Just-in-Time Online Tutoring: Supporting Learning Anywhere, Anytime

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Although there is an abundance of digital education resources, we must find better ways to support learners when and where they have a need.

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Credit: Integrity stock / Shutterstock.com © 2020

What if learning could be supported anywhere, anytime, based on the needs of learners? This is a question that has been explored in different ways in research and teaching. Although an abundance of digital education resources are available online, learners have questions and need guidance when they are studying. Just-in-time online tutoring attempts to meet this need. It also has great potential as a complement to scheduled education.

Just-in-time learning has been defined as "anywhere, anytime learning that is just enough, just for me and just in time."1 Margaret Riel outlines three principles of just-in-time learning:2

  1. Learner control: The learner's need drives the access to information. Learners need to have access to digital education resources that meet their needs.
  2. Independent of time and place: Learners can access information when and where they have a need. The internet provides this flexibility by connecting learners with vast collections of information.
  3. Guidance that complements educational resources: Tutors suggest new avenues of inquiry, challenge the learner, and encourage the process of reflection.

It is this third principle that just-in-time online tutoring attempts to meet. Tutoring can range from individual to group tutoring. Tutoring has been shown to enhance learning compared with classroom-only controls.3 Although most tutors lack specific training in tutoring skills and have only moderate domain knowledge, they have been found to be very effective. They typically give short, immediate feedback to learners.4 In online tutoring, the learner could be located anywhere with access to the internet. Online tutoring can be conducted synchronously (e.g., by using chat or videoconference) or asynchronously (e.g., by using discussion board or providing feedback on assignments).

Defining Just-in-Time Online Tutoring

Just-in-time online tutoring can be defined as tutoring attempted to be offered when and where learners have a need. This is an idealistic definition since offering tutoring at the exact time when there is a need might not always be possible because of budget and resource restrictions. However, the definition encourages institutions and educators to think about how tutoring could be offered to best meet learner needs. Tutoring can be provided by educators, teaching assistants, volunteers, more experienced learners, or peers.5

One useful theory for understanding the potential of just-in-time online tutoring is the zone of proximal development, which has been defined as "the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers."6 This theory helps us understand why it is so important to provide guidance by tutors as a complement to scheduled education and digital education resources. Imagine a learner struggling to solve a mathematical problem the evening before a test. An available tutor could help that learner not only to understand how to solve the mathematical problem but also to move on and tackle even more advanced problems that same evening.

Two Modes

Just-in-time online tutoring could be offered in different ways by using synchronous or asynchronous technologies.


The most common way to provide synchronous just-in-time online tutoring is by using videoconferencing. Research indicates that academic support through videoconferencing could be as effective as face-to-face tutoring.7 It is also possible to use other synchronous tools, such as chat, audio, and digital whiteboards. The primary advantage of synchronous tutoring is that learners can ask questions and get immediate answers.

Example: In 2009, Maths Coach Online was launched, which today is a collaboration between several universities and municipalities in Sweden and the UK. It offers K–12 students help with their homework in mathematics for free. The tutors are teacher students in mathematics, and they are available Monday through Thursday, between 5:00 and 8:00 p.m. Since the project's introduction, the tutors have completed more than 50,000 tutoring sessions. Maths Coach Online uses software that includes chat, digital whiteboards, and a queuing system for assigning learners to tutors. Because the software is based on chat rather than videoconferencing, the tutors can work with up to five students simultaneously in separate windows, making it more cost-effective and enabling learners to work with mathematical problems at their own pace.8


Common ways to offer asynchronous just-in-time online tutoring are by using discussion boards or providing feedback on assignments. An advantage is that learners and tutors can engage in discussions in more flexible ways because they do not need to be online at the same time.

Example: The project Emergency Study (in Swedish only) was started in 2006 and offers K–12 students help with their studies, typically homework. It has always been a popular service, but its use exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic. The students can ask questions and discuss each other's questions related to all major subject disciplines. The technical platform is based on asynchronous discussion forums. Moderators make sure that the students follow certain rules, including using respectful language. The platform also uses volunteer tutors, who typically are adults who tutor frequently.

Two Levels

Just-in-time online tutoring is usually offered by organizations or course tutors.


Just-in-time online tutoring can be provided by educational institutions, such as online universities and the Maths Coach Online project mentioned above, or by companies or nonprofit organizations, such as Emergency Study mentioned above.

Example: In a pilot test, we used software we have developed called TalkMath to support upper secondary students when they were preparing for national tests. Five tutors were active at regular intervals, especially during evenings. Thus, there were times when students discussed mathematics problems without tutors and, at other times, with a tutor. We found that students worked with their own problems but also supported other students. When focusing on their own problems, they typically asked for help when there was a need. When helping others, they would typically describe step-by-step how to solve the problem, while tutors would engage more in an inquiry process. The students especially helped each other when no tutors were available.9

Course Tutoring

Educators can provide just-in-time online tutoring simply by trying to be available online. Other educators schedule virtual office hours or question-and-answer sessions that learners can join when they have a need. Useful technologies include instant messaging, chat, and videoconference.

