Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Has a line been crossed? Yes!

An online tutoring company, Smarthinking.com recently announced it's offering a new service called Straighterline. Per their website, Straighterline offers "high quality, better supported, and lower cost required college courses - online, on your schedule."

As I understand it, what they have done is bundled their online tutor access with a reputable text book publisher and course management software so students can study independently for required courses and earn college credit.

Has Straighterline crossed the line or has it pushed back a boundary?

I think it is too early to tell. But I'm optimistic about it.

All students should get high quality education. But when it comes to required courses...(I'm thinking back to my Finite math course in college, or my Micro Economics course for my MBA.). Did those classes really need to be with a group in a physical classroom at a set hour? Did I need to pay thousands of extra dollars for these credits?

My intuition and my personal experience say, "No".

Of course this would be taking a bite out of the pie of traditional providers of these courses..the private/public colleges and universities. I think what gives these schools the heebie jeebies is that private tutoring is supposed to be a complement to public school education, not a replacement for it. What Straigherline is trying to do is move the boundary back a few feet on traditional public and private colleges. And for that, I'm sure they will get a lot of push back.

But if colleges and universities are going to look for people to blame...they should be pointing to themselves. The price of tuition, fees, room and board have risen over 35% in the last 5 years. It is the lucky few who do not need to worry about how they are going to pay for a tertiary education.

Of course, the out of pocket expense of higher education is not the only cost. There is also the "opportunity cost" or the income you forego by choosing to study instead of work. These are tough decisions one must make and many times life makes those decisions for you.

Flexibility is also a major perk. I started my MBA in the part-time program because my employer paid for a number of classes per semester, but boy...what I wouldn't have given for more flexibility on when and how I could have attended class...even if just for the required classes. In the end, after calculating how many years it would take to finish my degree and how little of a life I was able to have between school and work, I decided to leave my job and I eventually ended up finished my degree full-time and of course back then...off-line.

In my opinion, Straighterline is filling a need and, if executed well, I think they are on to something.

Do you think Straighterline has crossed the line... for better or for worse?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

When online tutoring evolves.

I'm a die hard Boston Red Sox fan, but when you heard Harry Caray, the legendary baseball announcer yell "Holy Cow!", you knew it was a Chicago Cub's home run. When Guy Kawasaki says it, you know something VERY cool is just a click away.

In Guy's blog post titled, "I'll never get on a plane again", he links to the Cisco/Musion Systems TelePresence holographic video conference with the "World’s first Live Holographic Video Feed from California, USA to Bangalore, India". It is simply amazing.

With oil predicted to be $150-$200 a barrel in the near future, beaming yourself to faraway lands, and having others beam themselves to you, becomes all the more economically attractive and environmentally friendly. Instead of hopping a flight, walk to a conference room.

It's potential application to online, personal tutoring is equally mind bending. Instead of driving to a tutoring center or making your poor tutor drive to you, you can "beam over".

But wait...online tutoring already accomplishes this, doesn't it?

Well...it does... Just not so Star Trek-like. In fact, according to Dr. John Stuppy, President of Tutorvista,
"online tutoring is as effective as face-to-face" already. His presentation at the United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA) 2008 National Conference points out "..(in) a study of over 300,000 students who received face-to-face tutoring versus online tutoring, there was no statistically significant difference in pre- versus post-test gains on third party norm-referenced assessments." Additional benefits sited were, an "increase in their childrens grades, sometimes after just a few weeks." and " some students are more likely to ask questions and admit when they still dont understand something".

I can't say I have seen a similar study of 300,000 students in Spain , which is the market Tutor Amigos offers it's service. But I can tell you from first-hand experience that increases in our student's grades have been achieved after just a few weeks and parents have commented how their generally shy sons and daughters are much more active and engaged when working with an online tutor, as opposed to an in-home tutor which is a popular model in Spain.

Now there are differences in how some companies deliver today's online tutoring service, which I will address in a future post. The take away is this: online tutoring, as it exists today, is just as effective as having a tutor sit next to you and do the tutoring. You don't need to wait for this amazing Cisco/Musion systems holographic technology to go mainstream in order to benefit from online tutoring, however someday this amazing technology will go mainstream. And when it does, online tutoring will be poised to be not only as effective, it may even be better.

How do you think online tutoring can be improved? Now? In the future?

Monday, June 2, 2008

Starbucks in Buenos Aires

I have a confession..I'm one of those people who loves to hate Starbucks. It's more passive in nature which takes the form of a try to avoid if possible attitude. For example, in Central Square, Cambridge near where I used to live, I would never think twice before ducking into the 1369 Coffee house as opposed to the Starbucks on the corner. I just liked 1369 better. They had good coffee and a killer carrot cake. However, I am not a hardcore anti-Starbuck-er. I would never go so far as to avoid getting a coffee just because Starbucks was my only choice.

Here in BA, it's been easy to avoid this hypocrisy because there were no Starbucks... until now. Argentina is the latest to roll out the welcome mat to Starbucks and judging from the pre-hype and the long lines at the opening, they will be here for a while. I haven't (and won't likely) make any special effort to visit Starbucks here, but I have to admit I'm curious.

A couple of things I've read are the long lines are mostly made up of the 25 and under crowd, and their basic cup of coffee is a competitively priced 5.50 pesos. Having been through the MBA case study gauntlet, I'd love to get a first hand look at how this global giant tries to fit into an ingrained local coffee culture- that doesn't include to-go cups.

Another reason is to see if it really is all that special. There have been sightings of new flavors like their Mate-Coffee...that alone maybe worth a look - I'm guessing the kinda look people do when they slow down and stare at car accidents.. But you never know..it could be the next greatest coffee innovation!

One thing Starbucks has done right is contracting Sugar&Spice as a supplier. Sugar & Spice is a local cookie company and after meeting Frank, it's founder, a few weeks ago, I went and bought some of his cookies at the local Disco Supermarket. I tried the Cantucci. They were super. So obviously Starbucks already knows their way around local cookies. If they figure out the coffee culture, as well as they have the cookies, local coffee shops beware!

Do you think Starbucks will put the local coffee shops out of business?