The Uberization of Education Technology

By: Finella Tutelman (Wharton, ‘22)

There is a tendency in technology to take any successful business and view it as a universal model. All of the commentators and tech media seem to go on an obsessive hunt across every sector and decide that this must apply everywhere. For example, many of the hottest startups in today’s business environment are now described as the “Uber of X.” Investors and venture capitalists are constantly looking for the next industries bound for disruption by a new innovative company like Uber. These companies often leverage a peer to peer economy, integrating buyers and sellers on one platform in real time. From iCracked, providing on-demand iPhone repairs to Wagg, a dog walking service, many industries have latched onto the Uber business model.

The sector of education technology has seen many false dawns over the years and now too plays host to startups adapting the Uber model.

The potential for EdTech to transform developing countries is remarkable. According to UNESCO, 264 million children do not have access to schooling, while at least 600 million more are “in school but not learning.” These are children who are not achieving even basic skills in maths and reading, which the World Bank calls a “learning crisis.” The most promising innovations in previous years have been Massive Open online Course platforms (MOOC’s) have not lived up to the superlatives made for them. The general mission behind education technology startups has been to deem universities redundant, as individual learners will go directly to a marketplace of private educators. Clearly, this vision is not yet realized.

https://slate.com/technology/2013/11/developing-countries-and-moocs-online-education-could-hurt-national-systems.html

But many bright spots exist. Chatterbox, an online learning school, harnesses the wasted talent of unemployed professionals who are refugees, offering them work as online and in-person language tutors. Based in the UK, where there is a language skills shortage estimated to cost the economy £48 billion every year, Chatterbox has now signed up several UK universities and major nonprofits and corporations to use its services.

And, as in any industry with unrealized technological promise, there is a growing trend of “Uber for Education.” For instance, InstaEDU which was recently purchased by Chegg for $30 million, provides students with live, on-demand tutors via voice, video, or chat at a fraction of the cost of paying a high-price private tutor. As the industry is set up now, a student stuck on a problem in the middle of the night would have very limited and expensive options for accessing personalized support. Now, just like calling an Uber, a student is in control of when and how they get the support they need, and are assured of the high quality of the service. On the flip side of this experience, qualified tutors that are providing the support have the opportunity to earn extra money in their spare time.

On-demand tutoring is just the beginning. Consider the power of a platform that helps connect you to the right tutors based on your grades, scholarships and test prep based on your course background, and future educational opportunities based on your educational achievements.

It is important to outline the key elements of Uber’s offering and how EdTech falls short in many of these categories. An Uber ride is a brief interaction, is standardized across the world, and is something that a vast number of people possess the equipment for, in this sense a car and the capability of driving. Moreover, an Uber ride is generally a solitary pursuit and utilizes mobile technology to overcome some of the limitations of hailing a cab. Hardly any of these conditions apply to education. It requires a long time frame, certainly longer than the 15 minutes of the Uber model, to gain the required outcome. It is diverse, so any model would require such diversity and thus be difficult to use, compared with the simplicity of Uber. While there are a lot of people who can act as tutors, the ability to construct a curriculum or design a learning activity that can be effectively delivered online is quite rare. Also while gaining a driving license is fairly easy, being licensed to offer formal credit for learning is very difficult.

Learning is often a social activity that is undertaken with a cohort of people with similar interests and goals, and while technology can enhance education through online learning and mobile delivery it does not have the power to totally transform the industry.

At WeissFund, we are excited about innovation in the EdTech sector and the tangible impact these startups can create. This thinking supported our decision to fund Infinity2o who are creating a platform to enable MOOC users to extract more value from their experience through virtual ‘classmate experiences.’

If you would like to chat about technology and entrepreneurship as it relates to education, or are a Penn founder starting a company in the space, please feel free to reach out to us!

Finella Tutelman is a freshman studying Finance and Entrepreneurship. She has previously worked at Attentive Investments and the New York City based startup Greene Analytics. She enjoys traveling, fitness, and rhythmic gymnastics. Feel free to reach out to her at finella@wharton.upenn.edu.

WeissFund is dedicated to funding, promoting, cultivating, and supporting student entrepreneurship in the UPenn community. Working on a startup? Interested in partnering? Want to get involved? Drop us a line at apply.innovationfund@gmail.com.