Example: In a master course, two instructors used the TalkMath software to schedule question-and-answer sessions during evenings throughout the course. The students knew that they could join the sessions and ask questions. The instructor answered questions, but other students could also answer and ask follow-up questions. The online room was also available at other times, when students sometimes helped each other. Although most conversations were conducted synchronously by using chat, the history of conversations remained, which could be used by students to have a look at the questions and answers even though they could not be present.

Conclusions and Future Directions

Table 1 shows the features of synchronous and asynchronous just-in-time online tutoring according to the two levels, organization and course tutoring. Each type provides different benefits.

Table 1. Different types of just-in-time online tutoring





Benefit: Resources can be pooled, which allows tutoring to be offered extensively.

Tutors are available to support learners at certain times.


Learners can ask questions at any time, although there might be a delay before a tutor can answer.

Course tutoring

Benefit: Tutoring can be offered based on a specific course and on personal student needs.

A tutor is available at times when it is anticipated that learners might need support.

Learners can ask questions at any time, although there might be a delay before a course tutor can answer.

Technologies (examples)

Audio and videoconference, instant messaging, chat, whiteboard, telephone.

Discussion board, feedback on documents, e-mail.

While tutoring is often focused on how tutors could support learners, the examples discussed above illustrate the potential of also encouraging learners to support each other. At some point, learners can tutor each other, which supports the learning of both parties.10 At other points, more experienced tutors are important to provide expertise and inquiry learning.

Just-in-time online tutoring can be seen not only from the perspective of organizations offering tutoring on macro levels but also from the perspective of course tutor(s) in a specific course. Meanwhile, tutoring could be offered in other ways. For example, imagine a mathematics department that decides to offer just-in-time online tutoring to its students, independent of specific courses. This could be an effective and efficient way to meet learner needs and improve learning outcomes.11 There is great potential to further develop just-in-time online tutoring and explore how such tutoring can be designed in different ways and taking advantage of different technologies.


I wish to acknowledge everyone who has been working with the Maths Coach Online and TalkMath projects over the years, especially Stefan Stenbom, Simon Benjaminsson, Malin Jansson, Daniel Carlsson, and Martha Cleveland-Innes. Research on the projects has been funded by Vinnova, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, and Smartera AB.

For more insights about advancing teaching and learning through IT innovation, please visit the EDUCAUSE Review Transforming Higher Ed blog as well as the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative and Student Success web pages.

The Transforming Higher Ed blog editors welcome submissions. Please contact us at [email protected].


  1. Dale C. Brandenburg and Andrea D. Ellinger, "The Future: Just-in-Time Learning Expectations and Potential Implications for Human Resource Development," Advances in Developing Human Resources 5, no. 3 (August 2003).
  2. Margaret Mary Riel, "Education in the 21st Century: Just-in-Time Learning or Learning Communities," in Education and the Arab World: Challenges of the Next Millennium (Abu Dhabi: Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, 1999).
  3. Peter A. Cohen, James A. Kulik, and Chen-Lin C. Kulik, "Educational Outcomes of Tutoring: A Meta-Analysis of Findings," American Educational Research Journal 19 (1982); Benjamin S. Bloom, "The 2 Sigma Problem: The Search for Methods of Group Instruction as Effective as One-to-One Tutoring," Educational Researcher 13 (1984).
  4. Arthur C. Graesser, Katja Wiemer-Hastings, Peter Wiemer-Hastings and Roger Kreuz, "AutoTutor: A Simulation of a Human Tutor," Journal of Cognitive Systems Research 1, no. 1 (1999).
  5. Cohen, Kulik, and Kulik, "Educational Outcomes of Tutoring: A Meta-Analysis of Findings,"; Bloom, "The 2 Sigma Problem."
  6. Lev S. Vygotsky, Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1978).
  7. Donna Rennar-Potacco, Anymir Orellana, Peter Chen, and Andres Salazar, "Rethinking Academic Support: Improving the Academic Outcomes of students in High-Risk STEM Courses with Synchronous Videoconferencing," Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice 20, no. 4 (February 2019).
  8. Stefan Hrastinski, Anneli Edman, Fredrik Andersson, Tanvir Kawnine, and Carol-Ann Soames, "Informal Math Coaching by Instant Messaging: Two Case Studies of How University Students Coach K–12 Students," Interactive Learning Environments 22, no. 1 (2014).
  9. Malin Jansson, Stefan Stenbom, Fredrik Enoksson, and Stefan Hrastinski, "Students' Engagement in Their Own and Other Students' Process of Inquiry" [https://wcol2019.ie/wp-content/uploads/presentations/FP_057,%20JANSSON.pdf], Proceedings of the ICDE World Conference on Online Learning (2019).
  10. Cohen, Kulik, and Kulik, "Educational Outcomes of Tutoring: A Meta-Analysis of Findings."
  11. Cohen, Kulik, and Kulik, "Educational Outcomes of Tutoring: A Meta-Analysis of Findings,"; Bloom, "The 2 Sigma Problem."

Stefan Hrastinski is a Professor at the Division of Digital Learning, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, and Visiting Professor at Mid Sweden University.

© 2020 Stefan Hrastinski. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.