Short Analysis: Online Tutoring

I feel that online tutoring idea has HUGE potential and that it is an untapped market, although I still have some problems with the idea.  I’ve been thinking about the advantages/disadvantages of online tutoring vs. real-life tutoring…

ADVANTAGE: The online tutoring idea allows for a lower transaction cost (figuratively, not literally) than real-life tutoring.

It would be much “easier” to go online for tutoring.  People would not actually have to get up and go to a physical location.  But, the main advantage I see here is the social aspect.  Many people have a hard time meeting others and communicating.  People use external devices to help them feel more secure about themselves.  Bars (alcohol) and online chat rooms (anonymity) are testament to this fact.  I think, in many cases, a person’s insecurities hold them back from using real-life tutoring.  Many people who need or are told that they need tutoring are already insecure about themselves to begin with!  They may feel “dumb,” “slow,” what have you…
The fact that online-tutoring is much more anonymous is a huge advantage.

DISADVANTAGE: Person to Person communication with people is VERY limited online.

Currently, our technology limits us to very simple means of communication: text, images, virtual “whiteboards,” etc.  The richer means of communication are waiting on the heels of technology.  In real-life, person to person communication is MUCH richer.  Obviously, being tutored step-by-step through a complicated calculus problem would be MUCH easier in real life: hand gestures, voice (tone of voice IMPORTANT), free-hand writing (look at the math newsgroups to see how, using the limited characters (tools) they have, they express math problems).

This online-tutoring idea NEEDS to leverage the value of the network. I don’t see how this will be achieved.  One idea is to have a LIMITED BACK-END POOL of people. These people will be the paid “tutors,” helping out the students. This limitation exists in real-life as well.  If I want to be tutored at UCLA, I’m limited to those UCLA students who choose to be tutors.  Now, of course we’re talking the Internet, and the LIMITED BACK-END POOL can be MUCH BIGGER (thousands of people from all over the world) and it can be MUCH MORE DIVERSE, but this limitation still exists.  Ideally, this LIMITED BACK-END POOL would grow in proportion with demand for tutoring.

The biggest challenge I see in all of this, which, in my opinion, should be the FUNDAMENTAL advantage of online-tutoring is the “matching up” of problems and solutions.  Ideally, if you have a problem, or need help with something, you would be helped instantly by an expert in the topic whom you can easily communicate with.  So, let’s assume we have a diverse BACK-END POOL of people.  A student has a problem.  How do we determine who the most “qualified” tutor is for a student?  What if a student is matched up with someone whom with they just can’t learn?  What if another tutor is just plain and simply more “qualified” than a tutor that is currently serving a student?  These problems exist in real-life, however they would be even bigger online.  Online, the tutors would have much less knowledge of each other and each other’s skills (unlike, for example, in a real-life tutoring center where the tutors can interact and communicate on a daily basis, and learn who is best suited for each task).

One idea would be to make the tutoring effort more collaborative, not simply a 1 to 1 ratio between students and tutors.  Let’s assume a student has a difficult geometry problem.  He “posts” in a public, globally viewable place, his problem.  Immediately, he is helped by the most qualified person. Tutors, having the ability to view “pending” problems they are interested in, can “join-in” the tutoring effort, and provide help if it is necessary.

Now, this idea clashes with the LIMITED BACK-END POOL model.  However, maybe we can remove the LIMIT on the BACK-END by allowing anyone in the world to instantly become a “tutor.”  We could have “CERTIFIED” tutors (who are PAID for their work), and then just “CONTRIBUTORS” (who work on free will).

This idea would be REALLY harness the power of the Internet.  Like newsgroups, there would be absolutely NO LIMIT on the BACK-END.  However, unlike newsgroups, it could be organized, moderated, and real-time.  Now thinking about it, I used to see it (and be part of it) on America Online (back in the days..)! AOL has a chat area where members can go if they have problems/questions.  Each chat room is run/partially-moderated by a PAID AOL support staff member.  AOL Members who join the chat room wait “in line” to be served by the AOL staff members.  Because AOL was not capable, in certain situations, to support all of its members, some chat rooms did not have AOL support staff members.  As a result, smart, experienced members would help each other.

Now thinking about this, I have a model in my head how this could all be put together.  I see a web server primarily used to display “pending” problems (that students have).  This information would be categorized, by subject, and of course, searchable.  All “tutoring” could be done peer-to-peer, meaning that no real-load would be put on a SERVER (very decentralized).  The real question is the environment in which the student and tutor will communicate.  Ideally, they could use any internet-capable appliance in the world to communicate, so having the application non web-based (like ICQ) would not be good.  However, making the application web-based would pose some real limitations as far as expandability. Maybe a Java app would be an option.  Whatever model it is developed on, it should inherently lend itself to change in communications technology (video, voice, etc).