On Tutoring: online and on-demand

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recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education noted a shift in students’ preferences toward on-demand tutoring over the traditional peer to peer model. The Chronicle article rightly raises concerns for the financial burden students face when they turn to these services. While I too have reservations about the developing pay-for-service culture in education, my chief concern is the quality of the education. Actually, that focus describes my point of departure for all educational questions, but that’s another post entirely.

Buyouts and growth.

Chegg and Tutor.com have both recently increased their respective influence in the online tutoring market. Chegg effectively doubled down by buying up a growing competitor in the field. Tutor.com (a piece of the huge IAC group which owns everything from Match.com and Tinder to The Daily Beast and Vimeo) bought The Princeton Review (TPR) as a means to access the company’s expertise, reach, and name recognition in test prep and admissions counseling. TPR had been growing its own business online through classes and tutoring prior to the purchase. However, TPR and Chegg never offered on-demand tutoring until the acquisitions were made.

Clearly, the demand for on-demand tutoring is coming from the same place all demand does: a place of need. But the question remains whether on-demand tutoring is even tutoring per se. The practice has received its share of praise, but much of the acclaim makes on-demand tutoring sound much more like a quick Q & A than anything substantive; if tutoring is sitting down to a nutritious meal, then on-demand “tutoring” is drive-thru. How much can you actually learn from a “tutor” who doesn’t know you and never will? What could be gained, in terms of sustained learning, from a session that may be no longer than 10-15 minutes? Additionally, many question the qualifications and selection process for these tutors.

Benefits and scams.

Many proponents of online education in general often cite the increased access to education the internet provides. That I do not dispute. Once again, I’m concerned with quality. And when education becomes a for-profit endeavor, I believe the level scrutiny on quality should vary directly with every dollar.

In recent years, the greatest consumers of for-profit education (more on the subject here) and for-profit on-demand tutoring have been members of the US military. Tutor.com built its business on the GI Bill and has profited famously. It’s no wonder then that shortly after acquiring TPR, IAC named the former president of American Public Education, Inc (APEI)–what a name!– to run the two companies. APEI, it should be noted, has a special relationship with top brass in the military. As such, the vast majority of its students are/were service members. That wouldn’t be a bad thing if the education were worth more than the megabits it is transmitted on. APEI has been embroiled in lawsuits by both its shareholders and its students for various fraud charges.

It appears the on-demand tutoring market is growing as an off-shoot of the for-profit education trend and the increasing number of international applicants/students. I find it difficult to imagine how the industry will not necessarily create an atmosphere of answer-giving and other shortcuts that border on plagiarism. When a company answers to shareholders who are beholden to the bottomline and a “tutoring” service is provided on a per minute basis in the moment of need (ostensibly to increase access and affordability), how exactly does that lead to the methodical and attentive relationship most would recognize as real tutoring? How would such a business garner repeat customers if each tutor actually took her time to fully explain concepts when the students expects a quick answer? I don’t think it can. Meanwhile, I think more service members and parents of teens will be hoodwinked into paying for poor instruction and/or quick and incomplete answers.

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