A long-time executive shares his front-row seat to the changing edtech landscape.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
Anthony Salcito, Chief Institution Business Officer, leads Varsity Tutors for Schools and is responsible for (parent company) Nerdy’s efforts to support institutions as they work to transform learning opportunities for students and educators across a range of offerings. Prior to joining Nerdy, Anthony served as Vice President of Worldwide Education at Microsoft. In this role, he was responsible for driving Microsoft’s education engagement and relationships globally, including long-term partnerships with schools, universities and other public sector customers. Throughout his Microsoft career, he helped launch many of the company’s cornerstone education programs and is recognized as a champion for teachers and a global education thought leader.
What from your professional experience informs your current approach?
My career path has given me a front-row seat to the changing landscape of technology in classrooms in the US and worldwide. Before joining Varsity Tutors two years ago, I had spent the last 20 years as Microsoft’s VP of Education in the US and subsequently, worldwide. I have walked the halls of over 1,000 schools in over 65 countries. That experience, working on some of the earliest implementations of technology, has informed my understanding of how to introduce new technologies or approaches to schools — which is very relevant to the conversations we’re having now about tutoring, as well as AI.
In the early days of “edtech,” classroom technology revolved around a single concept: acquisition. Schools aimed to increase their computer counts, using the ratio of students to computers as a metric of success. While technology began as an auxiliary tool, it gradually became embedded in everyday teaching. Nowadays, most educators consider technology indispensable in the classroom. This evolutionary process is what some call a “technology maturity model.”
Likewise, we’re seeing this same process play out in the adoption of (or in many cases, re-adoption) tutoring. With the influx of federal ESSER funds — and a real sense of urgency to help kids make up for lost learning time — districts rushed to “acquire” tutoring, often without a ton of consideration for which modality or approach would serve their needs best. So, we saw the quick implementation of chat-based tutoring solutions, which often fell short of expectations because many districts considered it as the sole replacement for personalized tutoring needs. In many cases, it had little uptake among students or didn’t serve the students who needed it most. It’s similar to the early days of edtech, where isolated computer labs had limited impacts. Effective tutoring, like education technology, must be intentionally integrated into the school schedule and aligned with curriculum and standards.
‘Effective tutoring, like education technology, must be intentionally integrated into the school schedule and aligned with curriculum and standards.’
Three years in, districts have recognized the impact of effective tutoring and personalized learning, and are now looking for partners to build resources that accommodate learners of all ages, where and when they learn, all while maintaining a high standard of personalized education
Are you seeing a similar pattern with AI?
Certainly. I started working on AI and its applications in learning about a decade ago. The adoption of AI will follow a similar technology maturing model. First, we’ve seen a fixation on displacement — how will AI take over teaching? Then, we enter stage two — the fear of skills erosion. There’s concern here that with AI’s assistance, students might cheat more, leading to potential declines in critical skills, such as writing. Stage three is marked by cautious acceptance. Here, AI is recognized and integrated into education, albeit in a limited scope, usually catering to specific tasks and existing workflows. Stage four is where we see the real potential of AI getting tapped into, improving existing systems and processes — embracing optimization. Lastly, we get to reimagining what’s possible. At this stage, there’s a radical shift in the educational approach, powered by the advanced tools provided by AI. It prompts a broader vision, where education isn’t just about optimization but transformation.
Developers and technologists have to be attuned to schools’ apprehensions and acceptance levels with AI — and, we have to approach AI, especially generative AI, with a degree of humility and caution. But, what excites me most is the potential of AI to improve operational efficiencies, making it easier and cheaper for districts to scale and sustain important inventions like tutoring. For example, for over a decade, Varsity Tutors has been using AI to significantly improve tutor-student matching, leading to better engagement and preparation for both the tutor and the student. Ultimately, we envision a future where AI paves the way for individualized instruction to become the norm, not the exception. This will empower educators with the tools they need to address specific student needs seamlessly.
What are some features and benefits of AI that you’re excited about—and what are you working on now?
