The Needle Popping the Higher-Ed Bubble
Is iTutorGroup bringing the sharing economy model to education?
In the winter of 2010 when I was in college, I remember snapping frozen hair off my head after rushing out of a shower into the subzero blustery tundra of Northwest Pennsylvania on my way to class at 6:00am in the dark.
Not too comfortable, but at least I could go to class.
Many people around the world can’t or won’t get an education because they don’t have the money to afford schooling, nor the access to talented teachers.
It’s expensive to uproot your life and transplant to another region or country to attend a new school. According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2015–2016 school year was $32,405 at private colleges, $9,410 for state residents at public colleges, and $23,893 for out-of-state residents attending public universities. Those figures don’t include living expenses.
But even if you can afford to go to college, is the value there anymore?
Many times, you’re just a number at the nation’s largest state universities. Students walk into a class with an average of forty-five plus classmates at Virginia Tech, Washington State, Texas A&M, and Iowa State.
Meanwhile, a percentage of your tuition dollars are going towards the football team’s four-star hotel rooms.
“What if almost everything you knew about learning and education was wrong?”
Those are the words of Jerry Huang, COO of iTutorGroup, a company seeking to disrupt the way we think about education.
In 1998, two brothers in Shanghai, China, Dr. Ming Yang and Dr. Eric Yang, saw a need for people to learn English without disrupting their lives.
“Back then, there was some online education technology but it was just a replication of the existing offline education model — essentially just another distribution system. [The brothers] wanted to make it so that it was completely student centric. Why ask the student to change their behavior — they already want a lifestyle change to learn something new — why ask them to come on a certain day, to a certain place, on a fixed schedule? We should change for the learner; we should do everything we can do so that the learner can achieve their results,” said Jerry Huang in an interview with Kathy Ireland.
The brothers’ vision was to match “teaching consultants” and “learners” online for a one-on-one learning experience in real-time.
The company began with TutorABC, a platform focused on teaching English in Taiwan.
Over the years, iTutorGroup expanded into mainland China with vipabc, and began customizing it’s technology for a younger audience ages 6–18.
In 2012, iTutorGroup raised $15 million in a Series A and three years later in 2015, announced an additional $200 million in Series C, bringing its total funding to $315 million, from investors including QiMing Venture Partners, Alibaba Group, SBI Group, CyberAgent, GIC, the Russia-China Investment Fund(RCIF), Goldman Sachs, Silverlink Capital LP, and Temasek.
iTutorGroup expanded into Santa Clara, California and believes it’s only at the beginning.
Earlier this year, iTutorGroup released its biggest innovation, LiveH2H, a learning and communications platform similar to Skype and Google Hangouts but supported by live translations in multiple languages and tailored to education.
“We are all familiar with B2B and B2C,” said Huang. “Going forward, we believe live H2H (human-to-human) interactions are going to become the next business model and we are here to facilitate this transition.”
According to iTutorGroup’s website, the global on-demand learning company boasts noteworthy numbers: tens of millions of classes are offered annually with more than 10,000 teaching consultants and over 100,000 learners using the service in 80 countries.
iTutorGroup attributes its success to its patent-protected Dynamic Course Generation System (DCGS). The website states: Utilizing big data, DCGS allows us to match the right students, with the right teaching consultants, with the right content on-demand. The technology triangulates the students’ feedback, the teaching consultants’ feedback, and the course content to generate predictive analytics for future matching.
Despite its notable growth, students don’t graduate with a degree, and its current curriculum is focused primarily on English and Mandarin-Chinese. Still, iTutorGroup began with languages but now, Huang said, it’s offering its platform to all ages and backgrounds with subjects including math and science, CPA/CFA training, and medical training.
What’s Different About iTutorGroup’s Philosophy and Learning Model?
iTutorGroup is hyper-focused on the learner. For example, if a student calls in with a problem accessing his or her classes, Huang says they’ll courier a free iPad to the student’s door. For teachers, Huang loves to tell the story of how a mother called in to cancel her iTutorGroup classes because she had to prepare a birthday dinner for her daughter. Instead of canceling her classes, iTutorGroup coordinated and catered the birthday dinner for her so she could still teach.
iTutorGroup’s philosophy is to protect the user’s desire to learn. Huang said, “We understand that it’s already difficult to learn something new. So we have a ‘Customer Protection Team’ dedicated to removing the barriers and obstacles to learning.”
Considering the increase in user-centric sharing services like Uber and Airbnb, an evolution in education like this was expected. Right now, more than a handful of schools are already embracing iTutorgroup; the University of South Florida, University of South Carolina, Lewis University, and several others are endorsing iTutorGroup as an academic affiliate, especially for language training.
iTutorGroup is nascent, especially in the United States, and the full impact of its disruption still remains to be seen. But if I can receive a location-agnostic and individually personalized education without snapping frozen hair off of my head or paying for the football team’s travel... I may be interested in learning more.