Provost’s office enacts trial partnership with tutoring app

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Knack will allow students to offer tutoring services for specific classes.

New College is in a unique position when it comes to campus tutoring services. The small enrollment size coupled with student-employed services like the Student Success Center (SSC), the Quantitative Resource Center (QRC) and the Writing Resource Center (WRC) give New College students a more personalized peer-on-peer tutoring experience than a large state university. Even so, Acting Provost Suzanne Sherman has—at the suggestion of President Donal O’Shea—enacted a partnership with Knack, a peer tutoring service that allows students to register to tutor for any class that they have taken and passed. Knack will be used for the fall semester under a free trial and, depending on student feedback, could be purchased at $6000 and become a more permanent fixture.

O’Shea said that he first heard about Knack a couple of years ago when a former member of the Board of Governors introduced him to its founder, Samyr Quershi. From there he passed the information along to Sherman in order to further evaluate Knack and determine if it could be suitable for New College.

“She [the former Board of Governors member] was thinking that it would be just the type of program that would be great at New College,” O’Shea said.  “It turned out to be really intriguing.”

Fast-forward to the 2019 ISP period where Quershi was invited to pitch Knack directly to members of the faculty, including Director of Writing and head of the WRC Dr. Jennifer Wells. Quershi attended business school at University of Florida (UF) and mentioned how much Knack was able to benefit students there. Wells infers that, due to the size of UF, Knack probably does provide many students with tutoring opportunities that would otherwise be fully booked up or otherwise unavailable.

“For a school like UF, it is probably the case that students who wanted tutoring couldn’t get it and thus outsourcing additional tutoring to a third party would make financial sense,” Wells said. “I didn’t see how that would apply to New College, though, because our existing tutoring services have the capacity to see every student.”

Signing up for Knack as a tutor requires the student to answer questions on whether they have ever tutored before or are tutoring currently, whether they are currently seeking a job or internship and whether they require approval to work in the United States. From there, the student is able to select any New College courses that they want to tutor in, set any price for their services and create their schedule. Knack also allows students to hand select their tutors and provide them with direct feedback.

Knack’s FAQs state that “if you’ve received a favorable grade in your course(s) or have proof of your proficiency in a subject area, then you’re qualified to tutor.” Knack states that earnings from each session will arrive in a student’s bank account in one to three days and also asks you to submit a copy of your transcript for evaluation. 

Whereas a standard state university would determine that a student is qualified to tutor based on their high grades, it seems as though a student either needs to have passed a class at NCF or to have been nominated by a faculty member to be qualified under this model. Quershi has also said that Knack can provide tutors with training through Knack via a certified third party, the College Reading and Language Association (CRLA).

“For the past two years, the Provost’s Office has run a program of providing peer tutors for specific students, based on faculty input,” Sherman said.  “Knack is a peer tutoring platform that will make it easier for all students to get help from both our QRC tutors and our tutors sponsored by the Provost’s Office.”

It first became clear that the campus would be testing out Knack this semester during a presentation to new faculty during the week of mini-classes. Sherman later sent out an email to faculty and staff on September 9 in order to announce the college’s “new academic partnership” with Knack. Sherman continues with a call to action, asking faculty to nominate students that they would recommend as tutors.

“We have been interested in Knack for some time,” Sherman said. “A couple of other universities in the Florida State University System use it and we had the opportunity to contract with Knack for a free trial this semester. At the end of the semester we will determine whether or not we wish to continue with Knack for the remainder of the year and we will definitely want student input on this decision.”

Sherman also stresses that there is “no cost associated for students,” despite Knack allowing its student tutors to set whatever rates they want. She addresses a lack of further financial detail in the initial email during the September 9 faculty meeting, saying that more information is on its way.

“[The hourly pay for the Knack peer tutors] wasn’t in the email because we forgot to discuss that,” Sherman said. “We’re going to talk about that and we will follow up on that information.”

However, the current lack of detail about finances and what Knack means for preexisting tutoring services still leaves students and faculty with pressing questions. Wells identified three primary models of funding that New College could be using in conjunction with Knack. One model is that they could rely on students to pay tutors out of pocket. Another would have the school pay Knack which would in turn pay students as independent contractors, treating them as employees of the college and responsible for withholding their own taxes. The third would involve a private company partnering with Knack and then paying tutors through those funds. It is unclear at this time which of these models will be used, or if any are being used at all.

Wells is also concerned about student data. Quershi has affirmed that Knack does not sell any data, but this could change if Knack were to be acquired by another company, much like how Canvas was bought by a larger company last year. Either way, Knack will not provide colleges with direct access to their own data without request, according to Wells, whereas the WRC has access to and manages all of its own data.

The impact that Knack could have on a place like the WRC is Wells’ biggest concern, which makes sense when considering the financial cost if New College were to permanently install it. While this first semester is a free trial, Knack costs $6,000 a year to use, not counting the tutor’s pay, and it seems to have come at the cost of the WRC.

“This year, even though NCF received quite a bit of performance funding, the WRC received $7,000 less than we asked for and $5,000 less than we were given last year,” Wells said.  “So, when it looks like we are about to spend $6,000 for Knack and the WRC doesn’t have what it needs, I have some concerns.”

There is also a clear difference between how tutors are evaluated and trained between Knack and the WRC. Wells said that WRC Student Writing Assistants (SWAs) receive training through first passing a class on pedagogy, participate in a competitive application process, then receive 15 additional hours of training at the beginning of each semester in addition to “ongoing training” throughout the semester. Meanwhile, Knack only requires a faculty recommendation and a satisfactory evaluation in their chosen course.

“It is not the case that someone who is a good writer is always a good tutor, and Knack assumes that someone who is good at doing something themselves will be able to teach it to others,” Wells said.

Despite these continued questions and concerns, the provost’s office is running a trial of Knack this semester. Depending on student use, interest, and feedback, it could become another one of New College’s tutoring services. But until then, it will coexist alongside the pre-established services and be used to learn more about the demand for tutoring opportunities and services at New College.

“I think Knack will be a good way for us to find out what the demand for tutoring beyond the WRC and QRC looks like,” Wells said. “If it turns out that a lot of students want tutoring beyond what we already offer, then I think it is worth having a conversation about whether we want to outsource the management and training of those tutors, or if we want to offer all students the kind of experience the WRC provides.”

Sophia Brown is also a SWA at the WRC.

Editor in Chief Anna Lynn Winfrey contributed reporting.

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