I’m excited about the potential of AI to optimize insights to personalize instruction and expand the opportunity for all students to get the support needed. That said, I recognize the impact of human interaction and am excited about the role AI will play to help make human interaction with learners easier to scale and more impactful. The research on tutoring shows that consistent tutoring embedded in the school day and connected to the classroom curriculum has the biggest impact. It’s also why AI presents an exciting opportunity for tutoring. AI can make it easier for great tutors to spot patterns faster, individualize instruction, and help students learn. By seamlessly integrating AI into every aspect of our platform, from crafting AI-generated lesson plans to intelligently matching experts with learners, we can dramatically enhance tutors’ ability to customize the learning experience to an individual’s unique needs, interests, and goals.
AI also enables us to dramatically rethink the cost of tutoring. It’s now possible for states and school districts to offer AI-enabled, chat-based tutoring, and personalized resources for free, allowing them to allocate their resources more effectively to students who require intensive assistance.
‘It’s now possible for states and school districts to offer AI-enabled, chat-based tutoring, and personalized resources for free, allowing them to allocate their resources more effectively to students who require intensive assistance.’
Just two short years ago, as the COVID-19 pandemic upended traditional learning, school districts were faced with the urgent need to get resources in the hands of students, to help them address lost time. Many invested millions of dollars in chat-based tutoring services. While these services are a lifeline for students in need, they don’t offer the same efficacy as high-dosage tutoring, which provides one-on-one attention with human tutors. However, thanks to the rapid advancement of AI, the landscape has changed dramatically.
Our unique scale — serving millions of students directly and through schools — paired with more than sixteen years of investment in learning technology and the rapid developments in AI allows us to make these resources available widely. And, in turn, makes it easier for districts to invest in tutoring initiatives that can have the highest impact for students.
What’s your message to edtech founders and leaders reading EdTech Digest?
Early technology adoption in schools often faced challenges due to a lack of educator buy-in and training, leading to technology that did not meet educational needs effectively. With the influx of federal pandemic-response funding, schools and teachers rapidly adopted new technologies — that present exciting opportunities — but edtech founders and company leaders must think seriously about how they help schools understand the conditions for success, and think about long-term sustainability.
For technology to be effective, it must be deeply integrated into classroom curricula and workflows, echoing the findings that tutoring is most effective when connected to classroom education.
BIG LESSONS | Anthony Salcito
“Edtech founders and company leaders must think seriously about how they help schools understand the conditions for success, and think about long-term sustainability. For technology to be effective, it must be deeply integrated into classroom curricula and workflows, echoing the findings that tutoring is most effective when connected to classroom education.
“I think the big lessons for other founders are:
1. Ensure new technologies are closely aligned with educational curricula and classroom practices.
2. Consider the teacher’s role and the direct impact on learners when developing edtech solutions.
3. Recognize that edtech tools are not just about the technology itself but about fostering connection, collaboration, and learning.
4. Plan for the sustainability of edtech programs beyond initial funding periods.
5. Address the need for personalized education that can adapt to individual student needs within the structure of the school day.
“The goal is to make a tangible impact on student learning and to work towards a more personalized and effective educational experience.”
Anything else you’d like to add or emphasize?
Tutoring has been one of our surest bets in education. Benjamin Bloom’s groundbreaking research forty years ago demonstrated that the outcomes for students who received one-to-one tutoring surpassed those of classroom instruction by two standard deviations or two sigma. He proffered that if schools could make tutoring standard practice—if they could find a way to deliver it at scale—“it would be an educational contribution of the greatest magnitude” that could change “popular notions about human potential.”
‘…an educational contribution of the greatest magnitude that could change popular notions about human potential.’
We know that one-to-one tutoring can have the most significant impact on students who are struggling. The time is now for districts to think about the sustainability of tutoring and not wait for ESSER funding to run out. There are lots of ways to incorporate high-dosage tutoring and we know one size does not fit all. That’s why it’s important for them to look at what works for what time of year and take a more critical and personalized approach to instructional approaches and how best to integrate tutoring into their environment because every student deserves access to tutoring long-term.
Victor Rivero is Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: email@example.com