February 10, 2008

Virtual tutoring a real possibility in China

Filed under: 3D Virtual Worlds,Education,Social Networks — Administrator @ 11:24 pm

In late 2005, I happily connected with Hank and Steve, two of the three co-founders behind Shanghai based education service Chinesepod. I’ll be honest, Chinesepod was such a fresh service there weren’t many comps to look at, thus it was truly difficult to determine whether or not user acceptance and demand would hold-up long enough for the company to reach critical mass and turn a profit. Basically, we had to wait and see what happened as the business matured a bit more.

In the meantime, I tucked in, did some crawling around the Web, held a dozen or so focus groups (online and offline), and became a user of the service.

As part of my research I placed adverts on Craigslist (and a couple local Chinese bulletin boards) looking for Chinese Mandarin tutors – I wanted to see if there were alternatives to the traditional offline courses or CD/web enhanced lessons. What I started noticing was a significant number of duck taped Web2.0 Chinese and English tutoring services – these tutors had cobbled together real-time virtual classroom on the back of Skype. The only problem was I had no way of determining if any of these tutors were good value or a waste of space.

This got me thinking – why not create a web based on-demand professional tutoring service for Chinese mainland students of all ages, across all subject – some possible service features could have been: (1) no required minimum session time; (2) tutors selected based on student/parent ranking, relevance, or dialect; (3) sessions held in a browser based 3D virtual meeting room; and (4) various social networking tools.

Sure, there were some challenges in hiring and qualifying tutors, monitoring the quality of sessions, and 3D environments were bulky but the platform was scalable and required few full time employees – definitely an execution play rather than a capital intensive venture. However, I got busy and this concept melted like the polar caps.

Fast forward to February 2008 – so, I’m surfing around New York Times’ website and I came across an article by journalist Michelle Slatalla titled “On Demand, on Time and for a Fee, an Army of Tutors Appears”. The article is a narrative of what happened after Slatalla unleashed her kids on a couple US online tutoring services – indeed, it is worth a read – more importantly, it jarred my memory…

Granted, it has been a couple years since (and, sure there are some people playing around in this space in China) but I still think this is a very interesting business – especially, given recent advancements in 3D environments, increased popularity of computers in the home, and the fact that Chinese students (and uniquely so) have completely blurred the line separating the real world (offline) and the virtual (online) space.

To wit, American students are drawn to a service, such as Tutor.com it’s heard to imagine a similar service not succeeding in China.

UPDATE (13/2/08): This morning, we got an email from Steve Williams (Chinesepod) that provides some additional insight into China’s tutoring industry – we don’t normally post comments/emails on our site but this one is particularly interesting. Many thanks.

I’ve seen a fair bit of interest in the space from Indian call center firms, looking to extend into English tutoring in the China market. I think they’ll have a hard time building brand awareness, given the spend of big chains like English First and Wall Street, but if they partnered with off-line schools they could have a good opportunity.

Scale is another problem, as is stopping freelance tutors poaching customers and servicing them off-platform. Another huge gap is the lack of online support materials. A key piece of offline school ‘technology’ is the textbook, but what do online tutors use? A lot of them send the student a link to an Amazon page, where the student buys a book and waits a week for delivery. Insane! I think there is an opportunity for Praxis here, with on demand syllabi.

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