that the challenges presented by an inner-city environment have allowed them to grow and have altered their philosophy of teaching as well.

Education students on the University Park campus get involved in those schools by taking EDUC 397B. Through the use of technology and online communication (virtual tutoring) from Krause Innovation Studio, they help the youngsters with reading and math prior to spending some time simply chatting about their young students’ lives.

Goals of the urban teaching collaborative are to:

-- Develop a virtual bridge connecting a high-need urban school serving elementary school children with future teachers/students enrolled in a rural higher education institution.

-- Provide educational support that could improve the children’s math and literacy skills needed to meet educational benchmarks.

-- Develop an understanding of the social and political context of urban education and the experience of the urban teacher.

-- Expose future educators to a wide range of learners and a variety of educational needs.

-- Prepare future teachers for any classroom environment and the kinds of challenges any teacher will face anywhere.

The elementary students look forward to the Penn State teachers’ presence, administrators have said, and they in turn have been part of trips to State College to tour University Park campus sites such as classrooms, the Berkey Creamery, Beaver Stadium and many other locations.


College of Education CI280 students also use virtual tutoring to assist their younger counterparts in Hazleton. The Hazleton One Afterschool Scholars Program enables Penn State students to work in pairs to provide afterschool virtual tutoring and mentoring to a young scholar during the nine-week program, according to Andrea G. Kolb, graduate instructor in the College’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction.

“In addition to providing homework help, the Penn State students will create individualized lesson plans to assist their scholar in mastering core academic concepts that have been identified by the scholar’s classroom teacher and/or parents,’’ Kolb said.

While virtual tutoring is used in the Hazleton One Afterschool Scholars Program, the Hazleton Maymester is an example of a university-school-community partnership, according to Kolb. Penn State students are assigned to tutor and mentor two students in the Hazleton One program and also are assigned to observe and provide assistance in their scholars’ school classrooms, working and learning alongside mentor teachers in the Hazleton Area School District.

The Penn State students reside on the University’s Hazleton campus for the two-week program, Kolb explained, and engage in classroom observation during the school day, tutor scholars in the afterschool program and participate in faculty-led seminars in the evening. They also co-design a community-based project and lead their scholars in completing that project which concludes with a community celebration.

“Past participants in both programs noted a deeper understanding of the importance of advocacy and felt more confident in their abilities to be advocates for students and their families,’’ Kolb said. “Students have also articulated new or strengthened skills in developing positive and collaborative relationships with students, families and other teachers.

“Another important goal of both programs is that students are better prepared to design instruction and assessment that is culturally and linguistically responsive to their individual learners,’’ Kolb said.

  • Shepperd

    Students at University Park and in elementary schools in Philadelphia connect via virtual tutoring.

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated October 07, 2015