One-on-one tutoring? Tech startups finally catch on

Sep 9, 2013 by

From her apartment near the UC Berkeley campus, Kaylee Bieraugel has tutored students living and studying as far away as China and Germany.

Recently, the 21-year-old English major, a college senior, coached a high school student reading Edmund Spenser‘s “The Faerie Queene.” Another time, Bieraugel, helped a student compose an essay on “Paradise Lost.” Students overseas have also asked for help preparing for the International Baccalaureate exams and other standardized tests.

She’s done it all without ever meeting a student face to face.

Since October, Bieraugel has led 50 to 60 one-on-one tutoring sessions through InstaEDU, a San Francisco startup that connects students with tutors via the Web. Through the site, students can pick from more than 3,300 tutors, who have Facebook-like profiles showcasing their photos, reviews and specialties, from computer science to religious studies. From there, students can request a tutoring session, using a combination of a webcam, instant messaging and a collaborative whiteboard to go over homework and other lessons.

“It’s very efficient,” Bieraugel said about her experience. “I don’t have to go anywhere. I’m just in my room.”

InstaEDU is part of a wave of education technology startups promising to upend how we learn – and picking up steam as the new school year starts.

More K-12 classrooms, for instance, are using the Khan Academy‘s video lessons and interactive challenges. Coursera and Udacity, both headquartered in Mountain View, are among the online platforms bringing college courses to the masses. Other startups are developing educational games and apps, digital textbooks and tools to help teachers in the classroom.

Along with Tutorspree in New York and several others, InstaEDU has carved a niche in the growing online tutoring, homework and test preparation space. With increasing pressure and competition in schools, more students have turned to in-home tutors, test-preparation courses and after-school learning centers such as Sylvan Learning and Kumon.

Growing business

Between 2012 and 2015, the market is expected to grow from $11 billion to $13.1 billion in the United States, according to a report by GSV Advisors, a consulting firm for the education and technology industry.

InstaEDU is the brainchild of brother-and-sister team Dan Johnston and Alison Johnston Rue. Both Stanford graduates, they started Cardinal Tutors in 2011, offering Stanford students as tutors for Palo Alto families.

After a while, they realized a few things. Hiring an in-home tutor was a luxury not readily accessible to most people. They also saw that many of their tutoring requests came from students late at night, looking for last-minute homework help.

“Students would come to our site at 11 at night and send us frantic messages,” said Johnston Rue, CEO of InstaEDU.

In May 2012, they decided to sell Cardinal Tutors and launch InstaEDU with Stanford classmate and co-founder Joey Shurtleff. Since then, the startup has raised about $5.1 million in funding and employs about 14 people at its South of Market office.

Ivy League tutors

Most of its tutors have been recruited from Ivy League and other top-tier colleges and are paid $20 per hour. Students, meanwhile, sign up for a subscription, with prices starting at $24 per hour.

Johnston Rue said she sees InstaEDU complementing the increasing popularity of online college courses, offering a place for students to get one-on-one help and ask questions.

“We’re still at an early point in people’s comfort for online education and how they think about tutoring,” she said.

“For a long time, the technology wasn’t ready to make the online learning experience as good as in person. It’s only now that most students have computers with webcams and bandwidth that is fast enough,” she said.

Johnston Rue declined to disclose the number of students using InstaEDU, or the site’s revenue, but said that they have been growing at a rate of about 50 percent a month for much of the year. Its active tutors make about $70 a week.

Bieraugel estimates she has made $600 to $700 since joining InstaEDU last year. A tutor at UC Berkeley’s student learning center and an aspiring high school English teacher, she sees InstaEDU reaching more students who otherwise wouldn’t feel comfortable seeking out a tutor.

“I think it will reach more students who aren’t willing to go out of the way,” she said. “I think there’s a stigma with tutoring. (But) if you can sit in your bedroom and connect with your laptop, it’s really easy.”

One-on-one tutoring? Tech startups finally catch on – SFGate.

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