Going by the reports of millions of dollars being pumped into the online tutoring industry, it seems like we have finally come of age. Two companies - India-based TutorVista and U.S-based Tutor.com - have each raised over ten million dollars in the last 6 months or so. And this wasn't a "first time" for either!
The recent infusion of capital offers an opportunity for providers and investors to take a closer look at online services. I am excited with the money the online tutoring model has attracted, but not too excited with the way in which it is being used. Investment for marketing and expansion of current services is justified for now. Yet, the more important opportunity for online providers lies in breakthrough technology.
For any student, or her parent, the "wow-factor" that drives them to "test" the online option is its price advantage over traditional home tutoring. Yet, apart from this and the national or international sourcing of tutors, there isn't much that is visibly different from the home-tutor model. They share a common instructional strategy. Tutor and student interact in the same way, but online they are not in the same physical room and may not see each other, primarily because of bandwidth constraints .
Some online providers have deliberately chosen to compete with the home-tutor model by being similar but less expensive. And this is why, in spite of investment and investors' interest, the online model remains a poor cousin to conventional face-to-face tutoring.
I added the 2.0 suffix to the title of this column because technology can make online tutoring better than its competition by offering an entirely different experience.
Online Tutoring 1.0: Approximating the "Home Experience" Most online services use shared text, voice and the whiteboard to deliver academic content to the student. Some deliver ancillary content including animations.
Testing and assessment tools used by a student during a tutoring session then come next up the value chain. A value-added feature allows student to take more tests outside the session and merge the results. This helps the teacher to know more about what the student needs. Tests done independently as assignments also reduce tutoring costs.
When all is said and done, these add to the online experience in ways that approximate a home experience.
The strategic shortcoming of this approach is that it accepts home tutoring as the standard against which online tutors should be compared. That puts online firms in marketing equivalent of "when did you stop beating your wife?"
Online Tutoring 2.0: Creating a "Web Experience" The 2.0 suffix is about creating a web experience. Newspaper articles on such technologies as MySpace, text messaging, iTunes, and blogs, massive multi role-player gaming, and behaviors from sharing to bullying show that students use virtual space as more than an approximation of their social lives in the real space they physically inhabit.
Online Tutoring 2.0 is about exploiting similar pattens of use and enabling technologies in a more secure, controlled and teacher-guided manner. The most common worry of a parent of a teenager using the internet is content. The big advantage in merging this with online tutoring is the fact that it is now under the direct supervision of an adult, and is constantly monitored by the system.
So what 2.0 add-ons would be the most exciting to watch in the coming years?
• First, "content aggregators" for lessons. tests, educational videos and edu-blogs.
• Eventually, virtual reality tools like secondlife to enable a more vibrant and open learning atmosphere.
If the industry can keep excitement levels up and more money keeps coming in, it can create a real "web-based" wow-factor!