Micro-tutoring: Chewing the fat

“Micro-tutoring? Whassat then?”

Good question.

Some debate in the office today over how to pigeonhole a brand new concept. Born out of our frustration with the shortcomings of private tuition, micro-tutoring takes a deliberate step to the side and a huge stride forward, leaving traditional forms of tutoring lagging in its wake. Why? because there’s so much wrong with the system as it stands.

Up until now, parents have had scant few choices when it comes to getting their children the extra help they need; they can employ a private tutor, they could try an online tutoring service or they could ship their kids out to the library and spend hours trawling through websites looking for the answers they need.

These things don’t come cheap; private tutoring and online sessions are usually planned out in hour-long blocks over several months to make it worthwhile for both tutor and pupil. That’s the monetary cost, but consider the amount of time and energy invested into making those sessions possible. Parents have to find the tutor, work out if they’re up to the job and be prepared to welcome them into the family home each week. The whole process can prove a real drain.

Micro-tutoring cuts out all the hassle. It delivers tasty morsels of expert advice to hungry brains at the teachable moment in real time, online. It’s a please-all solution; students just get the help they need without the unwanted extras, tutors are opened up to a vast new market and parents save time and money.

Add to this the convenience of the whole thing being played out over the internet and everyone goes home happy. Or is it stays home happy?

Consider this – we’re all familiar with the philosophy behind micro-breweries and farmers markets, right? No? Well, micro-breweries sprang up in the 1970′s in good old Blighty as a backlash to mass-marketed large-scale commercial brewing, offering quality and diversity over mass-production and standardisation. Hurrah!

Likeswise, farmers markets were set up to cut out out the middleman, supplying fresh local produce at its most flavoursome – juicy titbits delivered direct to the people that needed them, as they needed them.

It’s the progressive attitude and flexible approach of micro-industries that we have taken and applied to tutoring. Thus, when you choose micro-tutoring, you’re not making a long-term commitment to a private tutor, you’re not paying a monthly fee for regimented learning. You’re choosing convenience. You’re choosing instancy. You’re choosing digestible, targeted help.

Since the tutoring is delivered in fun-size portions, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be paid for as such. Micro-tutoring works on a pay-as-you-go basis, not in hour long blocks or monthly subscriptions: it works by the minute.

Micro-tutoring takes a huge bite out of the billion hour problem.

Micro-tutoring, yum.

Introducing micro-tutoring

Cast your mind back to that time when you’re sat there, struggling with a concept you just don’t get. It could have been percentages, or it could have been reflection/refraction. You’ve reached the point where your brain has started to fog and frustration is creeping in. Just at that moment, a teacher, a parent or a friend says, ‘are you ok?’.

You mumble a few words. It’s obvious what’s going on, so they sit down and quietly take you through it. One-to-one. Step by step. It doesn’t take long, but the fog clears and the magic words appear on your lips, ‘Ah-ha!’. You get it, the eureka moment, it ‘clicks’.

But how many times did the teacher, the parent or the friend not step in, leaving you with a legacy of frustration and reduced confidence? How many times did you refuse help so you didn’t look stupid in front of the class?

And think of the converse for a moment. Have you ever sat there whilst a teacher or a tutor continues to explain something when you’ve already ‘got it’, simply because the class isn’t finished yet or because the tutoring session lasts an hour and it’s only 20 minutes in? Not quite as frustrating, but almost.

In an ideal world, you’d get help only when you needed it. A cupboard at home, full of tutors who can step out, explain things and then disappear the moment it ‘clicks’.

OK, so tutors won’t live in a cupboard, and it would have to be a pretty large one to accommodate a tutor for every subject, but many parents naturally understand how quickly frustration can turn into low confidence and low achievement, so back in the real world, they find tutors to re-teach what’s already been covered in class and hope that it ‘clicks’.

It would take too long and cost too much to cover every subject, so the focus is on trickier subjects, like maths and science. The tutoring is generally delivered in multiple one-hour sessions, because otherwise it’s not worth it for either parent or tutor. No mention here of the person who gets the tutoring.

Why? In financial terms, it’s fairly obvious why the tutor might want longer, more frequent sessions but what about the parent? The answer lies in the effort associated with getting a new tutor; the time taken to find one, the time taken to evaluate whether they’re any good or not, the emotional cost of inviting someone new into your home. Think in these terms and it’s equally obvious why parents don’t want to repeatedly find tutors, just when their children need help. In economic terms, parents are satisficing.

But take away the effort of searching for a tutor, add in a simple way to evaluate them*, make it economic for tutors to deliver tuition in small bursts and you have a solution that works for everyone: students (who only get taught when they need it), parents (because it’s more cost effective and less time consuming) and tutors (because it creates a big new market).

We do this using a combination of real time web technology and a fundamentally different process. Call it micro-tutoring. Grameen Bank changed the way credit was evaluated to make it economic to lend in small amounts and thereby created micro-finance. Twitter created micro-blogging using real time web technology to make it effective to deliver a stream of relevant, personal, real-time information.

Tutorhub changes the way we search for tutors, evaluate tutors and deliver tutoring – making it efficient to deliver tutoring in small bursts, just when it’s needed.

Thus the micro-tutoring market is born.

* parents have no way of evaluating whether a tutor is any good or not. They rely on clues: is he/she in demand, are they recommended etc. In other words, they rely on a phenomenon known as social proof. Our recommendation algorithm delivers a superior form of evaluation.

Tutorhub featured by the BBC

Tutorhub, our new website designed to make finding homework help a darn sight easier, has just been featured on BBC Radio Bristol’s drive-time show, hosted by Ben Prator.

Spreading the word is always a challenge for new businesses, so I was very pleased when I received the call on Friday from the BBC in Bristol. They had heard about the website and asked me to come in and tell their radio listeners all about it.

The BBC were very interested in the issues of finding homework help and getting support from tutors. They were curious about the technology we were using and how quickly homework questions would be answered.

What was strange was entering the BBC West newsroom and seeing all of the journo’s and weathermen at work. Rather surreal, like something from a dream.

The interview went well though I think. If you want to listen to the interview, click Tutorhub Radio Bristol 13 Nov 2010.