The Heller Report: Smarthinking.com puts tutors online

Smarthinking.com puts tutors online

Smarthinking.com (Washington, DC), says co-founder Chris Gergen, will specialize in the recruitment, hiring and training of high quality tutors for a round-the-clock tutoring web site. Partnerships with content and technology companies will round out their ability to offer online learning materials along with tutors for core courses at colleges and universities. This month the company is launching a free pilot with tutoring for mathematics and writing at nearly 20 schools. On that list are community colleges across the country as well as Washburn U in Kansas, Southeastern U in D.C. and Cornerstone U in Michigan. The Pilot includes 10,000 students and 75 to 100 tutors. The number of available tutors will vary with demand. Mid-terms, for example, will likely create increased activity.

The company is primarily focused on institutional sales, targeting community colleges and four-year institutions that do not have a graduate student population to serve as tutors. They also plan to serve as the tutorial arm for schools with large distance education programs. Smarthinking.com will allow schools to outsource or supplement the service.

The eventual business model will be for the institution to purchase a large number of accounts for $30-$45 per student, per semester. That gives students unlimited access to Smarthinking.com’s tutors and online learning resources. While profits may look tenuous with tutors paid $8 to $15 an hour, Gergen points out that students are likely to use the service for just five to ten minutes at a time, not for prolonged discussions. There’s also a 5:1 student:tutor ratio.

Individuals will also be able to purchase tutorial services by this September, but pricing has not been determined. Gergen says the company will work with institutions to endorse the service and sell to students directly. He is also looking at partnerships with textbook publishers and distributors, perhaps bundling a free account with a textbook.

Gergen anticipates moving into college prep and K-12 markets by this September. The company will also eventually respond to international requests, particularly for ESL.

Gergen anticipates a partnership intensive business model. Currently, Link Systems International, Inc. (Tampa, FL, www.link-systems.com) provides a specialized white board for synchronous mathematics tutoring. SoS Math (El Paso, TX, www.sosmath.com) provides mathematics content. Smarthinking.com is developing their asynchronous writing lab in-house. Gergen believes that efficient, online voice communications to supplement the tutoring systems are just around the corner, and he will partner for that technology. However, given that Smarthinking.com’s clientele typically arrives frustrated, all technology must be simple and transparent. The company is working with EdsUp, Inc. (Woodstock, VT, www.edsup. com) to design their tutor training.

Recruiting and Training Tutors

Smarthinking.com recruits its tutors from graduate programs, high school teachers and community college professors. Applicants must pass an online test before submitting their resume, transcript and references. Gergen says the company runs a thorough background check, and they will add a criminal background check when they move to college prep and K-12 markets.

Smarthinking.com is working with EdsUp (info coming )to train tutors. Beyond learning about technical components and other resources on the site, says Gergen, tutors need to learn how to understand where a student is coming from. Tutors can’t, for example, see body language to be aware of confusion, so they need to learn to ask the right questions. Training is followed by time sitting in on other tutoring sessions, and experienced tutors oversee the work of new tutors.

Smarthinking.com has reached this point with $800,000 from individual and angel investors. Gergen says they will commence a second round of financing at the end of this month with venture capital investors.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Nelson B. Heller & Associates

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group