2013 was quite an interesting year in the edtech space. Though still massively overshadowed by MOOC Mania there have been parallel trends that are worth noticing. One of them being the revival of online tutoring.
I will start the new year with a detailed look back on my career for all of my readers who don’t know me from the start. Five years of blogging are a good occasion for that, I’d say. Just so much for now: my journey into education technology started on the user-side as online language tutor. And right from the start we got into the discussion about the perceived value of tutors and therefore the monetary return they could expect.
With more and more tutors entering the global marketplace and software is eating the world, let’s ask ourselves what is the value of a tutor in 2014 and beyond.
Since I started writing this blog the general situation for most online tutors has gotten progressively worse. Especially those who teach languages like English, Spanish or French have to cope with global competition. Former colonies that are now part of the developing world have local tutors coming on the global market, offering lessons at a very low price point which is of course attractive to cost savvy students. On top of that you have the concept of fair trade lessons, enabling tutors in Latin America, the Philippines or North Africa to make a decent income by tutoring students in the developed countries.
Tutors who are not facing competition from other parts of the globe have to deal with new ways of learning that train students to expect more from their learning providers, all the time. Mobile and web applications offer personalized, low cost learning 24/7. No need to deal with scheduling lessons in advance, cancellations or other annoying stuff.
The more you think about it the less attractive the idea of hiring a tutor. By definition they are less flexible and more expensive than the tech powered alternatives. Again, what is the value of a tutor?
The answer is simple yet complex. The value is the tutor being a human. No matter how good the algorithm that is powering the adaptive learning software is, it cannot cope with the human mind. Personalized learning as of 2013 is still a very linear experience whereas a tutor should be able to adapt the experience in a matter of moments. Notice I said “should be able”.
The following may sound harsh but up to now the tutoring sector has been pretty forgiving to those who are not top notch similarly to the public education sector not necessarily only employing top notch teachers. Mediocre tutors still had enough business opportunities but those days are over, never to return.
There is this (in)famous quote of Arthur C. Clarke that a teacher who can be replaced by a machine should be. In the tutoring space this is what students are doing right now because they have the choice. They are voting with their feet and money, simple as that. In the public education space this is of course more difficult but probably wouldn’t look much different if parents or students had a choice.
Hence the value of a tutor is either zero or whatever it is worth to a student who wants to learn from that tutor which also does not necessarily need to be the subject the tutor was hired for in the first place, but I’ll get into this in an upcoming post.
The key being the tutor has to be better than the smartphone in the student’s pocket. It’s not about facts, vocabulary, concepts and all the other things one can easily cram alone. It’s about wittiness, creativity, wisdom, insights. Tutors who can deliver on that front had and will always have the highest value to students and hence a decent monetary return.
For the rest, aka majority, the air is getting thin. They might have the chance to work as a Tu-Turk or offer on demand tutoring on services like InstaEDU but the better software is going to get the less opportunities will be left for them.
Picture via Smithsonian